The English language is a complex and wonderful thing, but there are some occasions when it just doesn't cut it. So what happens then? What do you do when there's something you want to express but you just can't find the word for it... because the word doesn't exist at all in English! Angst, Deli, Autobahn, Blitz... when we don't have a word in English, we've on more than one occasion stolen one from the Germans. It's when you come across these untranslatable words that you have to ask yourself, is English better than German?
Since language is changing and developing all the time, who's to say we shouldn't take a few more words? Language is a tool which we can use to express ourselves, a plaything we should use to entertain ourselves and, I'm sure you'll agree, the words listed below could help us to do just that.
As well as harking on about words which don't exist in English, I've also included a few German words in a couple of text boxes at the sides - words which, although we do use them occasionally in English, are still not widely understood.
Schadenfreude - The joy you feel because of someone else's misfortune. Whether that be laughing at someone who's fallen over, or someone you don't like getting passed over for promotion, let's be honest - we've all felt it at least once.
Zeitgeist- Quite literally, 'the spirit of the age'. The defining mood of a period of time, best described by the ideas and beliefs prevalent at the time.
10 Words the Germans Have Which We Don't
- Weltschmerz - Literally 'world pain'. The sadness or pain that you feel when the picture of the perfect world you have in your mind doesn't match up with reality.
- Torschlusspanik - Literally 'door close panic'. The panic you feel when it suddenly dawns on you... you're getting older and you haven't accomplished all that you wanted to in your life - the doors of opportunity are closing and there's not a thing you can do about it.
- Drachenfutter - Literally 'dragon food'. The gift you buy your wife or significant other when you've done something wrong, either staying out getting drunk with the guys or accidentally running over the cat, it's the gift you buy to appease the 'dragon'.
- Kummerspeck - You've eaten the comfort food so now you've got to live with the 'grief fat' (or 'grief bacon' as it is more literally translated.) 'Kummerspeck' is the weight you put on after a prolonged period of comfort eating, for example if you should put on weight after a break-up.
- fremdschämen - 'Fremd' can have a lot of meanings - foreign, strange, external... and the list doesn't end there. 'Schämen' can only mean 'to feel embarrassed or ashamed'. So, what do you get when you put it all together? The feeling of being ashamed on someone else's behalf, whether it's your drunk friend who's absolutely making you cringe, or a celebrity who should have quit while they were ahead.
- Handschuhschneeballwerfer - We've got wimps, yellow bellies and scaredy-cats. Well, this is a German alternative - the 'glove snowball thrower'. Everyone knows gloves are for the faint of heart but frostbite is for real men (and women), right?
- Treppenwitz - Literally 'stair joke'. The retort you think of as soon as you've left the room, or maybe a few hours later leaving you thinking 'now why couldn't I have thought of that then?!'
- Backpfeifengesicht - We all know one of these - a face that begs to be slapped.
- Vorgestern and Übermorgen - Although not as amusing, these are perhaps the most useful of all of the words on this list. Respectively they mean 'the day before yesterday', and 'the day after tomorrow'. Saves a lot of time, doesn't it?
- Geisterfahrer - Although it literally means 'ghost driver', this is a word used for someone who's driving on the wrong side of the road. It's a term you'll most often hear on the news or muttered in worried tones by someone driving a car.
So what do you think? How about you try slipping a few of these into an everyday conversation? I don't guarantee you'll be understood, but you'll certainly sound intelligent.
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Kena on June 23, 2016:
"Teppenwitz" can be translated as "afterwit" or "staircase wit"
V-2 on July 28, 2015:
As for "Vorgestern" and "Übermorgen", it's more of a - strange - shortcoming of English that it doesn't have single words for these concepts rather than some unique feature of German, of all languages.
You've got the same thing in Polish ("przedwczoraj" - literally "pre-yesteday", and "pojutrze" - "post-tomorrow"), in Russian, Greek, Dutch...
And while Spaniards or French don't have a single word for "the day after tomorrow", they do for "the day before yesterday" at least ("anteayer", "avant-hier").
V-2 on July 28, 2015:
"Treppenwitz" seems to be the equivalent of French "l'esprit d'escalier" (or "staircase wit").
Another interesting German expression is "Schnapsnumber" - it refers to repeated digits (like 22 or 88) and alludes to double vision that drunken people have.
Jonathon on July 07, 2013:
This article is wonderful. There are some archaic words English words that may be matches for Vorgestern and Übermorgen: nudiustertian or
ereyesterday and overmorrow.
Jordan Hake from Southwest Missouri, USA on May 11, 2013:
Fascinating; I love how rich German is and I'd love to learn it someday.
Treppenwitz is my favorite, all we Americans need to start using it. United, we'll make it officially part of American-English.
Jasmine on February 17, 2013:
German language is very rich in words and thus has a lot of words you won't find in other languages. Great post, voted up and shared :)
Wakerra on February 04, 2013:
Those are clever. I like the "Glove snowball thrower" XD made me laugh. Though I think I go through Treppenwitz all the time
Blitz is actually translated as "Lightning", or often something that moves really fast like lightning
Nick on January 27, 2013:
Feierabend is also one of those terms which is very useful - it's the end of the work day, and one wishes various people (typically service people or colleagues) this at the end of the work day. Has a different conotation than wishing someone a nice evening.
Rebecca (author) on October 08, 2012:
Thanks for commenting, Thelma! You're right, there are quite a lot of German words that we use in English but I guess, as a Germanic language, that shouldn't be too surprising.
Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on October 08, 2012:
Very interesting and informative hub. I heard these words often but I did not give notice about it. I only found out that some German words are use in english language like blitz. Thanks for sharing. Great hub!
50 Caliber from Arizona on July 29, 2012:
Interesting, read I should have read it yesterday. English is so boring that we use the same word for different meanings, but we are adding Spanish for the Mexicans on Television, so walking backwards seams to be a choice here. If you listen to a conversation there are many things they have no word for, so the just toss in an English word. I don't speak proper English and I are one,
great hub voted up,
Aficionada from Indiana, USA on July 28, 2012:
Great article! I have a master's degree in German literature, and I didn't know all of these (I've been out of the field for quite a while.) My all-time favorite German word that English needs to adopt, though, (so far, and your list definitely gives it a run for its money) is Verschlimmbesserung: the act of making something worse while trying to correct it.
Shelley Watson on July 26, 2012:
Excellent article, Jeanette. I have a few German friends so this comes in useful. Voted up, interesting and useful.
Martyn Wright from Staffordshire. England. United Kingdom on July 25, 2012:
I enjoyed reading this and found it very informative. I suspect the words haven't been stolen by 'English' because they may not be easy to pronounce for every day use! For me, using one word to explain a sentence is great but only if that word rolls off the tongue!
Dianna Mendez on July 24, 2012:
No4. Kummerspeck is the reason that my hubby and I have changed our food diet. Will have to remember this one. I enjoyed this hub article very much. Voted up.
gmarquardt from Hill Country, Texas on July 23, 2012:
Midmorning is correct, but living in Texas, well... certain simple words in the English language are slightly, well, just not used.
Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on July 23, 2012:
Brilliant, really enjoyed these and they are all such handy concepts. I especially like stair joke and world pain. I think your translations and comments are great.
Emer420 on July 23, 2012:
This is fascinating. I love learning fun facts like this. This has been one of the most "worth reading" hubs I have read so far today. Well written. Voted up. :)
Rebecca (author) on July 23, 2012:
Thank you both for your lovely comments!
gmarquardt, we say midmorning? I don't know if you say that in the US, but maybe it would make it a bit more clear :) I saw the episode of the Big Bang Theory too, I think it was released a few years ago? But I think Sheldon was just explaining the Germans have a word for it, I don't think it's normal to drop it into an English conversation? I think it's a wonderful world though, one more people should be made aware of!
gmarquardt from Hill Country, Texas on July 23, 2012:
Great words! Although I do believe I just heard Weltschmerz on a rerun of The Big Bang Theory, a TV show here in the states. Explaining Vormittag to my students is difficult, as they only know morning, noon, afternoon and night. They can't deal with Vormittag!
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 23, 2012:
I like your style and approach, like a good conversation. This is interesting, it seems language can be a peek into a culture and the tendencies of the people of a culture. Fascinating subject and educational.