Word of the Week: Weltschmerz

Many people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the German expression Angst, which has wended its way into American pop culture and the American psyche. Woody Allen, in his most marvelous neurotic moments captured on film, could conceivably, for instance, be suffering from angst regarding all manner of situations, as does the neurotic comedian and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David on his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Yet there is a much darker, more disturbing cousin to angst – which literally means “fear” in German, but generally connotes a down-and-out state of mind in a broader sense – known as Weltschmerz. Derived from the words Welt (world) and Schmerz (pain), it literally means something along the lines of “world grief” or “world weariness.”

The German Romantic writer Jean Paul, or Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763-1825), is credited with first coining the term “Weltschmerz” in his pessimistic novel Selina (1827) to describe Lord Byron’s discontent.

As explained by the Encyclopedia Britannica, this expression sought to define “the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom – a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.”

Also cited in various North American dictionaries as weltschmerz (and pronounced VELT-shmerts), it is literally used to express pessimism, apathy, or sadness felt at the difference between physical reality and an ideal state – a kind of anomie, as the French might put it.

“I hate being told to have a good time! I’ll feel the weltschmerz if I want to,” Canadian freelance writer Mari Sasano, for instance, is quoted as saying in the Edmonton Journal on December 3, 2005 at wordsmith.org.

Yet weltschmerz is surely cited far less often than “angst” in mainstream North American pop culture. One exception is a scene in the hit US TV show “The Big Bang Theory”, in which a cerebral character named Sheldon comforts his friend and roommate Leonard by citing the German expression “Weltschmerz” to describe how he is feeling.

Word of the Week: Kohldampf

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.

Word of the Week: Schlitzohr

Do you know some of those people who manage to turn the tables even in the worst situations? Or those who seem to handle difficulties with extreme cleverness? So you probably already met a Schlitzohr at least once in your life.

Translating Schlitzohr (ripped ear) as “chiseler”, “bandit” or “artful dodger” does not, even approximately, reflect the sense of Schlitzohr in German. Schlitzohr usually referred to a certain type of punishment in the Middle Ages. At the time craftsmen of numerous professions wore earrings to openly display their affiliation to a guild, as well as a symbol of their integrity and honor. Hence the earring stood for perfect behavior and the trustful character of the craftsman.

In the Middle Ages physical integrity was also one of the most important symbols of honor, since criminals used to get punished physically: thieves lost their fingers or their hands, blasphemers their tongue and the murderer his head through the henchman’s axe. Likewise if a craftsman committed any wrongdoing which affected his honor, he got punished by pulling out his earring – and so the craftsman became a “Schlitzohr”. The stigma was that of having lost his honor and the Schlitzohr served as a clear warning signal for anyone who may need to engage in future dealings with the craftsman to proceed with extreme caution.

The stigma of a Schlitzohr has also been used for cheaters who in any dishonest way tried to acquire other people’s wealth, or any other kind of advantage. People usually cut a tear into the cheater’s ear, which was a sign of being considered an outlaw and served as a stark testimonial to all others tempted to act in a similar fashion.

Whereas the Schlitzohr in the Middle Ages was considered an outlaw, and therefore his return into established society was nearly impossible, the literal sense of Schlitzohr nowadays is slightly different. Calling someone a Schlitzohr today is usually a reference to him displaying his cleverness or his smart character. A Schlitzohr is someone able to leverage even tough situations. He is associated with “positive cleverness”.

Therefore the International Club of Schlitzohren in Germany, since 1985, has awarded the Golden Schlitzohr to personalities who turned out to act in a very clever way to deal with huge problems of our times.  Laureates have included Ephraim Kishon, a well-known satirist, Johannes Rau, the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Jean-Claude-Junker, the prime minister of Luxemburg and current president of the Euro Group, a meeting of the finance ministers of the eurozone.

Perhaps one day you would be happy hearing somebody calling you a Schlitzohr? Goodness knows…

Word of the Week: Eierlegende Wollmilchsau

Picture this: a pig, covered in fluffy fur, that lays eggs and gives out milk. The image you have in your head right now is this week’s word of the week, the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau, which could roughly be translated as “egg-laying wool-milk-sow”. While this little creature may sound like a bit of a freak of nature, it is every farmer’s wet dream: the perfect farm animal, uniting the qualities of chickens (laying eggs), sheep (producing wool), cows (giving out milk) and pigs (can be turned into bacon). The Eierlegende Wollmilchsau produces all the daily necessities and is tasty to boot, it is an animal that only has good sides to it. It goes without saying that this creature doe not exist.

Disappointed? Don’t be! While the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau may not literally exist as a cuddly, yummy and useful creature, it does exist in the figurative sense. The Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is a single tool or a person that attempts to do the work of many, like a jack of all trades or the literal egg-laying wool-milk-sow. Needless to say, finding such a versatile tool or person is almost as hard as finding the mythical creature.

And so the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is nowadays mostly used to describe some unachievable ideal, proving that Germans not only have a finely tuned sense of irony, but are also more creative than given credit for. A perfect example of an ironic use of Eierlegende Wollmilchsau would be a job advertisement with so many, varied qualifications that no real person could ever hope to fulfill them all.

However, with the incredible development of new technologies, it is entirely conceivable that  the word might take on a new meaning. In the past, the closest thing to a real  Eierlegende Wollmilchsau was the Swiss Army knife, but it looks like the word will be put to excellent use to describe the new generation of smartphones. Whether smartphone companies would be delighted to know that their products are being described as an “egg-laying wool-milk-sow” is a different question altogether.

Word of the Week: Fahrvergnügen

Does starting your car’s engine put a smile on your face? Or is driving your car from A to B more of  a chore for you? Well, maybe you need a healthy dose of Fahrvergnügen. This quintessentially German word means the enjoyment or pleasure Germans derive from driving their cars. But don’t let that discourage you from trying to find Fahrvergnügen yourself – it’s not just for Germans; anyone can experience Fahrvergnügen!

But what exactly is Fahrvergnügen and how do you get it? The answer is an assertive “well, it depends”. For some, hurtling along the Autobahn at top speeds is all that is needed to make their trip worthwhile, while others love that feeling in your gut that can only be brought on by rapid acceleration. But not everyone is that simple-minded; for some, the physical comfort of their car might play a bigger role: plush seats, low levels of vibration and quietness when driving can all contribute to Fahrvergnügen. Yet for others, their car doesn’t really come into the picture at all – driving down a nice road during a sunny, Indian summer afternoon, through a forest that is just beginning to change colors is what makes their drive enjoyable.

This week’s Word of the Week itself is composed of fahren, meaning to drive and Vergnügen, which could roughly be translated as enjoyment or pleasure. It was popularized in the US by a series of Volkswagen commercials, but you don’t need a Volkswagen or even a meticulously engineered German car to have “Fahrvergnügen” – although it probably helps. Perhaps the word and its popularity is not so much a statement about German cars and more of a statement about German culture, where the car is not just a mode of transport, but an almost sacred part of everyday life.

If you would like to get some more impressions of  Fahrvergnügen, head over to our Travel section and check out our feature on the Autobahn.

Word of the Week: Altweibersommer

Altweibersommer is the German expression for what Americans refer to as “Indian Summer”, those exceptionally balmy, warm days in September and October that feel almost like summertime just before the cooler days of late fall and winter set in.

At this time of year, areas of high pressure and dry air makes for great views and perfect days to spent outdoors enjoying nature. It is the reason that, over time, the starting date of Munich’s famous Oktoberfest was moved up on the annual calendar from mid-October to late September.

The expression Altweibersommmer is composed of three words – alt (old), Weiber (women), and Sommer (summer). But it does not necessarily have anything to do with age or women, although it does, of course, have something to do with summer.

Actually the word Weiber (which is, incidentally, considered somewhat derogatary and outdated these days – most German women prefer to be called Frauen, thank you very much) in the context of Altweibersommer does not refer, directly at least, to women at all. Instead it refers to busy Baldachspinnen, a type of spider, and the so-called weiben (threads) they use to spin their webs and on which they sail through the skies. In northern German dialects these Altweibersommerfäden were called Metten, Mettken or Mettjen, which was eventually changed in meaning because it sounded so similar to Mädchen (girls).

According to supersistious local belief, these spider webs were also considered to be the webs of elves, dwarves, Nornen (?) or the Virgin Mary (Marienfäden, Mariengarn, Marienseide, Marienhaar or Unserer Lieben Frauen Gespinst, Mutter Gottes Gespinst). Other expressions were Ähnlsummer, Frauensommer, Mädchensommer, Mettensommer, Mettkensommer, Metjensommer, Witwensömmerli, Liebfrauenhaar and fliegender Sommer. According to local legend and lore, the belief set in that a girl would soon be married if some of the flying spider strands got caught in her hair.

Meanwhile, a regional court in the city of Darmstadt, located south of Frankfurt, determined in 1989 that the use of the expression Altweibersommer through the media did not constitute and infringement on the personal rights of older ladies.

In other countries a similar expression is used: In Hungary, Poland and Russia this time of year is called, similar to the German usage, Weibersommer (Hungarian: vénasszonyok nyara, Polish: babie lato, Russian: babje leto). In North America it is called Indian Summer, or été indien, in Quebec. In Germany, by contrast, “Indian Summer” refers to the changing colors of the fall foliage in the New England States. German tourists visiting the northeastern United States might, in this vein, for instance say: “Let’s take a drive through the New England States and enjoy the glorious colors of the Indian Summer!”

In Finland, this time of year is referred to as Ruska-Aika (time of the brown coloring) and in Sweden it is called the brittsommar (birgatta summer). In the Mediterranean countries this warm period happens later in the year, in November, and is referred to as the St. Martins Summer.

Word of the Week: Saftladen

Like so many German words, Saftladen is composed of two separate words: Saft, meaning juice, and Laden, which can be any kind of shop or corner store. So when you hear someone mumble “Saftladen!” as they are walking out of a store, you might reasonably expect to walk into a shop that specializes in all kinds of juice. Far from it! Saftladen is a derogatory term used to describe a shop or any service business, really, that offers junk, a substandard choice of goods, is overpriced or just has plain bad service – no matter what they are selling.

The words’ origin can be traced back to the 19th century. In those times, pharmacies sold their more or less effective treatments in small bottles that were typically stuffed into ceiling-high shelves. Picture rows of bottles with nasty concoctions in front of you, and it’s perhaps not too hard to understand why people jokingly referred to their local pharmacy as a Saftladen. A couple of years later, Saftladen took on a slightly different meaning when it started being used as a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for liquor stores. At the time, liquor stores had a bit of a shady reputation, so it was really only a question of time until Saftladen could mean any crooked business.

So that’s why it nowadays is mostly used to vent your frustration. But ‘mostly’ does not mean ‘only’ and you can actually find some shops that chose to go by the name of Saftladen – perhaps to beat their disgruntled customers to the punch.

So you don’t ever want your business to be called a Saftladen – unless, of course, you actually sell juice.

Word of the Week: Oktoberfest

Every year, from late September to the first weekend of October, millions of visitors flock to Munich to become part of the world’s largest fair – welcome to the Oktoberfest! To get you through the beer festival without a hitch, the staff of Germany.info have a couple of words that you need to navigate the Oktoberfest almost like a local – or at least without immediately outing yourself as a tourist.

Picture this: thousands of people, dozens of huge tents, a ferris wheel and some carousels – the place where the Oktoberfest is held each year is called the Wiesn. Short for Theresienwiese, it literally translates to field or meadow of Therese, but ask any Bavarian and they will tell you that  Wiesn means so much more than its literal translation. It has become synonymous with the whole Oktoberfest experience. So you might say “I had such a great time on the Wiesn last night”, and you would not just be talking about spending quality time on the meadow itself, but instead about a fun-filled night out on the Oktoberfest.

Continue reading “Word of the Week: Oktoberfest”

Word of the Week: Sternstunde

A positive turning point in your life might be described as a Sternstunde, a single moment in time when your personal fate hangs in the balance and is forever altered that speaks directly to the more mystical elements of the human spirit.

Composed of the two nouns Stern (star) and Stunde (hour), it literally means “Starhour”. A Sternstunde is a metaphor for decisions, deeds or events that fatefully influence the future. Its origins, however, are not much of a mystery. The word is derived from astrology, or the astrological theory according to which the constellation of the stars at the precise point in time of a person’s birth could influence his or her entire path in life. (Granted, this is not scientifically proven, but is based on astrological beliefs followed by some that are, given their very spiritual nature, by and large impossible to prove – or disprove.)

In more colloquial usage, the expression Sternstunde might be used to highlight a single exceptional event. For example, a person could describe the moment when they met the love of their life as a “Sternstunde meines Lebens” (‘star hour’ of my life). This could quite possibly be the most romantic way to use the word Sternstunde – to forever encapsulate like golddust suspended in a crystalline cloud tucked within the deepest recesses of a human heart one of the most emotionally charged moments of a lifetime.

Synonyms in German for Sternstunde, according to an online version of Germany’s famous Duden dictionary, include Glanzpunkt (shining point), glückliche Stunde (happy hour), Glückstunde (lucky hour), Höhepunkt (high point), Krönung (crowning moment/high point) and Schicksalsstunde (fateful hour/moment).

Word of the Week: FKK

It’s a nice summer day, you stroll along a German beach, pass a sign saying FKK – and all of the sudden people start looking differently. Somehow closer to nature. Welcome to paradise – you have just entered one of Germany’s numerous nudist beaches.

FKK stands for Freikörperkultur, or Free Body Culture, perfectly capturing what it is: a culture, a mentality, a way of life. From the toddler to the nanny – people of all age groups strip off every last shred of clothing and celebrate naturalism in designated areas along beaches, ponds and parks.

FKK is more than just freeing yourself from the burden of your clothes, it means liberating yourself from social conventions. During the East German regime nudism – pardon me, naturalism – became a popular pastime. Indeed, it was an expression of freedom and one of the few popular movements not steered by the communist state. All of a sudden, to sun your buns was a form of political rebellion.

Today, taking it all off publicly is not driven by political motives but nevertheless still popular. Despite the obvious advantage of avoiding tan lines, the widespread tradition of FKK expresses a close bond to nature and clearly stresses: Don’t be ashamed of your birthday suit.

While this mentality is pretty common among Germans, other nations do not seem to always share the same desire to present their bare skin. A Swiss canton has for example banned nude hiking after vast numbers of German FKK enthusiasts were – or at least so they may have believed – contributing to the idyllic and picturesque landescape with their naked wanderlust.

FKK is indeed an attitude towards life you need to experience yourself. Next time you pass a sign saying FKK, just release yourself from the burden of your clothes and any social conventions and – feel free.