Adventures in German Part 2: The Beauty of Expression
“Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!” — Homer Simpson
I am continually astounded by the beauty of my second language. I do not mean the sounds made by the voice when speaking it, which often sound like gravel being crushed by angry chainsaws (and sometimes feel like it too!). I mean the elegance, poetry, and sometimes incredible efficiency of expression in the German language.
German words are often complete pictures in and of themselves. They can be poetically descriptive and at the same time observationally efficient. For example, der Handschuh, the German for “glove”, literally means “hand-shoe”; der Fingerhut, “thimble”, literally translates to “finger hat”. Charming! Create whole sentences from such words, and the richness of expression can be breathtaking. I’m not the only one to have noticed:
There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. — Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”
So effective are many of these words that English speakers have already adopted them for their own, to fill expressive gaps left by the impressive vocabularic jumble that is the English language: Schadenfreude, Kindergarten, Zeitgeist, and many others. But there are many more expressions I encounter as my German skills improve that have no English equivalent.
Certainly all languages in the world contain words and phrases that do not translate easily into any other language, because they express concepts that are very specific to the culture from which the language emerged. However there are several to be found in German which I think readily describe phenomena familiar to any English speaker, but for which we (currently) have no ready expression — or at least, none as linguistically descriptive. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!
Schnapsidee: literally “booze idea”, meaning a crazy idea. No doubt about it, German culture is an alcohol culture. Centuries of experience with liquor and its effects have built up a rich alcohol-related vocabulary. Schnapsidee describes an idea that impresses your barmates after several hours’ boozing, but that on sober reflection is certifiably insane. This word also provides an elegant social reprieve, for example when your drinking buddy shows up the next day asking about the details of that 10-week moped tour across the Himalayas, you can respond “Oh man, that was just a Schnapsidee!” and all is forgiven and forgotten. (Exception: any of the bets made on the TV show “Wetten, Dass…”, which I’m convinced all started as Schnapsideen before making it onto the show.)
Sitzpinkler: literally “a man who sits down while peeing”, meaning wuss or wimp. I’ll admit it, this one is sexist, but funny! In fact, considering how much better the bathrooms look when men sit rather than stand to do their business, I could hope that in modern times it comes to mean “man who, sharing a bathroom with a woman, is sensitive enough to keep the bathroom clean and/or leave the toilet seat down”.
Eierlegendewollmilchsau: literally “egg-laying wool-producing milk pig”. This word illustrates the concept of something being all things to all people — and includes the impossibility of such a thing’s existence. For example, the desire to produce a perfect computer operating system could be expressed as a hunt for an “Eierlegendewollmilchsau”. Also a wonderful derogatory term for a product that promises more than it can possibly deliver.
I will update this post as more words tickle my fancy. Got a suggestion? Post it in the comments!
LOVE your article, CAT… I hope you publish it somewhere in print besides your fab. blog…you can earn some money with writing like that. And did you ever notice that Mark Twain and Einstein resemble each other? Two of my fav. quote givers!
Doppelganger…that is one they use in English alot…
Thanks Kirstan, you always do my ego good! I’m definitely writing more, and this blog is a controlled outlet for some of that creativity 🙂 Currents is too. And I didn’t include “doppelgaenger” because it is already in use in English…
Many of the compound words like hinterherdackeln, Sonntagsfahrer (guy who is an inexperienced driver), Landei (country-egg, a naive person living outside of a city), Lichtmaschine (part of a car motor which generates the electricity for the ligths)…