Verschlimmbesserung

[fair-shlim-bes-uh-rong]

What does Verschlimmbesserung mean?

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Verschlimmbesserung is a German noun word for an attempted improvement that only makes things worse.

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Examples of Verschlimmbesserung

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Examples of Verschlimmbesserung
Apple has committed to its Verschlimmbesserung stage and therefore its certain decline
@Glinner, September 2016
Facebook’s latest and arguably greatest act of verschlimmbesserung, however, came following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Average organic reach per post halved again from the prior year, to just 1.2 percent. Conveniently for Facebook, the drop in organic sharing pushed CPM ad rates higher, climbing 122 percent year-over-year and spiking shortly after Facebook’s “friends and family” update.
Barrett Wissman, Entrepreneur, October 2018
@sloth_on_tour, April 2019

Where does Verschlimmbesserung come from?

CNN / AFP / Getty Images

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 is another long, untranslatable German word that delightfully encapsulates a specific and complex idea in a single word—like Schadenfreude or Waldeinsamkeit. 

Verschlimmbesserung is also a great example of German compounding. It’s composed up of the verb verschlimmern (“to worsen” or “to 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 are also close in sense.

The Brothers Grimm—famed not only for their fairy tales about also their German lexicography and linguistics—notably entered Verschlimmbesserung in their influential 1854 German dictionary. Earlier record dates the term back to the 1810s.

The term was entered into Urban Dictionary–and popular English-speaking consciousness–by 2011. (What’s the German word for when a big German word gets entered into Urban Dictionary?)

A famous, viral example of Verschlimmbesserung is The Ecco Homo, a Spanish fresco of Jesus Christ that an elderly woman attempted to restore in 2012 but ended up hideously altering beyond recognition. 

CNN / AFP / Getty Images

Who uses Verschlimmbesserung?

German-speaking people indeed find occasion to use Verschlimmbesserung in regular speech.

Software updates, political policies, and road construction are often the targets. Note that Verschlimmbesserung, in German, is capitalized, as is true of nouns in the language.

Non-German-speaking people generally bask in Verschlimmbesserung as a fun “untranslatable”: single words a language has for a wonderfully specific aspect of human experience. Verschlimmbesserung really isn’t a word that gets meaningfully and naturally used in English conversation, but is perfect when you actually need it.

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