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12 brilliant German words you won’t find in English

Unfortunately English let you down when you were trying to think of these things to say. Some of these, of course, are more commonly heard in the west of Austria or in Germany.

12 brilliant German words you won't find in English
Just a Zwerg and his Glückspilz. Photo: Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft/Wikimedia

1. Verabredet

German-speakers don't just agree to meet up at 2pm, and then rely on their mobile phones to explain why they're late. They make utterly clear, unambiguous appointments. And then they describe themselves as “verabredet.”

“You are late. We were verabredet. I am simply not understanding this.” It's an adjective that defines a whole cultural mindset. 

2. Fahne

This does not just mean flag. It's also the special type of flag that flutters in your face and stings your eyes when a drunkard tells you he always loved her, you know, honestly, really loved her, despite how it looks. “Please wave that Fahne somewhere else.”

3. Drachenfutter

You've stayed out late and you weren't supposed to. Your wife has put the kids to bed, made your dinner, and given it to the dog. What you need is Drachenfutter – a gift that will, literally, feed the dragon, outmoded sexist interpretations of gender roles notwithstanding.

“Oh no, I hope the late-night shop is open. I'm absolutely off my face and I need some Drachenfutter.”

Does kitty have some Kummerspeck? Photo: Tripp/Flickr

4. Kummerspeck

The English have “comfort food,” but German speakers have taken that concept to its obvious biological conclusion. Kummerspeck, literally “sorrow bacon”, is the extra bulges that develop once you've consumed too much comfort. “Is that Kummerspeck, or are you just pleased to see me?”

Another useful word related to emotional eating is Frustfressen – excessive eating brought about by frustration.

5. Fremdschämen

This is a truly vital word, missing from English, and indeed every language in the world (probably) – except German. It means to be ashamed FOR someone else. How often have you wanted to express that feeling in one neat, perfect word?

“Yes, I was very fremdgeschämt when Donald Trump got the date of the US election wrong.”

6. Rabenmutter

German-speakers have a special word for a bad mum. It literally means “raven mother”. Apparently baby ravens in the wild eat nothing but ketchup and are allowed to play with scissors.

“Look, that child has not got a hat on and it's below 20 degrees Celsius. What a Rabenmutter.”

7. Pechvogel/Glückspilz

In a somewhat skewed image of the universe, the bird, soaring free through the sky, is an unlucky beast, but to be a mushroom is a fate associated with good fortune. It's fun to be a fungi.

“Oh no, my fungi has ceased to grow. I am such a Pechvogel.” 

Pech means bad luck and Glück is good luck. See if you can work the rest out yourselves.

8. Quergebäude

German, it turns out, has specific words for different parts of a building, largely because of the structure of apartment blocks in Germany and Austria. There's a Vorderhaus (front bit), a Seitenflügel (side bit), a Hinterhof (back bit) and something called a Quergebäude, which is, erm, the across bit. Quer means across, and can also be used as in the wonderfully literal term querlegen – to obstruct.

9. Handschuhschneeballwerfer

Everyone hates the coward willing to criticize and abuse from a safe distance. German-speakers equate that person with the lowest of the low: the one who wears gloves when throwing snowballs. As far as they're concerned, a snowball fight is not a snowball fight until someone gets frostbite.

10. Treppenwitz

Another wonderful German word, for a bittersweet situation familiar to everyone on the planet. The Treppenwitz, literally “stair-joke,” is the brilliant comeback you think of when you're already out of the door and halfway down the stairs.

11. Verschlimmbessern

There's being ham-fisted, or putting your foot in it, or there's just plain clumsiness, but in German there's the very specific act of verschlimmbessern, which is when you make something worse in the very act of trying to improve it.

“Oh no, that extra piece of cheesecake, far from being nutritious, has just verschlimmbessert my digestive tract.”

12. Radfahrer

This is a deceptively simple word which means cyclist, but in some German-speaking circles can also refer to an employee who sucks up to his superiors while treading on his inferiors, thus imitating the posture of a cyclist. Not literally. That would be truly horrid.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Frosty German words and sayings to use this winter

As the cold, dark days of winter descend, you shouldn't just be content with the basics like "mir ist kalt". Here are a few expressions that'll really impress your Austrian friends!

Frosty German words and sayings to use this winter
The Christmas market in front of Vienna's Rathaus. Photo: Charley1965/Flickr

Saukalt

As it drops into the sub-zero temperatures, kalt (cold) is just not going to hack it. Instead, the word you need is saukalt. Literally translating as “pig-cold” it means it’s flipping cold, and it's the perfect description as we head into the frozen months.

Naschkatze

As you walk past the delicacies on offer at the Christmas markets, this word may also come in handy. A Naschkatze (nibble-cat) is the term for someone with a sweet tooth, and who can blame you when there’s such a delicious selection of cakes, cookies and sweets to delve into this winter?

Gemütlichkeit

The colder it is outside, the warmer it feels inside, and that’s why we’re grateful for the German word Gemütlichkeit (its closest translation is “cosiness”). As you pile into a warm wood-panelled bar and wrap you’re hands around a steaming mug of Glühwein, you only need to exclaim: “So gemütlich!”

Schneematsch

Many of you are probably hoping for some snow this winter. But the main downside of the white stuff is when it starts to melt. Yes, when it turns to slush, snow suddenly loses its magic. The German term Schneematsch (snow mud) describes that slurry of white and brown that starts to pile up on street corners and seep through your shoes.

Photo: Vestaligo

Schneeballschlacht

But when it does snow, make the most of it and get outside for a snowball fight (the German word literally translates as ‘snowball slaughter’!). And make a Schneemann (snowman) whilst you’re at it.

Die Kuh vom Eis holen

If someone tells you “du hast die Kuh vom Eis geholt” (You’ve got the cow off the ice), they’re probably not being literal (unless you’re a dairy farmer next to a frozen lake). Instead, this rather wintry idiom really means that you’ve saved the day. If someone manages to rescue a situation as you teeter on the edge of disaster, that’s the way to thank them.

Sich freuen wie ein Schneekönig

If you get everything you want for Christmas this year you can say “Ich habe mich gefreut wie ein Schneekönig über die Weihnachtsgeschenke” – I was as pleased as punch with my presents. Schneekönig is actually a nickname for the little songbird known as a wren – so it’s similar to saying you’re as happy as a lark.

Aufs Glatteis führen

Another winter-inspired idiom, aufs Glatteis führen means to “lead [someone] onto the black ice”. The English equivalent is to “lead someone up the garden path”, or to lead them astray. So next time you think you’ve clinched a great deal on that hat at a Christmas market, and then you see it for half the price in a shop window on the way home, you’ll know that the convincing vendor has led you “aufs Glatteis”.

Schnee von gestern

Das ist jetzt Schnee von gestern (literally “that’s yesterday’s snow now”) is best translated as “that’s water under the bridge now”. It's a great phrase to bring out this Christmas, when it seems that an old family argument is about to kick off again. Just tell them calmly that “it’s yesterday’s snow”.