Everyone from Mark Twain to Dylan Moran has launched into tirades on the German language. According to Moran, it sounds like typewriters eating tin foil being kicked down the stairs. Twain reckoned the language must have been invented by a maniac:
“I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it, but I talk it best through an interpreter.”
And yet many of the same people who poke fun at the consonant-filled mania of the German language also marvel at the German compound word. While Schmetterling (a German butterfly) may not be as euphonic as farfalle (an Italian butterfly) or mariposa (a Spanish butterfly), Schadenfreude (joy in other people’s misfortune) certainly has the upper hand over the Spanish vergüenza ajena, or the Italian gioia per il male altrui. Yes, this is where German wins: when it comes to encapsulating a nuanced but recognizable concept within one single word. Even Twain admitted to being charmed every time he understood one such word.
The astute among you will chorus, “But English does that too!” You’re not wrong, but “wallpaper” is probably our most exciting compound noun. Compare that to Weltschmerz (the sensation of melancholy and world-weariness) and I think you’ll agree, once and for all, that German is the incontrovertible victor of one-wordiness.
On second thought, don’t agree with me just yet. Allow me to serenade you with nine of the most fascinating words in the German language. These words fall into a few different categories, which I just made up:
- The words which ambush you dressed in comic obviousness. Example: die Nacktschnecke (literally: naked snail), meaning: slug.
- The words which open up whole new worlds of abstract understanding — and are already used in English! Examples: der Ohrwurm, die Schadenfreude, der Weltschmerz, der Zeitgeist and die Wanderlust.
- The words which open up whole new worlds of abstract understanding and are actually used in German. Example: die Fremdscham (literally: the foreign shame). Meaning: The vicarious embarrassment you feel when you observe someone making a fool of him or herself.
- Finally, the words which open up whole new worlds of abstract understanding and are barely ever used in German. Example One: der Treppenwitz (literally: the staircase joke), meaning: The witty comeback you concocted too late. Example Two: das Backpfeifengesicht (literally: the slap face), meaning: A face you’d like to slap.
My list consists of two examples from category one and seven from category three. They’re all common. They’re all used. They’re all fascinating (in their own way).
My List Of German Compound Words
1. der Kühlschrank
Literally: the cool cupboard
Comic obviousness. I learned the words for cool (kühl) and cupboard (der Schrank) early in my German education, and guffawed unattractively when I realized that, in this language at least, 2 + 2 = fridge. There are few languages which cause an uncontrollable (and most probably inopportune) outburst of laughter when you learn the words for household appliances. German is one of them.
2. der Handschuh
Literally: the hand shoe
Germans are so logical, right? Born engineers, they come out of the womb on souped-up V12 engines and don’t stop motoring until they’ve covered the world’s surface with super-straight Autobahns*. Wrong! I may not know what a V12 is, but I know der Handschuh should, logically, be die Handsocke (the hand sock): England 1, Germany 0. Unfortunately though, unlike some Berlin-residing Italians, I’m not into inventing new German words.
*Correct German plural for the pedants: die Autobahnen.
3. das Weichei
Literally: the soft egg
From the charmingly obvious to the quirkily cryptic, I present you das Weichei. The German language has been particularly inventive when it comes to the wimp. Not only might you be accused of being soft-boiled, but also of being a warm showerer (der Warmduscher), a washcloth (der Waschlappen), a little sausage (das Würstchen), or a sitting urinator (der Sitzpinkler). This last one is a little rich, considering that the average German man, or rather, the average man in Germany, is implored to sit when pinkling. Once you have acquired the ability to do this and not feel emasculated, you are considered fully integrated into German society.
4. das Fernweh
Literally: the distant ache
Meaning: a longing to travel and see distant places
If you look up the word Fernweh in a dictionary, you may well encounter another German word: Wanderlust. This is decidedly unhelpful for newbies to the German language, not least because the two words are actually quite different. Wanderlust connotes the desire (or die Lust) to travel, or to wander (wandern). Fernweh pertains to the depression and hollow yearning for the freedom and adventure of travel — it’s “itchy feet” x 10 and is perhaps best understood as the opposite of Heimweh, or homesickness, which is a similarly intense yearning for the familiarity and safety of home. If you’re full of Wanderlust, you’re probably talking excitedly to a friend about your imminent holiday. If you’re full of Fernweh, you’re probably curled up in your living room trying to come to terms with an overactive slideshow in your Kopfkino. What’s a Kopfkino, you ask? At your service…
5. das Kopfkino
Literally: the head cinema
Meaning: um, the cinema in your head.
Your Kopfkino is the machine behind your daydreams — it’s the cinema in your head that plays out the most unlikely scenarios. These scenarios can be positive or negative. Perhaps you catch the eye of a handsome human in the supermarket and, two seconds later, you’re together, strolling down the aisle at a beautiful church wedding. Another two seconds pass, and you realize that all this happened in your head, and congratulate yourself on having saved all that money on your dream wedding.
All too often though, your Kopfkino consists of the rolling pictures in your head that predict with unfounded certainty the most unfortunate outcome of a meaningful situation or event. It’s the sweaty-palm inducing image of yourself blanking (einen Filmriss haben — to have a tear in the film) on stage while giving a speech. It’s the crystal clear conviction that you’re going to dribble bolognese on your first date with the human of your dreams. It’s the unsettlingly lifelike mental construction of an uncontrollable belch in a job interview. Your Kopfkino is your imagination, and such a terrible tease.
6. der innere Schweinehund
Literally: the pig dog
Meaning: an allegory for the weakness of one’s own willpower, often referred to as der innere Schweinehund (the inner pig dog).
When I was a kid, I wrote a story about a fearsome, mythical creature that was one-half lion, one-half another lion. The Schweinehund is also perilous, but in a very different way. He sits on your shoulder and whispers dissuasive words in your ear. He revels in your procrastination. He makes hunger strike just as you finally set pen to paper on your life-determining final essay. He makes you think you should really call your parents at the very moment you settle down with your overdue tax return. He is the nemesis of delayed gratification. He’s akrasia — the lack of self-control or the state of acting against your better judgement — in animal form. And he’s an absolute (canine) swine.
7. der Tagedieb
Literally: the day thief
Meaning: a dawdler, a layabout.
In Germany, pig-dogs perch on the shoulders of day thieves. There is a certain satisfaction in writing sentences that no one in the world has ever written, and I believe that sentence to be one of them. It’s clear what a day thief does: he pockets time, steals seconds, makes off with minutes… but from whom, exactly? The Tagedieb must be stealing from someone. It conjures the idea of the finite hourglass of human time that’s slowly slipping away — time that should be spent wisely, lustily, vitally, urgently… and ideally reading whimsical texts about foreign words.
8. die Eselsbrücke
Literally: the donkey bridge
Meaning: a mnemonic device, a memory aide
It’s slightly disconcerting when you’re sitting opposite a seasoned lawyer in an overpriced private English lesson teaching the concept of continuous tenses, when suddenly he says, “I don’t understand. I need a donkey bridge.” I was playing for time while desperately trying to ascertain what in the world he was going on about. It was at this moment that the teacher became the taught, and after a very convoluted explanation I realized that donkey bridges are tricks to remember things; a mnemonic device, an aide-memoire, a new neural pathway connecting something familiar and something foreign.
We English speakers get this. We also invent tricks to remember things, but Germans use the word Eselsbrücke much more than we use the word mnemonic, primarily because mnemonic is a ridiculous word that you need a donkey bridge to remember.
9. das Fingerspitzengefühl
Literally: the fingertip feeling
Meaning: tactfulness; an intuitive flair or instinct
Fingerspitzengefühl is most commonly associated with social chameleons who navigate complex situations with a combination of effortless tact and diplomacy, but its use can also be generalized across other disciplines. It connotes an ostensibly innate ability to do something that should require years of careful coaching and precision practice.
The secret, of course, is that it isn’t at all innate and that it has indeed taken years of practice for your response to become so reactive, so automated, and so precise that it appears instinctive. Think: the Federer backhand or the Hitchens bringdown (aka the Hitchslap) or the Messi sidestep.
Think learning German to such an accomplished level that you can pronounce the word Fingerspitzengefühl without launching spittle at the outside world. Go on, you can do it. Conquer your inner pig-dog, close your cool cupboard, harden up your egg, and come make donkey bridges with us. Get started here.