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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Why traditional German names are often used as insults

An interesting quirk of colloquial German is that many insults base themselves around names. Could this explain why some traditional names have gone out of fashion?

Why traditional German names are often used as insults
Taking an insult. Photo: Pixabay

If you’ve been in Germany long enough you will probably have noticed how some names are used pejoratively to mean a variety of things that have generally negative associations. In some instances, the name simply means ‘idiot,’ in others it is a suffix or prefix to a negative word.

The mildest form of these examples are the ones given to young children. Often these are used endearingly.

If a child squirms around too much he is a ‘Zappelphilipp’. Or if he doesn’t look where he is going he is a ‘Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft’. 

These two descriptions have their roots in a collection of poems by the writer Heinrich Hoffmann in the mid-19th century.

Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft spent his life staring into the sky, leading to a collision with a dog and an inadvertent trip into the river. Wenn der Hanns zur Schule ging/ Stets sein Blick am Himmel hing/ Nach den Dächern, Wolken, Schwalben/ Schaut er aufwärts, allenthalben.” (When Hanns went to school/ he always looked into the sky/ to the roofs, clouds and swallows/ he looks up on all sides).

Zappelphilipp meanwhile was a fidgety boy who angered his father by being incapable of sitting still at the dinner table. In the poem, he fidgets and squirms so much that he ends up falling backwards from his chair. In the same moment he grabs the tablecloth and pulls the entire contents of the meal over himself.

Another variation of the name-as-suffix insult is a ‘Mecker-Fritze’. Meckern means to complain and this insult is used about someone who constantly moans.

There are actually a whole host of variations on using Fritz as a suffix. A ‘Werbefritze’ is some bigshot in the advertising business. An ‘Ökofritze’ is someone who’s just a bit too into their organic food.

Fritz appears to be used because it is such a generic German name. It is essentially a proxy for an everyman. The same is often done with the name Heini (short for Heinrich). For example, calling someone a ‘Prozinzheini’ is a way of saying they are a hick from the backend of nowhere.

And then there is the name Horst, which exists in a category of olf fashioned names that are used as direct insults. “Du Vollhorst!” means “you total idiot.” It’s quite a cruel way of telling someone they’re stupid – especially if their name actually happens to be Horst. The names Otto and Hans are often used in a similar way.

“These names are associated with the countryside and less educated classes by the urban people who use them,” Gabriela Rodriguez, an expert on names at Leipzig University, told Deutschlandfunk radio.

It is probably not a coincidence that many of these same names, which once were some of the most popular in the country, have now fallen out of fashion.

According to Knud Bielefeld, Germany’s foremost name researcher, Hanns was the most popular baby name up until the middle of the 20th century but has since crashed down to place 563 on the list.

Fritz, Heinrich and Horst suffered a similar collapse in popularity in the second half of the century. Phillip’s popularity lasted into the 21st century but its downfall over the past two decades has also been spectacular.

The good news, according to Rodriguez, is that “the name bearers have fewer problems with it than the people who find it offensive.”

SEE ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on Austrian soil and are ready to begin your new life in Österreich. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce – and that’s before realising that there are regional dialects to make things harder.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: ‘Brutal’: What it’s really like to learn German in Austria

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and ORF is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more Austrian media. Listen to Austrian podcasts, check out Austrian TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: 8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Austrians have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore. 

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