The Germans are famous for using long words used to describe hyper-specific, complex sentiments. For instance, the 26-letter wordVergangenheitsbewaeltigung describes the inability to cope with the past. And, of course, schadenfreude reflects the happiness you derive from somebody else’s pain.
In honour of the 181st Oktoberfest that kicked off in Munich earlier this week, we have entmystifiziert or “demystified” our favourite Deutsch expressions that have no clear English meaning. Here are some mehr of our favourite German words:
A typical German vacation, which can last anywhere from 3-6 weeks in July through August, is referred to as the Sauregurkenzeit. This literally translates to “pickle time,” possibly because cucumbers come into season in the summer. This is the “off-season” where there is nothing happening because everyone is away. Washington, D.C. experiences a Sauregurkenzeit during Congress’ 5-week summer recess.
This 18-letter word is used to describe a general sense of weariness in the springtime, specifically between mid-March through mid-April. In German, the word Früh means “spring,” Jahr is “year,” and Müdigkeit means “tiredness.” Conjoined, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is “springtime lethargy.”
Simply cutting this word in half, you have geister meaning “ghost” and bahnhof meaning “station.” However, the conjoined
word has a darker meaning that stems from the Cold War-era when free movement between East and West Germany was severed with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1
961. German police heavily guarded the derelict Eastern train stations, which were surrounded by barbed wire and called Geisterbahnhöfe.
Anyone who is obsessed with details and a bit of a control freak would be referred to as an Erbsenzähler
by Germans. The word Erbsen means “peas” and Zähler means “tally.” Therefore, an Erbsenzähler literally describes a person who counts their peas.
By dissecting this word, you have “horse-shaped honey cake,” but it really means to have a giant dorky grin on your face. If your mum embarrasses you in front of your friends, you’re probably going to have a honigkuchenpferd-looking smile. German dictionaries translate this word as the action of “grinning like a Cheshire cat” given the wide-sweeping smile from the Cheshire cat in “Alice and Wonderland.”
This is a word used to describe feeling horribly unmotivated the moment you wake up in the morning. Blaumachen, “to make blue,” is believed to originate from the expression Blauer Montag or “Blue Monday,” which was used to describe the day craftsmen had to wait around for their fabrics to dry after being dyed indigo. Therefore, Mondays were deemed as rather unproductive days.
The word l
uft in this context means “sky” and schloss means “castle,” coming together to create “castle in the sky.” The expression is used to describe someone’s unrealistic dream.
A little trick that helps you to remember something is called an Eselsbrücke, which literally means “donkey bridge.” Why donkey bridge? Because when donkeys transported goods, people built bridges across rivers to help cut the distance between destinations. These donkey bridges were shortcuts just like a mnemonic device is a shortcut to memorizing something.
A man who may act tough in front of his friends but can’t stand up for himself against his wife is what Germans call a Pantoffelheld or a “slipper hero.” The first part of the word, Pantoffel means “slipper” and the latter, Held means “hero.” The closest English reference would be someone who is “whipped” by their overbearing partner.
The tail end of this word Zwang means “to be forced.” This word is used in scenarios when you feel extreme pressure and stress to make a strategic move, like in a game of chess.
A very unique German word stemming from the word meaning something along the lines of “a face that is begging to be punched.” The word Backpfeife means either “punch or slap” and Gesicht means “face.” The German punk bank, Die Ärzte, named one of their songs Backpfeifengesicht since the lyrics mention a person who apparently has a stupid look on their face that frustrates the singer.