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.

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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.

Word of the Week: Papperlapapp

Just to clarify it from the outset: Papperlapapp does not solely prove German efficiency in how to squeeze a maximum amount of p’s into a word. What appears to be an original word born out of a creativity contest is, in fact, a word you do not really want to hear. Papperlapapp is a colloquial term that expresses disagreement – it is, indeed, synonymous to “nonsense” or “rubbish”. If you are bored stiff by somebody’s idle talk, just mention the “P-word” and you will immediatlely end your counterpart’s rant.  Use it to dismiss somebody’s foolish opinion or to brush off gibberish concerns  – but don’t use it if you value having friends.

If you get pulled over by the police and the officer explains to you that you were exceeding the speed limit, replying with Papperlapapp would most likely result in a juicy fine.

So where does the droll word originate from? According to one theory the term is linked to the verb bappeln or the English “babble”. By saying Papperlapapp one highlights that the other person is only prating – there are more charming comments to make. Another explanation is that Papperlapapp might also be an echoism with no meaning at all. By using it, you are strongly stating that your conversational opponents’ words are literally meaningless.

Although Papperlapp is clearly used to dismiss somebody else’s comments, the sound of it might make you smile for a split second – before realizing that you have just been muzzled.

Word of the Week: Spießer

Your lawn is neatly mown? You are married with just about the usual amount of children? You might even live in an average-sized town house? You think you fit in just perfectly? Bad news: you run high risk of being despised as Spießer (Spiesser) – one of the most severe offenses the German language has to offer. A Spießer is a pejorative label for somebody who overdoes conformity – and being considered one is the death sentence for being in any way interesting.

No doubt for us human beings to stick to social norms provides a feeling of belonging, security and social acceptance. But a Spießer is taking conformity to a different level. A Spießer is a narrow-minded person, preserving traditional views, instinctively objecting to any form of progress and clinging to bourgeois values. A Spießer has the overwhelming desire of opposing everything he is not used to. Being a Spießer means being unsophisticated, square, reactionary – simply mainstream. Want to get to know the rigid, uninspiring life of a Spießer? Read “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis.

But why call those people Spießer? The word Spießer derives from the German word Spieß (stick) and refers to the ordinary citizen in the Middle Ages who could only afford sticks as a means of defense. The term celebrated its renaissance in the 20th century when the aristocracy used it as a depreciative way to ridicule the bourgeoisie. Since then it has been borrowed by different groups to scorn what they consider as the average middle class superbore.

One important rule to remember: Spießer are always the others. In fact, the benchmark to reveal a Spießer is your own taste – there is no clear-cut definition. People with diverging attitudes from your own are easily dismissed as Spießer.

You are not a pot-smoking leftist? You do crosswords? You get annoyed if your neighbor is listening to booming Heavy Metal music in the middle of the night? You are a civil servant? You do not find full-body tattoos overly attractive? What a Spießer you are! You don’t let your teenage kids party hard until dawn? Well, just ask them – they surely know who the Spießer is in the house.

So have the guts to strip off the straightjacket of bourgeois values – or simply accept that to someone out there you will always be a Spießer.

Word of the Week: Beinbruch

If you were asked to name a nation that is highly charming, endearing and affectionate, Germany might not be your very first guess. To many outsiders the harsh, guttural sound of the German language goes hand-in-hand with rough manners. Lending the rest of the world the word Schadenfreude (satisfaction felt at someone else’s misfortune) might, moreover, not necessarily help to boost the image of German friendliness.

Old stereotypes die hard, right? Fitting perfectly into the “sinister” image that is painted here, you might still be surprised to hear that Germans commonly wish each other Hals- und Beinbruch (a fracture of their neck and leg). In fact, an orthopedist might wish his patient Hals- und Beinbruch before releasing him from the hospital. Good businessman, you might say. A wife might publicly wish her husband this lethal injury before dropping him off at a soccer match. Time for a divorce, might be your first thought. But is this really just blunt frankness? Black humor even? Some sort of incapability to express affection for each other?

In fact, the standing expression Hals- und Beinbruch is far from an active way of spreading a little Schadenfreude. Just as when Americans say “break a leg”, Hals- und Beinbruch is synonymous to the expression “Good Luck” and is actually a nice encouragement to receive.

So why do people wish each other something bad when in fact they try to express the opposite? One explanation is that people used to believe ghosts would overhear good wishes and try hard to reverse them. People would wish the opposite to outfox the ghosts and avert damage. Smart move, right?

If ghost stories don’t convince you, here’s another explanation: the expression might also derive from the Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, meaning “success and blessing”, which has also been borrowed in Yiddish as hatsloche un broche, or “happpiness and blessing”. As Hals- und Beinbruch sounds somewhat similar to these phrases, it is most likely just a more pronounceable way to wish each other well in the German language.

Whatever explanation you prefer, next time somebody wishes you deadly fractures, don’t panic. A more appropriate reaction would be a smile and a simple Danke (thanks), seeing as someone has just wished you “Good Luck”. As this expression underscores, once you decode the German language there is a lot more affection to it than you might expect to find at first glance.