Word of the Week: Alternativlos

First there was that eyebrow-raising and little known German word of the year – Wutbürger (enraged citizen). Now there is the Unwort des Jahres, or ‘un-word’ of the year – alternativlos, literally meaning “without alternative.”

According to an official jury that selected this word, it serves as a loud and clear debate killer to critically underscore the oft-repeated tone of politics and policymakers over the course of 2010 who used phrases such as: “We have no alterantive but to bail Greece out of its euro crisis to stabilize the euro zone.”

The runner-up this year was Integrationsverweigerer – an immigrant who refuses to integrate with the native population. According to the jury, this word was also used unfavorably in 2010 by certain German politicians.

Other contendors, among a field of some 1,120 suggested words, were Steuersünder (tax sinner) and Schwarzsparer (black saver), to denote citizens who evade taxes via offshore bank accounts. The terms Brückentechnologie (bridge technology), ascribed to nuclear energy, and Sparpaket (savings package), used to denote the federal government’s savings’ program, were also considered.

Last year’s un-word of the year was betriebsratverseucht, which can be loosely translated as “plagued by the corporate employee board.”

The German prefix “un” is incidentally a great way to totally change the meaning of a word in the language. For example Kraut means cabbage or herbs, but Unkraut means weeds.

Word of the Week: Fingerspitzengefühl

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different “Word of the Week” in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Fingerspitzengefühl

Compound nouns abound in the German language. One that applies well to a variety of scenarios yet is difficult to translate precisely into English is “Fingerspitzengefühl.”

The literal translation of this expression – often used to connote someone who deftly handles all manner of tricky social situations, accurately assesses various signs of the times, or cleverly strategizes solutions in a range of contexts – is “finger tip feeling.”

Most German native speakers would use it to positively describe an individual or his or her actions.

For instance, if an employee named Klaus had done a great job of sussing out a new consumer trend and implemetend a successful marketing event for his company related to it, while cleverly stroking the fragile egoes of various colleagues and/or potential clients in the process, he would probably reap praise for his keen business acumen by keeping his finger on the pulse of his field as well as assessing any interpersonal pitfalls that could throw up roadblocks to sealing a successful deal.

“Klaus showed real Fingerspitzengefühl in masterminding that sale,” is what one of his superiors might say to another, for instance.

Unbeknownst to many modern Germans, the origins of the word seem to stem at least in part from the world of military strategy.

According to an entry in English on the word “Fingerspitzengefühl” in the popular global online encyclopedia Wikipedia, it refers to “a stated ability of some military commanders … to maintain with great accuracy in attention to detail an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield.”

In this vein, the encyclopedia goes on to state, “the concept may be compared to ideas about intuition and neural net programming.”

Most Germans, in day-to-day civilian language, however, would most likely not immediately relate this word to military strategy.

A random, unscientific sampling of German diplomats at the German Embassy in Washington supports this more general connotation of Fingerspitzengefühl, which they would use to describe someone having a deft grasp of a given situation.

In terms of traditional handicrafts or trades such as watchmaking, wood carving or hairdressing, the expression Fingerspitzengefühl, may also be taken literally – namely as someone showing fine dexterity with their hands, or excellent “finger tip feeling.”

Word of the Week: Wutbürger

Over the course of the year, The Week in Germany will highlight a different “Word of the Week” in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

The series will be kicked off with the official 2010 Word of the Year in Germany – Wutbürger. Yep, Wutbürger. This word – which essentially  means “enraged citizen” – came as an off-the-linguistic-charts surprise to many Germans, so if you’re unfamiliar with it as a self-proclaimed “Kenner” of the language, don’t sweat it.

The German Information Center USA at the German Embassy in Washington plans, over the course of 2011, to highlight the value of the German language via a campaign geared towards college students in cooperation with German language departments at universities across the United States.

The Week in Germany will feature a new word every week, plus occasional brain-teaser quizzes with fun prizes and other chances to participate in an ongoing “linguistic dialogue.”

We hope to hear from you regarding your favorite words in the German language in 2011.

GfdS Names 2010 German Word of the Year

Languages are constantly evolving and expanding as new slang words come into use and find their way into the mainstream consciousness. Often, these new words are emblematic of a particular year’s character, embodying the political, economic, and cultural themes that have dominated communications from mainstream news to conversations around café tables. In order to chronicle each year’s unique character, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS), or Society for the German Language, selects one word as the emblem of that year. And 2010 is the year of the Wutbürger.

Continue reading “Word of the Week: Wutbürger”

Word of the Week: Gute Vorsätze

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, many of us transform suddenly from inebriated revelers to neurotic dieters as we make shedding those extra holiday pounds one of our primary resolutions for the New Year.

As if wiping our individual slates clean, dismissing all the missteps we may have taken or things we did not get done over the course of the past 12 months, we decide that THIS is the year to finally, for instance, shed those extra 20 pounds, get our finances in order, or spend more time with friends and family.

In German, such New Year’s resolutions are known as “gute Vorsätze fürs neue Jahr“. And “to make resolutions” is simply to engage in “(gute) Vorsätze fassen.

As a stand-alone noun, “Vorsätze” (plural) can be translated, depending on the context, as intents, intentions or resolutions.

Prefacing this with “gute” (good) is generally the preferred expression at the beginning of the year, to express how we have “good intentions/resolutions” for the New Year. And adding the verb “fassen” (grab/seize/grasp, as well as comprehend/realize, among other possible meanings/usages) rounds out the expression “gute Vorsätze fassen.

The expression “mit typischen Neujahrsvorsätzen” meanwhile means “with typical New Year’s resolutions.”

As in the United States, this is a common practice in Germany, where lists of New Year’s resolutions, or “gute Vorsätze,” are not uncommon.