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10th June 2011

Words, Words, Words

Ah, the pleasures of Deutsch, as she is spoke!

We may be proud of the way in which the English language permeates other languages around the world, but actually we import a fair bit of German into our daily lives. There are some German words which are particularly special, usually because they say something that we have no easy way of expressing in English. Take Zeitgeist (spirit of the age), for example. Or Schadenfreude, the pleasure one takes in someone else’s pain.

German nouns can be gobsmackingly matter-of-fact. Like Handschuh (hand + shoe = glove), Krankenwagen (sick + waggon = ambulance), and Brustwarze (breast + wart = nipple).

And then there’s the words that simply sound good, such as a Weltenbummler (person who travels the world), Sesselpupser (an armchair farter), beschwippst (tipsy) and Gemütlichkeit, which is an almost untranslateable word which in essence means a feeling of comfort, perhaps as a combination of beschwippsing and sesselpupsing.

But Germans are most famous for their long compound words, supposedly the longest in the world. The classic is the celebrated Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamboat company captain), which has lots of variations to make it even longer (the hat of the Danube steamboat captain, the badge on the hat of the Danube steamboat captain, etc etc).

There are new longer words being created all the time. Take the Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, which is the ‘beef labelling regulation and delegation of supervision law’, or even the Oberammergaueralpenkräuterdelikatessenfrühstückskäse, which is a deli-style breakfast cheese with mountain herbs from the town of Oberammergau. Both are quite a mouthful.

In the end, the average traveller is unlikely to have to get their tongue around any of these. In daily use you might just see some Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise (literally: ‘rolling-stairs-user-tips’, ie tips for using the escalator), or even notice of a Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit). As for asking for a contraceptive, a Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel (‘remedy for averting pregnancy’), you won’t need it. Most Germans find it easier to use the word Kondom.

But just occasionally there’s a long word which no short word can replace, and which, despite being long, is far shorter than trying to say the same in English. For example, what would you call a little piece of food you leave politely when taking the last portion so that nobody can say you were too greedy? Anstandshappen, of course.

 

 

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