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…

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.