German can be daunting to English speakers, with its mile-long mouthfuls like Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaft (“a legal protection insurance company”). But it’s easy to forget that English is a Germanic language. Historically, the two languages are closely related in core vocabulary (compare English arm and German der Arm), sound system, and structure (if we look at Old English grammar). What’s more, many familiar English words, from angst to kindergarten to schadenfreude, are borrowed directly from German.
German is also famous for what are sometimes called untranslatables: single words whose definitions are wonderfully specific or complex enough that, when translated into another language, they require numerous words to express the same idea.
But many of these intimidating German terms actually pack in some truly amazing concepts—all in a single word. So, we think it would be wunderbar (“wonderful”) if English embraced these German gems.
Waldeinsamkeit [ vahlyd-ahyn-zahm-kahyt ] combines Wald (“wood”) and Einsamkeit (“loneliness”). Together, Waldeinsamkeit literally translates to “solitude in the forest,” but that literal translation loses much of the word’s poetry.
The origins of Waldeinsamkeit clue us into its lyrical meaning. The word is closely associated with Romanticism, a literary movement that idealized emotion, nature, individualism, and the imagination. Waldeinsamkeit made its way into American transcendentalism, which also praised the spirituality of the individual and nature. In 1858, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson published a poem called “Waldeinsamkeit” in The Atlantic Monthly about how much he loved being in the forest, removed from the crises and considerations of society.
If you’re suffering from a case of the Mondays, you might be tempted to blaumachen [ blou-makh-in ]. Blaumachen means “to skip work” or “to play hooky” for no good reason. Blau translates to “blue” and machen means “to make,” so taken together, blaumachen is “to make blue.” What does shirking your responsibilities have to do with making something blue?
Well, the idea of blaumachen comes from “making a Blue Monday.” Traditionally in German culture, a Blue Monday (blauer Montag) was a day people chose not to work, either due to observing a celebration (or after celebrating too much). The blue is thought to originate as a reference to clothing worn on Sundays and holidays. The blue is sometimes connected to the use of the color around the period of Lent in the Lutheran church.
We all have hopes and dreams, but if your dreams are extravagant, you might be accused of Luftschlösser bauen [ looft-shles-uh bou-in ], or “building castles in the air.” The German verb bauen means to “build.” Das Luftschloss (die Luftschlösser in the plural) is a “daydream” or “pipe dream,” but it literally means “air castle” (Luft means “sky,” and Schloss means “castle”).
The idea of Luftschlösser bauen runs parallel to the old French expression faire des châteaux en Espagne, “to make castles in Spain” (i.e., a difficult task in a country you don’t rule), first recorded in the 13th century. Whatever the construction and whatever the language, the expression building castles in the air is dismissive of fanciful plans that will never pan out.
Emerson’s transcendentalist contemporary Henry David Thoreau came to the defense of air-castle-builders in his 1854 Walden: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Schnapsidee [ shnahp-see-dee ] is a German word that refers to an idea that seems genius at one moment but is actually really stupid when considered carefully. It could perfectly describe many social media posts…
Schnapsidee combines the German words Schnaps (“alcoholic beverage”) and Idee (“idea”). So a Schnapsidee is literally an “alcohol idea” or an idea you have when you’ve been consuming one too many bottles of booze. If you have ever heard (or used) the phrase “hold my beer,” you probably know where this is going. Remember to drink responsibly at Oktoberfest!
Tread carefully around this one. The German Drachenfutter [ drahk–uhn-foot-uh ] refers to a gift given to apologize to someone—probably as a result of something done because of a Schnapsidee.
Drachenfutter is a combination of Drachen (“dragons”) and Futter (“food” or “feed”) and literally means “dragon’s food.” The idea, of course, is that your gift is placating the draconic wrath of the person who is upset with you. While Drachenfutter is a fun word, it is probably not a terribly good idea to refer to a wronged spouse or partner as “the dragon” when giving them an apology gift.
Have you ever seen someone whose face just… annoys you? Well, the Germans have a word for that in another one of their wonderful compounds.
You could characterize such a mug as das Backpfeifengesicht [ bak-fahy-fuhn-guh-zeekht ]. That translates to a “slap face” or “punchable face.” Backe means “cheek,” and Pfeife means “whistle,” but taken together, a Backpfeife is “a smack in the face.” So, Backpfeifengesicht is “a face that looks like it should be smacked.” Backpfeifengesicht is not really a comment on the person’s attractiveness but rather more so on that smug, irritating look people can have. Now, we don’t recommend you actually slap anyone in the face, but we do recommend using this forceful German word starting now.
Have you ever tried to make something a little bit better but ended up messing the whole thing up? This word is for you. Verschlimmbesserung [ fair-shlim-bes-uh-rhoong ] is another long, untranslatable German word that delightfully encapsulates a specific and complex idea in a single word.
It’s composed of the verb verschlimmern (“to worsen, aggravate”), the verb verbessern (“to improve”), and the noun-forming suffix -ung, roughly translating to “worse-improve-ing.” An English equivalent would be the obscure (but perfectly serviceable) word disimprovement. Botch and bungle are also close in sense.
Don’t talk nonsense—or, as they may say in German, nicht quatschen. Quatschen [ kvach-in ] is a German word that translates as “to talk nonsense, babble, gossip, chatter” and is said to be a favorite of German schoolteachers trying to get their students to zip it.
The etymology of quatschen is unclear. It’s possible that it comes from the sound of stepping into mud or something else squishy. It’s also suggested that the word comes from the Low German word quat, which means “bad, evil.”
The related Quatsch! can be issued as an interjection to express disbelief or dismissal akin to the English baloney or nonsense.
Speaking of baloney, when we’re stressed with work or after a bad breakup, sometimes nothing feels better than seeing what’s in the fridge. But too much of that can lead to some unintended weight gain. The Germans—again—have a word for this: Kummerspeck [ koom–uh-shpek ]. It refers to the weight gained as a result of emotional eating.
Like many of the German words we’ve looked at so far, Kummerspeck is a compound. Kummer is a German word for “grief, anguish, woe.” Speck can refer to “bacon, blubber, fat.” That means Kummerspeck is literally “grief bacon.”
We don’t know whether that sounds delicious or disgusting.
Maybe your Kummerspeck has resulted from Weltschmerz [ velt-shmerts ], or “the sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.” Weltschmerz literally means “world-pain” in German, and it’s attributed to the German Romantic author Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) in his novel Selina (1827). He used it to describe the English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s discontent. The notion of the term emerged from the 19th-century Romantics’ struggle with how the reality of life ultimately limited their personal freedom. Big mood. Weltschmerz was borrowed into English by the 1870s. When you’re feeling particularly pessimistic about the state of the world or society, at least you can be sophisticated about it when you use Weltschmerz.
No one likes a know-it-all—or, as they say in German, a Besserwisser [ bes-suh-vih-suh ]. Besserwisser is the same concept, though, as besser means “better” and wisser is in effect a “knower.” So, a Besserwisser is a “better-knower,” whether referring to that person who corrects you on some grammar nicety or insists on telling you the right way to mince garlic. And online, you may know a Besserwisser by that telltale phrase: “Well, actually…”
We can also call that mansplaining. Or herrklären, the German term being modeled after the English original. Hey, English has a few tricks up its sleeve, too.
Hamsterkauf [ hahm-stuh-kouf ] is a German word that refers to stocking up on supplies to be prepared for an emergency and is popularly translated as “panic-buying.”
Hamsterkauf is a compound of the verb hamstern, “to hoard, forage,” and the noun Kauf, “purchase.”
If you look closely at the German verb hamstern, you might wonder: is this verb related to hamster, the cute rodent with big cheeks? Yes! Hamsters uses those large cheek pouches to help them forage and hoard food. Think about the English expression involving a different rodent: to squirrel away.
The English hamster is indeed borrowed from the German name for the animal, Hamster.
Bonus: emergencies sometimes means that the public is ordered not to attend sports matches. The Germans have a word for this, too: Geisterspiel, literally “ghost game.” That seems like a fitting word for the eerie feeling that comes with seeing an empty stadium where the game is still going on.
Treppenwitz [ trep-in-vits ] is a word that really hits close to home. It combines the German Treppen (“stairs”) and Witz (“joke”) and literally translates to “staircase joke.” So, what does it mean?
A Treppenwitz is a joke or witty retort that you thought up long after you needed it; you were in desperate need of a sly comeback, but you didn’t think of one until you were walking down the stairs after you left. If you know that feeling, you are a human being. In fact, this feeling is so common that there is a French expression for it, too. The French esprit de l’escalier translates to “wit of the staircase” and also refers to thinking up a perfect witty reply long after you need it.
Lights, camera, action! Kopfkino [ kawpf-kee-noh ] literally means “head cinema” and comes from the German words Kopf (“head”) and Kino (“cinema” or “movie theater”).
Kopfkino refers to those times when your imagination does its own thing and you start playing a movie in your head. For example, you might watch an athlete make a big play and imagine yourself as the star of your own inspiring sports movie where you dribble past the goalie to slam dunk a touchdown. Listen, we don’t watch much sports, okay?
While Kopfkino can be a pleasant experience, it also includes the horror and drama mental films our brains often force on us. Like when you hear about a fire and imagine your own house burning down. Or when you are trying to sleep and your brain begins the motion picture presentation of That Time I Forgot My Date’s Name. Why, Kopfkino? Why?!
Oof! Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of fremdschämen [ fremt-shey-muhn ]. It is a combination of the adjective fremd, meaning “foreign” or “someone else’s,” and schämen, meaning “to be ashamed.”
Fremdschämen refers to vicarious or second-hand embarrassment. If someone does something so cringe or embarrassing that you feel embarrassment on their behalf, that is fremdschämen. If you want to experience fremdschämen yourself, there are plenty of cringe compilations out there on social media that will hook you up. Fremdschämen is sometimes described as the opposite feeling of schadenfreude, another German idea. Whereas schadenfreude involves relishing in the misery of others, fremdschämen has you empathize with another person so much that you unconsciously share in the shame that you know they feel.