The Hilarity of Compounds

The German language is many things. A black hole of grammatical fun. Stubborn. Occasionally unyielding. Full of barbed traps lying under piles of dry leaves waiting to snap your juicy little leg between its genitive teeth. Possessed of absolutely no logic when it comes to assigning any of its three genders to nouns. The subject of one of Mark Twain’s most glorious ruminations.

‘Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.’

Perhaps because learning German is such a trial, indeed a lifetime commitment for the poor Germans, many of whom get their die/der/das wrong well into adulthood and presumably for evermore, it has a few elements that prevent it from being entirely torturous, that, in fact make it rather fun. German has excellent words. Words that are gratifyingly onomatopoeic, words that are so cute you want to put them in your pocket and pull them out every now and then to sigh at. I personally derive a great deal of pleasure from the ‘S’ section of the dictionary. Almost all my favourite German words start with ‘sch’, Schnabel (beak) being the most notable. And Schnuller (a baby’s dummy), schnuller is amazing. And schmusen (to snuggle and cuddle). But the subset of words that probably receive the greatest amount of my attention (when I should be focusing on sentence structure and plurals and articles) would have to be the endlessly wonderful compounds. No one compounds like the Germans. Oh yeah, sure, English is full of them but they aren’t particularly special. They are run of the mill compounds that pale in comparison to the ones the Germans have come up with. And I am not talking about the annoyingly long words like the one they have for ‘the hat a captain wears on a special type of boat when it is Monday and raining and he feels like eating calamari.’ I am talking about the unassuming cases when the economy of the German mentality has stretched to include simply sticking two words together to create a new one and in doing so creating a splendid (or quite horrible) visual effect. Some words are completely logical; someone has quite literally looked at the main components of an object and stuck the two words for those components together. Oh, look, an animal (tier) that’s main feature is its bad smell (stink). Let’s call it a  Stinktier (skunk). Other words are slightly less appealing, or indeed transparent, like the word for nipple – Brustwarze – which literally translates to breast wart. Why give that mother’s-milk giving teat a new name when you can simply liken it to a wart on one’s boob?

Most of my favourite compounds involve animal names which are as cute as they are funny. In fact, apart from their occasional foray into breast wart territory and unfortunate mishaps like Dudelsack (bagpipes) German has cornered the market on cute words. This is the language that produced Morgenmuffel to describe someone who is always rumpled and sleepy in the morning. Hell, they gave us a garden of children as the place where school life begins.

So without further ado, here are my favourite German compounds with direct English translations. Admittedly giving them direcr English translations is probably unfair but where 100% of the fun lies. Enjoy. And please, give me more.

Animals

  • Aardvark = Erdferkel = Earth Piglet
  • Ape = Menschenaffe = Human Monkey
  • Guinea Pig = Meerschweinchen = Little Ocean Pig
  • Newt = Wassermolch = Water Salamander
  • Porcupine = Stachelschwein = Sting Pig
  • Platypus = Schnabeltier = Beak Animal
  • Racoon = Waschbär = Wash Bear
  • Seal = Seehund = Sea/Lake Dog
  • Squid = Tintenfisch = Ink Fish
  • Tortoise = Schildkröte =  Shield/Sign Toad

Other Classics

  • When something is wrapped in bacon, then it is wearing a Speckmantel = bacon coat. Obviously.
  • The fat on your hips is Hüftgold = hip gold.
  • A light bulb? It glows and it is shaped like a pear, so why not Glühbirne?
  • Are you a treat lover? What about a Naschkatze … a treat cat?
  • Happy about something? Why not perform a little dance of joy, or a Freudentanz?
  • It’s NYE, perhaps you have cracked out the sparklers, but in Deutschland you’ll be lighting up a Wunderkerze, a wonder candle.
  • Regularly unlucky? Then you are a Pechvogel, or a bad luck bird. If, on the other hand, you’re a lucky little devil, in German you are a Glückpilz – a lucky mushroom. (Mushrooms and pigs are about as lucky as you can get here, if you aren’t a lucky mushroom you better hope you’re a Glücksschwein. Or that you Schwein haben … have a pig …)
  • A drug is a Rauschgift, or a toxic trip.
  • That horrible embarrassment you feel on behalf of someone else? Fremdscham … foreign shame.
  • The spread for your breakfast bread that consists of strips of ham and pickle in a creamy mayonnaise? Fleischsalat. Meat salad.
  • We say ‘gums’, the Germans say Zahnfleisch … tooth flesh, or tooth meat. Mmmmm.

There are more, so many more, but die Zeit läuft (the time runs) and I must einen Schuh machen (make a shoe … don’t ask). Feel free to share your favourites in the comments below.

52 thoughts on “The Hilarity of Compounds

  1. You take me back! Having grown up with German Grandparents on one side who spoke that language, especially as the grew older, to each other nearly exclusively I can remember some of the stranger words they used now and then and my mother translating directly.

    I won’t tell you though when I was older I had friends from Bavaria and one of my favorite games with them was to ask them to tell me the words for some of our more inventive ‘bad’ name calling, especially in the teens vernacular of the day. The husband thought it was great fun, his wife was fearful though that I would practice whatever he taught me over dinner the night before and then use it randomly on unsuspecting Americans! She was of course correct. They both worked for me on several projects over the years, we had great fun with compounds many which didn’t exist in German until we made them up.

    1. Hahahaha yes, I think translating our swear words directly into German produces some bizarre results. SG looks at me with wide eyes a lot whenever I come up with something quintessentially Australian/British and then attempt to translate it. Never good …

  2. funny, I always thought German made more sense than English. the word for sympathy for instance. mitgefuhl, not sure on spelling but meaning to feel with.

    1. I think, well for me anyway, English is a much more fluid language. We have thirty different adjectives to describe one thing, that differ fractionally and depend heavily on context. I think German – in terms of vocab – is much more logical and economical. But grammatically it is inSANELY difficult.

  3. I like your compounds!

    Perhaps something to keep in mind: when you’re comparing languages, and objectively ranking their difficult bits, it helps to be aware of your own frame of reference.

    Romanians might well disagree that French is “harder” than Spanish. Do Dutch native speakers get along better in English or German, and for what reasons? And what about Afrikaans speakers?

    I suspect that the majority of frustration resulting from non-native use of (or struggle against) German grammar is felt by those who haven’t had much exposure to case systems (tried Russian or Finnish? Or classical Latin, for that matter?) or given much thought to the complexities of their own native languages.

    Everytime I look at a new language (and admittedly, I’ve only formally studied two foreign languages), something bewildering and nausea-inducing (the kind you get when you slowly realize you’re in so much deeper than you thought) reveals itself.

    For me (like many), in German, it’s objects and declension, with a healthy dose of irregular plurals and strong verbs. I find the nice firm rules about subject-predicate order to be a help rather than a hindrance. Sure, the subordinating conjuctions throw you a curve ball, but they throw the SAME curve ball every time.

    I find Spanish verb topics (for example, that they need more than one verb for “to be”) to be much more confounding — once you scratch the surface — than German ones. But Spanish plurals and adjectival declension are a snap, and they don’t care so much about direct and indirect objects (they do care a little: ever heard of a “personal ‘a'”? Se llama el acusativo.).

    English, besides its absolutely unreliable orthography (thanks Normans; without you, we’d need no spelling bees), headhumps you on punctuation and the variety of expressions available to choose from and its peculiar fascination with unhelpful auxiliary verbs (try explaining what’s going on with “do” in the sentence “I did not eat a cookie” and how that’s different from “I ate not one cookie”). Naturally the widespread availability of many variants of English can also inhibit communication, even AFTER you’ve mastered it — if you happen across someone from another part of the world. Fortunately, Flight of the Conchords helps us all understand one another.

    Viele Grüße aus Regensburg!

    1. Spot on! It does help to frame it, particularly if you have studied languages – which, bar a few years of French and Latin when I was in my early high schools days, I never really have. So I do struggle! But I have studied English and I do believe to truly master English is one of the tougher tasks of the language world. It’s an easy language to learn the basics of, but a bloody hard one to perfect.

      Viele Grüße aus Weiden!

  4. Hey Liv,

    Great article!
    I think you are a little overexagerating with how hard German is, but i like your word list 🙂

    Just letting you know you have a few little mistakes, but I leave you the pleasure of finding them 😛 (hint: your favorite word)

    -Ilhan

        1. Oh thank you so much – I fear I shall have trouble with German for the rest of my natural life, but thanks for the tips!

  5. A friend who shares German heritage with me suggested I might like this blog post. And yes I do, very much! As a Sydneysider whose husband speaks fluent German for his PhD research, whilst I speak pretty much NONE, we lived in Freiburg for 6 weeks one Christmas with two kids, and had to negotiate buying groceries with a pocket German language book, and try to understand menus, and try to work out what was going on in Das Perfekte Dinner each evening, I totally relate to your whole life in Germany, as well as this post! At least we have Aldi here, so I felt at home in the Aldi supermarkets in Freiburg, though any visit there was always the time my kids decided it was time to be really badly behaved. : )

    1. I think the world of food is where some of their best compounds and words come into play. Is Freiburg just beautiful? I have heard nothing but good things about it!

      1. Freiburg is beautiful. Even in the depths of winter. Living in the middle of the Black Forest was not something I ever expected to do in my life, even if only for 6 weeks!

    1. Isn’t it splendid? My ‘German mother’s’ words to me upon handing me a massive box of chocolates, were ‘here is some more Hüftgold for you.’ Thanksssss.

  6. Oh I did not believe there could be anyone out there who could love German just like I do. Among my friends, I have a reputation for being strange in that way. But you have captured what I love about the language. To most non-German-speakers, it sounds like a harsh language and I admit it really does. However, those beautifully evocative words are just impossible to describe in English. (I like kuscheln and knuddeln for example, but how about the more formal Umarmung for to express the warm feeling of being encompassed by someone who cares about you?)

    I must disagree somewhat with your view on exceptions to the rule personally. I find that French is the infuriating offender there. To me German is reassuringly disciplined by comparison, although I must agree that genders do not make sense! But then, isn’t English the completely unreasonable language to foist on an unsuspecting novice? Trying to pronounce English correctly is impossible even to the native. I was just exploring the different ways to pronounce “-ough” this weekend…But then that’s where English and German unite – English with its rich tapestry of origins and influences lends itself to the most beautiful wordplay – both are great fun to me 🙂

    Einen schönen Tag noch!

    P.S. This is my all-time favourite site and they now have a great app, check it out if you haven’t already! http://dict.leo.org

    1. Haha, to be fair, I think English is the slipperiest sucker of them all. I think old Twain was being a bit cheeky by having as go at German for being slippery and elusive, when English spelling and pronunciation has absolutely no method to its madness and we are so in love with our millions of tenses. Then there is what has come to be acceptable but is grammatically incorrect, but so ingrained no one actually knows/thinks about it (like how the English so often say ‘he was sat there’ instead of ‘he was sitting there’). I adore English – sure it is the boring ‘world language’ and ‘everyone can speak at least a little bit’ but there are precious few who can truly use our language in its full, soaring capacity. But German has the CUTEST words.

  7. Haha, that is so funny! And you are right, a lot of funny words start on “Sch”. Like Scherzkeks = joke biscuit, means someone who makes a joke. Or a swallow woodpecker (Schluckspecht) is someone who likes his drinks… A nightcap we call Schlummertrunk = slumber drink. But my favourite compound on “sch” is a word in the northern dialect we call Plattdeutsch (flat German): Schietbuedel, which really means “crap bag”, but for some reason it is a pet name. So if you ever travel up North and someone calls you Schietbuedel, don’t be offended! 😀

    1. I am NEVER saying nightcap again … from now on, it will only be Schlummertrunk. And I just said to the beau, who is a Kieler, ‘Schietbuedel’ and he replied merrily, ‘Aja, shit tüte!’ Amazing!

  8. How I love your posts about language! This is one is “SUPER” as they say here in Germany (pron. SUPPA!).
    So my favourite compounds: “Muskelkater” = “Muscle Cat” = muscle ache (why the cat?) AND “Schadenfreude” = Joy about pain or smthg like that = when you are happy that someone else is in pain. I am not saying I like the meaning of the word but I find it somehow maliciously clever to have a word indicating that you are happy because somebody else is not.
    P.s. I totally hate those very specific German words like “the hat that you wear when you are on a boat on a Monday morning etc…”. Don’t you find them just impossible to learn? 🙂

    1. Yes, what is it with cats! So many little phrases or sayings include the word cat, including the word for hangover … Kater … a tomcat … why? Schadenfreude is absolutely perfect, one of those words that is innately human and NEEDS to exist because we ALL feel it.

      1. In the nineteenth century german students used the word “kater” for “hangover” (because even in that time, Germans were drinking a lot, especially students in Studentenverbindungen – another compound) – in that time, the synonym for feeling really bad was a Katarrh (a inflammation of the airways, very unpleasant) – it was used in a jocular form as “kater”, wich was also depicted as a cat (i believe, that’s also the origin for the compound “Katzenjammer”, which is also used for hangovers or similar sickness). Katarrh is also known today: it still lives in “Haarspitzenkatarrh” – someone who has this is über-sensible.
        Explanation + some new compounds – i love my language!

      1. The literal meaning would be ‘corpse feast’, so this is indeed rather… gruesome.

        The meal is organized by the closest family of the deceased and can range from one evening right after the funeral to a couple of days (then called Totenwache = death watch). It’s done to create an informal context where anecdotes and the like can be exchanged that mostly circle about the one who got burried. Like that, we refresh the good memories we had of them, their achievements, dreams and general characteristics.

        I guess the concept itself isn’t bad but, while having a nice ring to it, the literal meaning of this compound is far from ‘cute’. Schmaus is not a word you need to remember, by the way, as it’s very rarely used nowadays.

  9. This is great! I was preparing for a difficult exam, and one of my friends told me “Das wird schon schief gehen.” I was like, “what?”. After six years in Germany, she had to explain to me that saying “That’s going to go badly” is a way of saying “That’s not going to go badly”!

    1. God, there’s so much to learn, isn’t there; with other languages. The little phrases are the worst. The other day my boyfriend said ‘he’s playing like nobody’s in business!’ Bless him!

    2. I suppose it’s similar to the English “break a leg!”, a statement which confused a German friend of mine in quite the same way as “Wird schon schief gehen!” did to you. ;o)

  10. Schadenfreude is when you take pleasure in someone else’s pain. Schadenfreude is not to be confused with the word “sadism”, which is about inflicting pain. Bravo to the Germans for being honest enough to admit that we humans experience this feeling once in a while. In English, it takes a lot of words (and probably a whole lot of excuses) to admit to the same thing. When the rain at the very first Lollapalooza outed all of the posers who had dyed their hair temporarily for the one day, I distinctly remember feeling schadenfreude (and relief I hadn’t done the same thing!). Now, I’m not trying to justify my snotty teenage behavior here – it’s the only example I could think of. It’s also essential advice if you are going to try to blend in at the next Wave-Gotik-Treffen: bring an umbrella!

  11. Oh wow, I love, love, love this post! I recently learned the word Brustwarze, which resulted in me saying “why, why?” for 20 minutes, lol.

    I have a friend who works in a large department store, and she told me once a German man came in and said in flawlessly accented English: “Excuse me, madam, but could you tell me where the hand shoes are?” Hehe

  12. “Tortoise = Schildkröte = Shield/Sign Toad”

    and the sign says “sorry we’re closed”

  13. actually the katarr derives from the greek katharsis/catharsis meaning a cleansing out since these afflictions were seen as a cleansing out of the body. hence the kater is seen as a purging of ones body from the previous night’s alcohol.

  14. Well written post! I like it! Actually some days ago my German friends had told me about her pets, Meerschweinchen. And I was like : “What is that? Little pig live in the sea? I haven’t heard about that!” 😀 Learning Deutsch is totally exciting! ^^

    1. Jaaa, a little pig from the sea! Isn’t it the cutest? I guess because, perhaps once upon a time, the little pigs did come in off the boats from afar.

  15. And we can’t forget Geschlechtsverkehr! “Sexual intercourse” sounds so vague; let’s just call it “gender traffic,” shall we?

    1. Nope…in this case “verkehr” is based on “verkehren” which to socialize/to communicate. It has nothing to do with “traffic”, it just happens to be the same word.

  16. What a fantastic blog you have! I am German but have often found myself in the position to intruduce my Australian and British friends to the occasional big fat musclecat… A German word that I find extremely important is KRASS. It’s the one I taught all people asking for the quick learning-German-experience. I did not occur to me until well into my stay abroad that it lacks an equivalent in English. Just think about it: In any conversation, a well-stressed “krass” together with a slight nod is a valuable comment of approving on whatever feeling your dialogue counterpart has towards what he or she is telling. A foreigner can easily have lenghty discussion with the (at least under the influence of alcohol) extrovert German just applying that. From gross to cool to sweet to extraordinarily beautiful the meaning of krass is defined by face of the speaker and the intensity of the ‘a’ or s. Or just go for the easy one and add krass right before the adjective to stress it. Krass gut. Krass schön. Krass eklig.

  17. I love this blog! And I’ve got another compound for you: Ohrwurm – ear worm. It’s used for a song or tune you can’t get out of your mind – and it’s the name of an animal, too: earwig.

  18. I am quite fond of the compounds “Vorfreude”, “Weltschmerz” and “Knopfaugen”.

    In Hessen you sometimes hear the phrase “Kneppaache uff!” (= “Knopfaugen auf!” = open your eyes).

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