Thanks to its lifelong love affair with compound nouns, the German language has smashed all manner of words together to form new, unique vocabulary. It’s no small wonder that German boasts many unique, highly-specific words that have no literal English translation. Learning these words is like getting a special prize: for being able to express yourself in ways your own language has no equivalent - unless you use a whole sentence! [Other language user can get word-envy when comparing their language to German.]
Many of these descriptive German compounds have found their way into the English language, like Kindergarten,Schadenfreude and Wanderlust. But as you'll see, there are many more beyond those. Here are 18 more. Pay attention, and you'll see how easy is can be to form these compounds. If you get the hang of this way of communication, it won't be long before you'll find yourself creating more German compound words on your own.
Have you ever listened to a song on the radio while driving to work only to find yourself still humming the same tune by lunch time? Congratulations, you’ve had an ear worm. The beautiful German word Ohrwurm describes the fact of having a song stuck in your head as if it wriggled itself into your brain through your ear. (Dein Ohrwurm is also the title of a WiseGuys song - an NKHS Deutschklub Favorite:
2. Fernweh (Distance pain; a longing for something in the distance; die Ferne = the distance; das Weh = woe)
This gem describes the feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. It’s kind of like a reverse homesickness (Heimweh in German), a longing for a place that isn’t where you are right now. Fernweh is also a frequent reason for people in Germany to go on holiday.
3. Kummerspeck (Grief bacon; der Kummer = grief, heartache; der Speck = bacon)
When a relationship ends or during other times of sadness, anger, or worry, it’s common to put on a few pounds of Kummerspeck. What it means is the excess weight put on by emotional overeating. So when you find yourself on the couch watching “Bridget Jones’ Diary” with a tub of ice cream, you are in fact feeding your grief bacon.
4. Innerer Schweinehund (Inner pig hound)
Can’t get up in the morning to be on time for work? Too lazy to go to the gym? Homework remains undone until the last minute? Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. The blame lies with yourinner pig hound. That’s the tiny voice in the back of your head which is trying to convince you to live a life of inertia and which you will have to overcome to rid yourself of Kummerspeck.
5. Fremdschämen (Exterior shame; fremd = foreign; strange; sich schämen - to feel ashamed of ...)
For those of you who cringe in phantom pain when others make a fool of themselves, this is your word. It describes the feeling of shame when seeing someone else in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation. It’s a real thing for the more empathetic folk and has kept more than one person from watching “the Office.”
6. Torschlusspanik (Closing-gate panic)
As people get older, some find themselves worrying about roads not taken or milestones they meant to achieve by a certain age but haven’t. Torschlusspanik is the feeling of urgency to accomplish them before some imaginary gate closes and “it’s all too late.” It’s mostly used for those who sense their biological clock is running out and feel the need to settle with a partner or have children immediately.
7. Treppenwitz (Staircase joke)
Have you ever noticed how when you have a chance encounter with an attractive person of the opposite sex or get into an argument with someone, the best jokes, lines, and comebacks always occur to you afterwards? That’s the so-called Treppenwitz. It’s the joke that comes to your mind on the way down the stairs after talking to your neighbor in the hallway two floors up.
8. Lebensmüde (Life exhaustion)
This word literally means being tired of life and was used to describe the dramatic and soul-crushing emotional agony of young Romantic poets (see also Weltschmerz and Weichei). Nowadays lebensmüde is what you call your friends when they are attempting something especially stupid and possibly life threatening. Most people in fail videos on YouTube suffer from latent Lebensmüdigkeit - the noun form of this word.
9. Weltschmerz (World pain)
The world isn’t perfect. More often than not it fails to live up to what we wish it was. Weltschmerz describes the pain we feel at this discrepancy. It can be one of the main drivers for Kummerspeck.
10.Weichei(Soft egg; das Ei = egg)
No, a Weichei isn’t what you order in the hotel when you want a three-minute egg for breakfast. In fact the waiter might look at you slightly disconcerted for accusing him of being a wuss. A soft egg, in German, means someone who is weak and cowardly. The same is also conveyed by calling someone Würstchen, the diminutive of sausage. Apparently Germans like to name wimps after foodstuffs.
In fact, the plural form might also come in handy:die Weicheier. In fact, Hope Solo (the US Goalkeeper in Rio) might have used it when she described the Swedish soccer players who dethroned the US team, based on their non-aggressive, defensive game yesterday in the Quarter Finals.
11. Backpfeifengesicht (Slap face; backen = to bake; also the backside of something; die Pfeife = pipe; die Backpfeife = hmmm. slap with the back of one's hand?! das Gesicht = face)
Have you ever heard the joke “Some people just need a high five – in the face – with a chair?” Backpfeifengesicht kind of goes in the same direction. It describes someone who you feel needs a slap in the face.
Disclaimer: we’re telling you this for informational purposes only and do not in any way condone violence.
12. Erklärungsnot (Explanation need; die Not [say : note] = need; trouble; even poverty)
Erklärungsnot is a state shared by cheating spouses, lying politicians, and school children without their homework alike. It’s what you find yourself in when put on the spot without a sufficient explanation or excuse for something you have done or failed to do. Most often used in the form of in Erklärungsnot geraten[raten=to guess; here, to be found out-- and therefore in urgent need to come up with a solid explanation] or in Erklärungsnot sein [sein=to be; here, to find yourself needing a solid explanation].
13. Sitzfleisch (Sit- or seat- meat; an abundance of meat on your "sit-upon")
As much as it sounds like it, Sitzfleisch isn’t a recipe of German Hausfrauen that involves tenderizing meat by placing it under your buttocks. Instead, it describes a character trait. Those who possess a lot of seat meat are able to sit through and weather something incredibly hard or boring. It’s like carrying your own personal cushion around with you.
14. Purzelbaum (Tumble tree)
This tree is so common in Germany that every child knows it. However, if you are about to take out your big German botanical dictionary, let me stop you right there. Despite the name, a Purzelbaum isn’t part of the kingdom of plants. Instead, it describes a somersault on the ground, a favorite way of children to get their clothes dirty.
[Don't mix this up as I have with the Rad schlagen, or turning a cartwheel. Duesseldorf is Germany's capital for Radschläger. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%BCsseldorfer_Radschl%C3%A4ger There is even a door knocker in the shape of a child turning a cartwheel on the door of the St. Lambertus church there. -rsb]
15. Dreikäsehoch (Three cheeses high)
This sounds like it would make a great name for a pizza. However, what it describes is a person who is vertically challenged, implying they’re only as tall as three wheels of cheese placed on top of each other. Usually this label is reserved for small children, together with Zwerg [=dwarf] or Pimpf [=little rascal].
16. Zungenbrecher (Tongue breaker)
While it sounds like a medieval torture instrument, the nature of the Zungenbrecher is much less gruesome. It is the German equivalent of tongue twister, a phrase that’s very hard to pronounce even for native speakers due to its sequence of letters. A very common one in German is Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid. Yeah, practice that for a while and say it 10 times fast.
17. Schattenparker (Shadow parker)
This word is part of a series of insults for men which accuse them of unmanly behavior. In this case, of parking their car in the shadow to avoid heating up the interior. These kinds of derogatory terms were something of a meme some years back and whole lists of them exist on the internet. Alternatives include Warmduscher(=someone who showers with warm water; die Dusche = shower); Sitzpinkler(a man who urinates while sitting down); or Turnbeutelvergesser(someone who used to forget their gym bag in cardio class; das Beutel = sack or pouch. So, can you guess which animal the Beutelbär might be?).
18. Kuddelmuddel (???)
I know, great final word right? Don’t even start guessing its English meaning. Kuddelmuddel describes an unstructured mess, chaos, or hodgepodge. Alternatives which are equally awesome include Tohuwabohu, Wirrwarr, Mischmasch, and Kladderadatsch. I know, some of these just sound too far-fetched to be true. Well, they are far-fetched – gathered in the distant land of Germany. If you’re still convinced I’m making up words, go ahead and look them up in the dictionary!