Word of the Week: Kater

If you’ve ever drank too much in one night, you’re surely familiar with the headaches and nausea that plague you the next morning. In English, we call this a “hangover”. In German, however, it is called a Kater.

The word Kater has two meanings in German, and they’re completely different from each other. Most of you might know the word by its first definition (a “male cat”). But in another context, Kater also means “hangover”. While one Kater is cute and furry, the other Kater makes you want to scream in agony. When you have an alcohol-induced Kater, you probably want to stay in bed and wait for the headaches and feelings of nausea to go away.

It is not clear how the word for a male cat became used to describe a hangover, but some say it evolved from the Greek word Katarrh (which was also used in German), which describes a type of unspecific respiratory illness with mucus build-up. Of course, the symptoms of a hangover have completely different symptoms, but this is the closest word that many people believe this type of Kater could have evolved from. In context: Ich habe einen Kater. “I have a hangover.” German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Abschiedsschmerz

Few things are more painful than saying goodbye to someone you care about. In German, there’s a word for this
type of pain: Abschiedsschmerz.
The term comes from the words Abschied (“farewell”) and Schmerz (“pain”) and it defines the pain associated
with parting ways from someone you like, love or care about. Here at the German Embassy, some of us
experience Abschiedsschmerz when a beloved coworker moves away. At an Embassy, many diplomats and
staff come and go every summer. Although it is often sad to see people leave, true Abschiedsschmerz only
arises when you part ways with someone who’s very close to you. Sometimes, working with someone for three
years will create a bond that ends in Abschiedsschmerz when it’s time for one person to leave.
Of course, Abschiedsschmerz is more likely to arise between family members and loved ones. Saying goodbye
to someone who has been with you for many years is often much harder. Parents often feel this type of pain
when their children move away to go to college or obtain a job halfway around the world. Lovers may feel the
pain of saying goodybe when one of them leaves for a long trip. Abschiedsschmerz can be particularly bad when
you’re dropping someone off at the airport, saying your final goodbye and watching them go through security. In
just a few minutes, that person is out of your sight and the pain of their absence starts to sink in.
Abschiedsschmerz can also arise at goodbye parties or if you’re simply seeing someone for the last time.
One thing that may help curb your Abschiedsschmerz is to perceive the Abschied as more of a “see you later”
than a “goodbye.” Fortunately for those in the diplomatic service, there are plenty of “see you laters”, since job
postings can bring former colleagues together again in the future.
By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Dampfplauderer

You know that friend of yours who just won’t stop talking? That person you can never get off the phone, or the person who goes on and on with pointless stories? Germans have a name for someone like this: a Dampfplauderer! A Dampfplauderer is a person who has always has something to say, but never says anything of substance. This sort of person likes to hear him or herself talk. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re often stuck listening to a Dampfplauderer, pretending to care while contemplating how to end the conversation. The English translation for the word Dampfplauderer is “chatterbox” – and that’s a pretty good translation. The word chatterbox, after all, is usually associated with someone that has a lot of idle chatter, but says very few meaningful things. Listening to a Dampfplauderer, you might start wondering what the point of their story is, only to realize there is no point. The term consists of the words Dampf, which means “steam”, and plauder, which means “chat”. So a literal translation could be “steam chatter” – someone whose words come out like steam – lacking real substance.

Whether it’s a friend who likes to talk or a colleague who speaks too much in meetings, I’m sure we have all got a Dampfplauderer in our lives!

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Dachlawine

East Coast residents, watch out! With every blizzard comes the danger of many Dachlawinen! If you brave the cold and head out into the snow, watch your head as you pass beneath the roofs of buildings; they could drop a Dachlawine on your head! The German word Dachlawine is unique and particularly useful when it snows. There is no English translation. The word Dach means “roof” and Lawine means “avalanche”, so this word describes a so-called “roof avalanche”. In other words – the large amounts of snow that could slide off of a roof and endanger pedestrians (like a miniature avalanche).

In some cases, a Dachlawine may be small and simply drop some ice cold snow down your neck. But in other cases, it can be quite large and even dangerous. Dachlawinen have the potential to hurt pedestrians and German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info damage cars. It all depends on how much snow has fallen, how heavy it is and how much is falling off the roof. In Germany, you may see cautionary signs warning pedestrians of possible Dachlawinen. But some home and business owners take the initiative to prevent Dachlawinen altogether, installing Schneefanggitter (“snow catching gratings” or “snow fences”) at the edge of their roofs. But watch out – a Dachlawine can always take you by surprise!

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Guten Rutsch

On New Year’s Eve, like people all over the world, Germans wish each other a Happy New Year (Frohes Neues Jahr).

But they also like to proclaim “Guten Rutsch!”

While the direct translation of this popular end-of-year saying would, indeed, be something along the lines of “good slide”, it is actually most likely derived from entirely different origins steeped in Jewish tradition.

Many linguists claim that this traditional New Year’s Eve expression in German has nothing to do with “sliding” (rutschen) into the New Year, even though most Germans now understand it that way.

It is actually the “corruption” of a phrase adopted from Jews wishing each other a “Guten Rosh” – the word “rosh” in Hebrew means “head” or “beginning,” hence the beginning of a new year.

The expression could thus have come into German via the Yiddish for “a good beginning” – as in “Rosh Hashanah,” the Jewish New Year.

And that would make it just one of many German (and English) expressions that come from Yiddish.

Word of the Week: Weihnachtspyramide

Everyone has heard of the Christmas tree and its historic German roots before it caught on as a widespread holiday tradition in Victorian Era Britain and North America.

A visit to most German homes, as well as Christmas markets, will however also reveal another item that is quite popular during the holiday season in Germany: a “Weihnachtpyramide,” or Christmas pyramid.

Despite its namesake, the Christmas pyramid has nothing in common with those unusual stone structures dating back to Ancient Egypt. From the smallest versions set up in private apartments and family homes across Germany to giant ‘pyramids’ that tower above people sipping mulled wine (Glühwein), dining on potato pancakes (Kartoffelpfannkuchen), shopping for gifts (Geschenke), Christmas decorations (Weihnachtsschmuck), Stollen or other tasty treats in bustling Christmas markets, most “Weihnachtspyramiden” are made out of wood.

They are akin to multi-level ‘carousels’ depicting Christmas-related motifs such as angels and manger scenes. Some also portray secular motifs such as mountain people and forests. Typically made of wood, they tend to include several multi-sided platforms with a long pole in the middle serving as an axle. Traditionally, it spins thanks to candles that heat up the air under a propeller at the top of the carousel.

Watching them spin round and round is truly festive and even relaxing amid all the holiday hubbub. And some of the biggest ones should be sought out at German Christmas markets given that they sometimes house entire mulled wine stands – no trip to a German Christmas market is complete without a glass of piping hot, spicy “Glühwein.”

Word of the Week: Zukunftsmusik

The expression “Zukunftsmusik” was spawned by media mockery.

A figure of speech comprised of the two nouns “Zukunft” (future) and “Musik” (music), it was invented in the 19th century by a Cologne-based publisher to poke fun at composer Richard Wagner’s works as, well, “future music.”

But today this expression is no longer merely a form of mockery. It is simply used to describe a project, or an event, or anything, really, that just might – but won’t necessarily – happen in the distant future.

Germans might hence say about, for instance, zero-calorie butter, a debt-free eurozone, or pigs that fly: “Aber das ist doch alles noch Zukunftsmusik!” (But that is all just music of the future!)

So “Zukunftsmusik” is used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, to be sure, although it can also be used in a more serious manner, such as to describe the hopes and dreams of people. For instance if a little girl dreams of becoming a prima ballerina when she grows up or a little boy dreams of becoming a fireman, their parents might then very well say that this is all still just “Zukunftsmusik.”

Similarly, if someone envisions their future as getting married, running for political office, or publishing a novel, they might call that “Zukunftsmusik” with an air of optimism and hope for achieving some goal or personal milestone which may or may not be on the cards for them in the future.

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…