German flag flying at Reichstag

20 Cool German Words

The German language is often parodied for its compound nouns—the practice of smashing together a bunch of short words to create some comically long and complex terms.

On the flip side, Germans are also good at something that involves a lot more brevity: summing up complex concepts and emotional states in just one relatively short word—yes, just one.

This post dives into the 20 cool German words that I’ve discovered living in Germany for the past five years—words that you wish we had in English but don’t—and words that conquer something nuanced and complex, all within their letters.


1. Weltschmerz — World pain

Meaning: sadness and weariness at the state of the world.

Literally translated to “world pain,” Weltschmerz describes the feeling of having the weight of the world on your shoulders.

You know those days where you watch some moving documentary on Netflix about starving children in some far-off place and suddenly you feel hopeless about the state of our planet?

Es ist heutzutage sehr einfach, in Weltschmerz zu versinken.
(It’s very easy these days to sink into feeling weary about the state of the world.)

Check out this video about cool German words we should have in English:

2. Fremdscham — Stranger shame

Meaning: vicarious embarrassment; cringe.

This feeling may arise when you see a Facebook friend post a rant about something that turns out to be a gag article from The Onion. Or when you see someone trip and fall on the sidewalk, taking their coffee down with them.

Some might feel Schadenfreude , a German word that is somewhat commonly used in English, which means taking joy in others’ pain.

But if you cringe and feel embarrassed for them—almost as if you made the mistake yourself? That’s Fremdscham, or literally “stranger shame.”

3. Treppenwitz — Staircase joke

Meaning: a witty comeback that you think of too late to use it.

English-language comedians have built dozens upon dozens of sitcoms entirely upon the premise of Treppenwitz, like in the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback.” Yet we still don’t have a good way to describe it.

The word literally means “staircase joke.” It’s called this because you didn’t think of a clever retort to someone until you were on the stairs, leaving the building. Then you kick yourself for not thinking faster.

4. Mutterseelenallein — Mother-alone

Meaning: all on your lonesome. 

This one might come the closest to representing the internet meme “forever alone,” but the imagery it evokes cannot be matched in English.

Mutterseelenallein literally translates to mean “mother’s souls alone,” as in no soul—not even your mother’s— is with you. You’re so alone that not even your mother can stand being with you. Cue the sad violin music.

5. Unwort — Un-word

Meaning: an unappealing neologism, often with a negative meaning

Ever the clever linguists, Germans know that sometimes there are words that aren’t really words. They decided that those words deserve their own word to describe them.

That word is Unwort, or un-word. The term is generally used to describe newly created, and often offensive, “words.” There’s even a panel of German linguists that selects an “Un-word of the Year.”

6. Gemütlichkeit — Comfort

Meaning: a state of feeling of warmth, friendliness.

The word describes the cozy atmosphere of your surroundings. When you feel warm, both physically and inside your heart, you’re experiencing Gemütlichkeit.

One way to feel this would be chilling on a soft couch under a warm blanket, surrounded by family, with a cup of hot chocolate in your hands and a knit cap on your head.

7. Backpfeifengesicht — Slap face

Meaning: someone who makes you want to punch them.

In English, one might say someone has “a face only a mother could love.”

In German, such faces might also deserve getting punched. Backpfeifengesicht, a “face that should get a slap that whistles across the cheek,” is a face that makes you want to smack that person.

These words can be pretty unique (and don’t really appear in textbooks!), and you can find more of them on FluentU.

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8. Sprachgefühl — Language feeling

Meaning: a natural ability for using a language.

Some people just have a knack for learning languages, perfecting five, six or seven in their lifetime. It’s like they have a sixth sense for knowing when to say der, die or das.

There’s a German word for this: Sprachgefühl, or “language feeling.” The word describes the instinctive or intuitive grasp of a language.

9. Aufschnitte — Cold cuts

Meaning: cold meat plate.

This translates to “cold cuts,” but it’s often used not only to describe the pieces of meat on the table, but the whole meal. Often Germans will have a meal of Aufschnitte where they sit down to eat a selection of breads with various fresh cheeses, smoked salmon and thinly sliced meat.

It’s often a more convenient alternative to cooking for the whole family after a long day at work and driving on the Autobahn. What’s for dinner? Let’s just have Aufschnitte.

10. Streicheleinheit — A unit of petting

Meaning: showing care and affection.

Many online dictionaries translate this word to be a noun for “caress,” but when you break down the word, there’s something more there.

The word comes from the verb streicheln (to stroke or pet) and the noun Einheit (a unit of measurement). So it literally means “a unit of petting.”

But the way it’s used in practice is more along the lines of TLC—tender loving care.

A German might say:

Wir alle sehnen uns nach Streicheleinheiten.
(We’re all yearning for love and affection.)

11. Sehnsucht — Yearning

Meaning: a very strong and deep feeling of yearning or longing.

This is another word that describes a complex set of emotions. It comes from sehnen (to yearn or long for) and Sucht (an obsession, craving or addiction).

Literally, it would mean something like “an obsessive yearning for something,” but that doesn’t quite capture it.

It’s more like an inconsolable yearning for happiness and the unattainable.

It could illustrate that you’re intensely missing something or someone. It may also express a longing for a far-off place.

12. Fernweh — Wanderlust

Meaning: a longing for travel and faraway places.

Fernweh is that irresistible urge to pack your bags and explore unknown lands.

You might be wondering: What about every traveler enthusiast’s favorite loan word “wanderlust?”

The latter has ironically become somewhat antiquated and literary in contemporary German. Fernweh is far more common and describes the deep yearning for the sights, sounds, and experiences of places you’ve never been.

When you find yourself daydreaming about the Swiss Alps or the bustling streets of Tokyo, that’s Fernweh pulling at your heartstrings.

It’s the opposite of homesickness, and instead, it’s an ache for the vast world waiting to be discovered.

Ich habe Fernweh und träume von fernen Ländern und Abenteuern.  

(I have wanderlust and dream of distant lands and adventures.)

13. Torschlusspanik — Gate-closing panic

Meaning: the fear that time is running out and opportunities are slipping away.

Torschlusspanik encapsulates the anxious feeling of time slipping away, especially concerning missed opportunities. Picture it as the panic when you realize the metaphorical gates are closing on certain life choices.

Whether it’s career decisions, relationships, or personal goals, this term reflects the urgency to act before it’s too late, similar to the sensation of a closing gate leaving you on the wrong side.

Viele Leute bekommen Torschlusspanik, wenn sie dreißig werden.
(Lots of people get Torschlusspanik when they turn thirty.)

14. Dreikäsehoch — Three cheeses high

Meaning: little nipper; little kid; little squirt.

Dreikäsehoch playfully describes a person who’s not quite towering over three wheels of cheese.

It’s a playful way to refer to a child, emphasizing their pint-sized stature with a touch of whimsy.

The next time you encounter a toddler being a bit mischievous, you might say:

Sei nicht so frech! Du Dreikäsehoch!
(Don’t be so cheeky, you little squirt!)

15. Erklärungsnot — Need for explanation

Meaning: the hot seat.

Erklärungsnot captures the awkwardness of finding yourself in a situation where an explanation is required quickly but not readily available. It’s that uncomfortable moment when you’re caught off guard and fumbling for words to clarify or justify your actions!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s often used when talking about governments, politicians or company executives who find themselves in hot water. 

Der Skandal bringt den Regierungschef nochmal in Erklärungsnot.
(The scandal has once again put the head of government in the hot seat.)

16. Ohrwurm — Earworm

Meaning: having a catchy tune stuck in your head.

Ever had a song playing on a loop in your mind, and no matter what you do, you can’t shake it off? That’s Ohrwurm, where the English cognate comes from.

It’s that infectious melody that burrows into your brain and refuses to leave, often leaving you humming or singing along involuntarily. 

Das Lied ist ein echter Ohrwurm.
(The song is a real earworm!) 

17. Kummerspeck — Grief bacon

Meaning: weight gained from emotional eating.

Kummerspeck literally translates to “grief bacon,” but it goes beyond the literal meaning. It refers to the weight gained as a result of emotional overeating during times of distress or sadness.

The term humorously acknowledges the connection between emotions and eating habits, describing the extra pounds gained as a side effect of seeking comfort in food during challenging times.

18. Schnapsidee — Booze idea

Meaning: a crazy or nonsensical idea.

Ever had what you thought was a great idea, only to wake up and recognize it’s complete nonsense?

A Schnapsidee is the kind of idea that might seem brilliant after a few sips of schnapps but appears ludicrous in the clear light of day.

So next time someone proposes a wild plan, you can playfully dismiss it as a Schnapsidee!

19. Verschlimmbessern — Make things worse

Meaning: unintentionally worsening a situation while attempting to improve it.

Verschlimmbessern perfectly captures the irony of trying to make things better but ending up making them worse. Remember those moments when well-intentioned efforts lead to unintended negative consequences?

Whether it’s a DIY project gone wrong or an attempt to fix a minor issue that snowballs into a major problem, verschlimmbessern is the word to describe it!

Statt das Problem zu lösen, hat er es nur noch verschlimmbessert.
(Instead of solving the problem, he only made it worse by trying to improve it.)

20. Zweisamkeit — Togetherness

Meaning: the feeling of being together and enjoying each other’s company.

Zweisamkeit embodies the warmth and joy of shared moments with a loved one. It goes beyond mere companionship, describing the deep connection and comfort found in spending quality time together.

Whether it’s a quiet evening at home, a romantic dinner, or a shared adventure, Zweisamkeit captures the feeling of being together with your loved ones!


After reading about these unique words, are you feeling Sehnsucht to get out there and start using these unique German words? We hope so.

And One More Thing...

Want to know the key to learning German effectively?

It's using the right content and tools, like FluentU has to offer! Browse hundreds of videos, take endless quizzes and master the German language faster than you've ever imagine!


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