11 Cool German Words You Wish We Had in English
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.
Like Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (automobile liability insurance) and the previous titleholder for longest German word, Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz (law delegating beef label monitoring — until the law was repealed.)
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 these eccentric and useful 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
- 2. Fremdscham
- 3. Treppenwitz
- 4. Mutterseelenallein
- 5. Unwort
- 6. Gemütlichkeit
- 7. Backpfeifengesicht
- 8. Sprachgefühl
- 9. Aufschnitte
- 10. Streicheleinheit
- 11. Sehnsucht
- And One More Thing...
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 plant?
Du hast Weltschmerz. (You have Weltschmerz.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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, a knit cap on your head.
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.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
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.
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.
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”).
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 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.
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...
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