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The 9 Best German Words You Don't Know

Jiminy Cricket! Balderdash! Humbug! Every language has its share of old-timey words and expressions, and German is no exception. Here we take a look at some of our very favorite vintage German words.

Illustration from Raúl Soria

“Geez Louise!" said no one recently. “Jiminy Cricket!" said my 90-year-old grandmother last week. Every language has its share of outmoded words and expressions; old-timey phrases that were once “da bomb," and are now totally “old hat." (Note: If you haven’t already figured out that “da bomb" and “old hat" aren’t cool anymore, then you’re me.)

In today’s fast-paced, youth-obsessed culture, it seems the shelf-life for words only gets shorter. Just when you’ve finally gotten the hang of the “OMGs" and the “Whatevs," the cruel hand of time swoops in to deem the word “vintage," and therefore usable only in ironic (or historical) contexts. Need a good litmus for gauging the “currentness" of a word? Why, just mention the word casually to any teenager or young adult; if he smiles and replies earnestly "Riiiggghhhttt!?" you’re in the clear. If, however, the teenager shows signs of being possessed, violently rolling his eyes and grunting like a wild animal, you know the word has had its day.

But snarky teenagers, take note: One day, you too will grapple with obsolescence, the words you know and love evoking in a younger generation feelings of “ugghhh" and “ruhhhh"; on this day, what was once so cool will suddenly be so… I don’t know… soooo text message (In the future, text messages will be an anachronism, as computers will connect directly to your brain, transmitting unimaginably exciting images to your message partner. It will be called, “transmutification," or TMF for short. Like, “Hey girl, send me a TMF and I’ll get back to you." Or, “Johnny, stop TMFing this instant or I’ll disconnect your wifi brain regulator faster than you can say “Jiminy Cricket!").

Despite the potential for sounding uncool, there are actually a great many of us itching to speak — and hear — the words of yesteryear; a group whose love for a good ol’ “Whoops a Daisy" or a gob smacked “Golly Gee!" knows no bounds. And for those of us interested in learning German, the language offers more than its fair share of out-of-fashion-but-interesting, cryptic-but-beautiful, bizarre-but-super-fun words. Here are 9 of our favorite vintage German words you’re unlikely to find in your daily German lesson.

1. Bauchpinseln (to flatter someone)

german vintage words

We’ve all been there — you’re talking to someone about something really interesting, making a super clever point, when suddenly your speaking partner starts rubbing your belly.

Wait… what?!

Bauchpinseln, which translates literally to something like “abdominal brushing," means to flatter or fawn over someone. The term originally described the act of rubbing the bellies of cats and dogs; in the popular sense, you “rub the belly" of your conversational partner by paying him an especially flattering compliment.

So the next time you’re talking to someone, and they say something particularly erudite (or what they think is particularly erudite), say in your best talking-to-dogs voice, “Who wants a Bauchpinseln!!? Who wants a Bauchpinseln!?" And then start vigorously patting your speaking partner’s belly. (Disclaimer: Not recommended for use in any society where rubbing a stranger’s stomach is frowned upon. Which, consequently, is like every society.)

2. Kamelle (chamomile, chestnut)

german vintage words

The word Kamelle comes from a time when pharmacies stocked all kinds of old-timey cures; antidotes like Willow Bark or rattlesnake venom, while maybe not actually effective, gave the pharmacy shopper of yesterday peace of mind (and possibly nothing else). One such cure, the dried Chamomile flower (which, as it turns out, does have some curative powers), treated all kinds of aches and pains, from a sore throat to an upset stomach.

If, God forbid, the chamomile flowers sat too long on the pharmacy shelf, it would lose its potency (and with it, its medicinal properties). So sprung the phrase, Alte Kamelle or “Old Chamomile," as in, that story is so Alte Kamelle; it’s been told a million times before.

3. Splitterfasernackt (stark naked)

german vintage words

“He was naked. Like, splinter-fiber naked." Ok, so maybe a literal translation of the word splitterfasernackt isn’t very helpful here. Splitterfasernackt, meaning “buck naked" or “stark naked," derives its origins from the idea that someone is so completely naked, they’re like a tree stripped of its bark (splitter), or a sweater without its fibers (faser). Used in everyday life, the word might sound something like: “Does dad always have to be splitterfasernackt when he swims in public?"

4. Augenweide (feast for the eyes, eye-candy)

german vintage words

In the greenest of pastures on the bluest of days leans the shepherd, dreamily against the willow tree, whose branches like arms tend gently to the ground as soporific sheep saunter to and fro.

Sigh.

Long before the excitement of catching Pokémon eclipsed the beauty of the natural world, the image of a pasture, a shepherd and his sheep might have been heralded an Augenweide, or a feast for the eyes. To nature-loving Germans, such a scene wouldn’t just be nice to look at, it would be a kind of refreshment for the spirit, a rejuvenation of the soul. As in English, Augenweide (literally “eye-candy") can also be used to describe a particularly pleasant looking person. As in, “Check out that Augenweide over there — I think his name is Andrew."

5. Abkupfern (to plagiarize)

german vintage words

Ready for a joke?

Why did the copy machine stop working?

Because, after years of being taken for granted by ungrateful people who don’t appreciate the wonders of photocopy technology, the copy machine decided it had had enough; it would go on strike until you (yes, YOU!) cultivated an appreciation for technology.

Ok, so maybe it’s not “funny ha-ha."

Centuries before we all took standing naps waiting for 200 copies to print in the warmth of the copy room, 18th century engravers were etching replicas of text and images into copper plates. Initially revered for their craftsmanship and seamless reproductions, these engravers increasingly came to be viewed as swindlers who profited from the toil of real artists. Today, abkupfern (Kupfer is “copper") means to plagiarize; a rather unfortunate postscript to a once noble profession!

6. Spitzbub (villain, rascal)

german vintage words

“Spitzbub" cookies, with their wicked smiles and possibly evil intentions, can be found at Christmastime in Germany. Translating literally to “scoundrel" or “villain," the word also makes for a pretty good expletive. Like, for example, “That Spitzbub stole all the cookies from the cookie jar!" or “That Spitzbub stole my MasterCard and my Toyota Tercel, crashed into a tree, and spent $15,000 on Pokémon collectibles!"

7. Mutterseelenallein (utterly alone)

german vintage words

Loneliness — we’ve all been there, am I right? (Can I get an “amen" up in here?) For some, the word loneliness might conjure images of the solitary lighthouse keeper, alone in the… lighthouse, his only company the twinkling lights of ships and the sound of crashing waves. For others, it might be the writer Andrew Stoyanoff Emily Dickinson. For Germans? Why, a mother’s soul of course. Wait, huh?

The lovely mutterseelenallein derives from the French idiom “moi tout seul," meaning “me all alone"; French Protestant Huguenots brought the expression to Berlin when they fled a very Catholic France in the 18th century. To German-speakers at the time, “moi tout seul" sounded something like “Mutter Seele" (or, mother soul). Gradually, the term mutterseelenallein became synonymous with the French "moi tout seul" to describe someone totally and completely alone.

8. Saumselig (dawdling)

german vintage words

We all have that friend — the spacey daydreamer who, God bless him, holds up the whole group because he’s finishing a poem, or lost his shoes building a sound installation. A guy like this might be described as saumselig, or “dawdling"; he takes his time and marches to the beat of his own drum (which, consequently, is a rather slow beat).

For Germans, the word saumselig conjures images of someone dreamily playing with the hem of her shirt or dress (saum means “hem"), staring off into space. The word derives from the Middle High German sümesal, and in the early 20th century, came to describe a specific kind of laziness and negligence, a character flaw needing to be fixed.

9. Mumpitz (shenanigans)

german vintage words

Spookily, Mumpitz (meaning “balderdash," humbug" or "shenanigans") traces its origins to the German Boogey Man! oooOOOOOooo!

Well, kind of. The word actually derives onomatopoeically from two different German words: vermummern, meaning to disguise, and Butzemann (hee hee hee), German for “boogey man." So vermummern became the “mum" and the “butz" in “Butzemann" (I know, I know… just try to keep it together) slowly evolved to become “pitz." Thus, mumpitz.

Originally, the word described something utterly horrible that isn’t immediately recognizable as such (like Donald Trump); today, the word is mostly used to deem something complete and utter nonsense (like… Donald Trump).

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