Saturday, January 19, 2013

German words you wish existed in English

Hello, you wonderful people from Reddit. I’m enjoying the debate you’re having over there, and thank you for your interest. Once you’ve finished reading this, you might like to read my follow-up post where I address a few points you have so far raised. Do bear in mind, though, that this is just a bit of fun. Interesting, and hopefully educational, fun; but fun nonetheless.

If you have had a reasonably good education, the chances are you may have encountered the word schadenfreude, to mean “malicious delight at another’s misfortune”. There is no word for this in English, and so we have borrowed the German word and incorporated it into our language. Well, here are some more German words with no easy English translation, which I think would be useful additions to the language:
  • abhängen: to remove something that is hanging, such as a picture from a wall.
  • Allgemeinbildung: everything that any adult capable of living independently can reasonably be expected to know, including general knowledge, common sense, most things taught in elementary schools or discussed in such things as newspapers, periodicals, TV chat shows and so on. For example, the fact that an exclusive diet of cheeseburgers is likely to give you health problems is Allgemeinbildung.
  • eintüten: to put something, such as a letter, into an envelope.
  • Erklärungsnot: the state of requiring a credible explanation at very short notice, such as being discovered by your spouse in the company of an attractive young acquaintance, having claimed to be working late.
  • Fernweh: the desire to leave home and travel far; the opposite of home-sickness and akin to Wanderlust.
  • Ostalgie: nostalgia for things relating to the former Democratic Republic of Germany.
  • Scheinselbständigkeit: the state of having registered yourself as self-employed or freelance despite only having one client, thereby avoiding the higher rate of tax that would be due if you were on that client’s payroll.
  • schweigen: to refrain from speaking; to remain silent.
  • Sitzfleisch: the ability to sit or remain unmoved for long periods of time despite everything that anyone else can throw at you. In a positive sense, this means the ability to endure hardship merely by sitting it out. In a negative sense, a party guest with Sitzfleisch is difficult to get rid of and may not be invited a second time.
  • Sitzpinkler: a man who sits in order to urinate.
  • Spießer: a fussy and fastidious man, typically from the aspiring middle classes, who demands certain standards of attire, language and behaviour to the point of being a killjoy; the type of person who would confiscate a child’s toy because it spoiled the look of the neighbourhood.
  • Treppenwitz: the things you should have said but only occur to you when it is too late, such as all the witty one-liners you only think of after you have left the party.
  • umbuchen: to alter a previously made reservation or booking.
  • Verschlimmbesserung: a change which is intended or announced as an improvement, but any improvement is outweighed by all the disadvantages brought about by said change.
  • vorgestern: the day before yesterday.
  • vorvorgestern: the day before the day before yesterday.


  1. I suspect you deliberately left out übermorgen and überübermorgen. And then there is übervorgestern.

    1. Ah, but did you know that there is an English word for "the day after tomorrow"? It's "overmorrow". It's obselete, but here's the entry:

    2. There is an English word for the day before yesterday too. It's 'nudiusterian'. It's even more obsolete, but pretty fun too say.

    3. Excellent, I never knew that word existed. And it turns out to be a difficult one to confirm, but I have found a couple of references, so... nice one.

      The slight blemish here is that it actually means "pertaining to the day before yesterday", so it would not be correct to say, for example, "I went to London nudiusterian." But you could say, "This is nudiusterian news."

  2. Was ich mich hier grad Frage, gibt es ein englisches Wort für Kinderschreck bzw. Kinderschreckfigur?

    1. Ja, und zwar "bugbear". Allerdings wird heutzutage das Wort häufig nur in der Bedeutung "ständiges Ärgernis" verwendet.

  3. perhaps it should be mentioned that "Sitzpinkler" is not to be taken literally, but as an euphemism for "wimp". :)

  4. Great list, Andrew! "Treppenwitz" and "Verschlimmbesserung" are particularly good choices, and should be used more than they are.
    I was surprised to realise there's no English verb for "schweigen".
    Almost equally surprising was the fact that I use "abhängen" and "eintüten" much less in their actual, but their colloquial interpretations, meaning "to hang out" and "to finish" (e.g. a project), respectively.

    Finally, here are some suggestions for a possible part 2 of this list:
    Feierabend, Fremdschämen, daddeln, Erlkönig, Eselsbrücke, Ohrwurm. I'd love to read your explanations for them!

    1. There are actually English words for both "Eselsbrücke" ("mnemonic") and "Ohrwurm" ("earworm", literally). I think the latter may be a direct translation from the German.

    2. I think in the case of eintüten, "to bag (it)" may not a real english expression, but I'm pretty sure people generally understand and some even use it, so it might not belong into that list as much. The colloquial use of finishing something to my knowledge has an oft-used parallel, "to wrap (sth) up". All this, however is not coming from a native english speaker, so: "Bitte mir einer Prise Salz nehmen" ;).

  5. Another little addition from a german native speaker - abhängen is often used by kids and originally punks as a synonym for rumhängen - to loiter... definitely slang though.
    Or it can be used as abhängen von which is a pretty close translation of to depend on...

  6. I'm not sure about the general acceptance of the words verschlimmbessern and Verschlimmbesserung. They sound awkward/clunky/hemdsärmelig, maybe because of the included pseudo-pun. I guess they are mostly used by nerds. In most cases, there is a more elegant way of putting it.

    1. "verschlimmbessern" (verb) and "Verschlimmbesserung" (noun) are common german words (see e.g. Whenever you try to improve sth. but thereby make it worse, you can say: What I did, was a "Verschlimmbesserung". I even think these words are more frequently used by educated people, rather than "nerds".