My Favorite German Words, My Barber and I
As I settled into the barber’s chair and once again attempted to allay my long-held fear of a man with a sharp implement in his hand and questionable politics, I readied my mind. I had been coming to this barber ever since my follicles first demanded it, but had never satisfactorily fielded his cutting remarks, which, just like his politics, had not become blunted with time. I knew it would be particularly difficult on this occasion. I was visiting family in England having just moved from Spain to Germany. In his eyes this was like swapping a paradise life of perennial sunshine and booze for teutonic dreariness and the ignominious fate of being surrounded by the old enemy following their efficiently inevitable defeats of the England football team.
So young man, what are you doing with yourself these days?
Teaching is a virtuous occupation, I thought. That’s a good entry point; a teacher of languages, a fermenter of knowledge, an aspiring intellectual, even.
A terrible entry point. Why on earth would I want to live in Germany? What’s wrong with England? Was it my apparent penchant for humorlessness, he jested, or my love of bad wine and a good sausage. No, no, I retorted, humorlessly, as he jettisoned a wet mist into my face with a jerk of his trigger finger and his spray can. I wanted to learn the language, decipher the code, lump words into lengthy compound nouns and put a verb right at the very end of the sentence just because I could, and, of course, because it was preceded by a very particular conjunction. German, I thought, was cool.
The meaning of cool has changed since my day, if clunky is the new cool.
He didn’t use the word clunky. He said it sounded like a fight between a typewriter and a dishwasher. I observed that there are a few queues of consonants that may ambush the anglo-ear, but it’s not the mechanical massacre to which he alluded. It’s a game. An endlessly enchanting game of building blocks and onomatopoeic accuracies just waiting to be muddled and juggled.
Uh huh. If you say so.
Oh but I do! My first few months had thrown up all sorts of wonderful words that encapsulated concepts I had never considered and ideas I had never entertained, and then there were the words which simply sounded splendid. Tollpatschig, for example, stressing the -atsch as much as I could. “And what does that mean?”, he enquired. And so I beckoned him to join me on a tour of my favorite words thus far.
1. tollpatschig (adj.) - clumsy
Patsch means something along the lines of “splat”; the sound a viscous liquid makes on impact. And toll means “great” or “terrific”; your sarcastic response to the incomprehensibly lucky Patsch a pigeon may discard upon your brow as you cross Trafalgar Square. And so, with my very limited, entirely intuitive understanding of etymology, I imagined tollpatschig as “terrifically splatty”, which is, after all, exactly what a clumsy person is. Whilst eminent linguists will likely and rightly belittle this train of thought, the word has remained close to my heart and stuck in my head ever since I first made this little lexical calculation.
2. das Kopfkino (noun) - the head cinema
I guess you did some kind of apprenticeship to become a barber, and that you needed to interview for it. I guess you felt a little nervous as a young rapscallion about to embark on his career. I guess a few images of all the things that could go wrong tussled with your temerity and befuddled your brain. This is your Kopfkino; those rolling pictures in your head that predict with such unfounded certainty the most unfortunate outcomes of a meaningful situation or event.
3. die Naschkatze (noun) - the gnash cat
I remember you always used to give me sweets after you’d cut my hair. Do you remember that? And then I would slide awkwardly from the barber’s seat, land with a Patsch on the laminate flooring and look investigatively at the remaining assortment of multi-coloured sugar hits. This is because I was a rabid Naschkatze in my youth, bequeathed with the sweetest of tooths by generations of gnash cats before me.
4. der Ohrwurm (noun) - the ear worm
This word’s so good it’s been adopted Schadenfreude-style into many people’s English language. It’s that catchy tune, the worm in your ear, that you simply can’t get out of your head. So next time the conversation dies between the cutter and the cut, and a tune surges from your unconscious to whistle across your lips, blame it on the Ohrwurm.
5. die Schnapsidee (noun) - the schnapps idea
At some point you mustered the courage to open your own barber shop. You probably had a few dedicated customers, but were unsure as to whether you would succeed. You may have considered it a Schnapsidee, a schnapps idea - a nutty, crazy, crackpot idea - that could have been, and perhaps was, fuelled by an influential quantity of strong alcohol.
6. dickköpfig (adj.) - thick-headed
A recipe for success, or das Erfolgsrezept, may include eine Schnapsidee and ein bisschen Dickköpfigkeit, which could generously be translated as stubbornness, but perhaps more accurately as pig-headedness. I imagine you had to be a little dickköpfig in order to realize your Schnapsidee and turn your establishment into the Erfolgsgeschichte, or success story, that it is today.
7. die Ahnungslosigkeit (noun) - cluelessness
And no set of favorite German words is complete without a multiple-syllable verbal adventure. Its English brother has the prototypical blockiness, composed of its clue, or Ahnung, the absence thereof, expressed by the -less, or the -los, and its default nounification with -ness, or -keit. So nothing special here, then. Anything German can do, English can do just as well. Right? Perhaps, but while English pronunciation has turned many of these words into slurs of swallowed consonants, their German counterparts remain the tongue-twisting, vocal chord-cluttering delights which are simply so fun to say. Go on, say it! Ahnungslosigkeit.
“Ar-nens-lors-ick-kite”, he said.
“Yes”, I responded, momentarily confounded by the peculiarity of German pronounced with a thick Somerset accent, “that’s pretty close”.
“You learn something new every day. That’ll be eight of your English pounds then. And have yourself some of them sweets for old times’ sake, Naschkatze.”