Compound nouns famously allow German speakers to say something in one word (albeit a complex one) for which English natives would require practically a whole sentence. For example “der Abschiedsheuler” means ‘a man who weeps when saying goodbye’ or “Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz” translates as ‘Federal Education and Training Assistance Act’.
Fortunately, not all compound nouns are as complicated as that, and the German language’s love of them does have its benefits for non-native speakers.
The literal translation of many words serves as a perfect description of the object, allowing language students to sometimes be able to hazard a guess as to the meaning of words which, at a first glance, appear so terrifying. In theory, you could work out the meaning of a multitude of words using a relatively small vocabulary and a good bit of guesswork.
Here are some of our personal favourites:
Literally means “naked snail”. Translation: slug
A slug is effectively just a snail without a shell, no? So what do German speakers call it? Naked snail, of course!
Literally means “hand shoes”. Translation: gloves
Gloves fulfil the same purpose for your hands as shoes do for your feet. So ‘hand-shoes’ is of course the logical name for them.
Literally means “stink-animal”. Translation: skunk
Skunks are famed for their ability to spray a strongly-smelling liquid. This has earned them the name ‘stink-animal’ in German.
Literally means “play-thing”. Translation: toy
The word ‘zeug’, meaning ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’, is often attached to the stem of a verb to create a noun. In this example, the stem of ‘spielen’ - ‘to play’ has been used to form the wonderful word ‘Spielzeug’, or literally ‘play-thing’. Similarly fabulous examples include ‘Flugzeug’, literally translating as ‘fly-thing’, which means, you guessed it; aeroplane. And ‘Werkzeug’, or ‘work-thing’ is a tool.
A male nipple. Photo: Wikimedia/
Literally means “breast warts”. Translation: nipples
This word conjures up a rather unpleasant image of breasts covered in warts. But no, fortunately there is no single word for that, and ‘Brustwarzen’ simply means ‘nipples’. On a similar theme, breast milk in German is Muttermilch, or ‘mother milk’, and ovulation is Eisprung or ‘egg-jump’!
Literally means “glowing pear”. Translation: light bulb
This is a personal favourite. At first it seems ridiculous, but upon further thought, you can see how an old-fashioned light bulb could be described as a glowing pear – what a bright idea.
Photo: Wikipedia/Muhammad Mahdi Karim
Literally means “shield toad”. Translation: tortoise
Take a toad, add a shield and you get... a tortoise. Schildkröte is often translated as both turtle and tortoise, both of which have a shell which partly developed to protect the animal. The ‘Schild’ (shield) refers to this shell, which is a method of self-protection for both tortoises and turtles as it makes it more difficult for predators to crush them between their jaws. So it ‘shields’ them from predators. Clever!
Literally means “shine-thrower”. Translation: spotlight
Scheinwerfer normally refers to a car headlight, a searchlight or a spotlight. All of these lights shine a direct, bright light on something. This is beautifully encompassed in the term ‘shine-thrower’.
Literally means “threatening chicken”. Translation: turkey
Turkeys come from the same distant family as chickens, but are larger and, well, more threatening. The old German word ‘droten’ (drohen) is the verb ‘to threaten’. Of course, in Austria a Truthahn is more commonly known as a Puter.
Literally means “water-cooker”. Translation: kettle
Last but certainly not least: the wonderful Wasserkocher. A water-cooker. So simple, yet so effective.
By Claire Caruth.