Splitting up Kohldampf in its initial components may make you think of steaming (dampfender) cabbage (Kohl). You might be tempted to dream of a great meal this evening? Sorry, we have to let you down there… If you are experiencing Kohldampf, a piping hot dish of steaming cabbage is far away fantasy (if you like cabbage, that is), since Kohldampf is actually a colloquial expression for being “ravenously hungry” or “famished”.
Etymologically Kohldampf is not linked to cabbage in any way. Kohldampf is rather a tautology, an often used stylistic device which consists of using different words to say the same thing to strengthen the statement. Kohldampf is a mixture of two rotwelsch words, Kohler (or Koler) and Dampf (steam), both meaning to be hungry in this context. Rotwelsch is a thieves’ argot (or Gaunersprache) common in the 18th and 19th centuries mostly in southern Germany and Switzerland. Frequently used among travelling craftsmen, soldiers and outlaws, Rotwelsch is a kind of a German dialect that has been influenced by other languages, notably Yiddish and Romany languages as well as Judeo-Latin. From this mixture of origins several specific words were derived, including Kohler and Dampf. Gradually the German-speaking parts of central Europe grew together and the German language became heavily influenced by all kind of dialects, such as Rotwelsch. On this basis, and to stridently underscore the fact that somebody was “ravenously hungry”, people began to combine Kohler and Dampf – and so the tautology Kohldampf became a well-known expression to illustrate a burning desire to get some grub.
Even if your first intuition was incorrect, and Kohldampf has absolutely nothing to do with cabbage, you may try to get some Kohlköpfe (cabbage heads) for your next dinner. Served with a delicious meal, the steaming cabbage should definitely help you to overcome your Kohldampf.