Word of the Week: Sehnsucht

The German language is filled with words that do not exist in English. One such word is Sehnsucht, which is difficult to translate accurately. Sehnsucht is a deep emotional state; it describes an intense longing, craving, yearning or “intensely missing” something or someone. English translations do not do this term justice; it is a much more emotionally charged word in German.

Someone can possess Sehnsucht for a faraway place – a deep yearning to be somewhere else, one that consumes your thoughts. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for another person; two lovers separated by distance may possess this sort of craving for each other. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for a different life – one that occupies their dreams while their reality is mediocre.

The term comes from the words das Sehnen (“yearning”) and das Siechtum (“a lingering illness”). The yearning described by Sehnsucht is, in some regards, like an illness, because it is all-consuming and will not go away easily. What do you have Sehnsucht for? Your star-crossed lover? A life in Hawaii? Your childhood? Or the future of your dreams?

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: gute Vorsätze

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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.

Word of the Week: Winterdienst

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If you live in a cold place, there’s a good chance you might get some snow this winter! And if you do, you might stay at home until the Winterdienst clears the roads!

Literally translated, the word Winterdienst means “winter service.” It’s a broad term that can be used to describe any person or service employed to clear the mess created by winter weather conditions, whether it’s snow, ice or freezing rain! The Winterdienst could refer to a snow-plowing service, winter road maintenance, snow and ice control, snow plowing or sanding. If you see people salting the roads, it’s the Winterdienst. If you see someone driving a snowplow, it’s also the Winterdienst!

In English, we don’t have a single word that describes all of these services. It’s a practical – and commonly used – word that you will hear in Germany when the snow begins to pile up. Where is the Winterdienst? Hopefully the Winterdienst will be working overnight to make it safe for you to drive the next morning!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Lebkuchen

© Katja S. Verhoeven / Pixabay

You’ve probably had it – or know what it is; Lebkuchen is a German delicacy commonly found at German-style Christmas markets, as well as other festivals and events. But do you know the origins of the word Lebkuchen? They can be traced back hundreds of years!

As you may know, Lebkuchen is a German treat that is similar to gingerbread. At Christmas markets, it often takes on a heart-shaped form and is topped with icing that spells out messages of joy. The treats can vary in shape and flavor; some are round, some are spicy and others are sweet.

The origins of the holiday delicacy can be traced to ancient times; the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans believed that honey had magical healing powers, so they created a “honey cake” similar to what we now know as Lebkuchen. Some people wore these honey cakes around their neck as a sort of protection against evil. Honey cake has even been found in the tombs of pharaohs who died 4,000 years ago!

But the German-style Lebkuchen we know today first arose in the 13th century. German monks in Ulm and Nuremberg had heard about the healing powers of the magical honey cakes, so they brought the delicacies into the monasteries. Although the origins of the word Lebkuchen itself remain unclear, it is suspected that it comes from the Latin word libum (Fladen, or “flat bread”) or the German word Laib (loaf).

© wal_172619 / Pixabay

And while some Germans refer to it as Lebkuchen, others call the delicacy Pfefferkuchen (“pepper cake”), since many types of spices can be added to the cake (and all spices used to be referred to as types of Pfeffer).

In some regions of Germany, it has also been referred to as Lebenskuchen (“cake for life”), Magenbrot (“bread for the stomach”), Labekuchen or Leckkuchen. In most cases, the words either describe the supposed healing properties of the delicacy or use a more general description of its ingredients or appearance.

But one thing is clear: Lebkuchen has become an important part of German culture. Whether you’re at Oktoberfest or a Christmas market (during normal, non-pandemic times), you’re bound to find rows of Lebkuchen hearts and stars lining the booths of vendors. So when you bring your friends and family a souvenir from Germany, don’t tell them it’s gingerbread; refer to it as Lebkuchen!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Krimskrams

Do you have a house full of junk? Are your drawers overflowing with knickknacks? Then you have a lot of Krimskrams in your home!

The German word Krimskrams means “junk”, “miscellaneous objects” or “odds and ends”. It refers to all those random and useless objects you have collected over the years. Maybe you have a lot of useless souvenirs, keychains, magnets, old calendars and other items that serve you no purpose and simply collect dust. But for some reason, you find it difficult to part ways with these items. It might be time to organize or throw away your Krimskrams!

The term comes primarily from the word Kram, which means “stuff” or “junk”. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th century; it is believed that the term came from the old German phrase krimmeln und wimmeln (“to crawl”) and Kram (“junk”) – as in, your place could be crawling or overwhelmed with useless junk.

In today’s language, Krims does not have a meaning – but it makes the word Krimskrams more snappy and memorable (similar to the English word “knickknack”, where “knick” does not mean anything).

Germans are known for their cleanliness and order, and Krimskrams only makes their lives more cluttered. We’re sure that you’ll feel better about your home and office space if you clear out some of that Krimskrams!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Gießkannenprinzip

Germans have an uncanny ability to produce unique terms to describe every possible circumstance. One such word is Gießkannenprinzip, which describes exactly what it sounds like!

Literally translated, the term means “watering can principle”, and it describes the principle of giving everyone an equal share of something. Watering cans often have many holes in the cap where the water pours out, allowing for the equal distribution of water on a plant. The “watering can principle” therefore describes situations where a person or an organization distributes something (often money) equally among others.

Let’s look at two examples:

If a company pays all of its employees the same salary – regardless of performance – that company is operating by the Gießkannenprinzip. Even if one employee works harder and longer than the rest, while another employee sleeps at their desk, their pay stubs will always be equal.

As another example, a parent may have two children – a 7-year-old and a 16-year-old. That parent gives both children $5 in allowance every week, even though the 16-year-old has more expenses than the 7-year-old.

In some cases, the Gießkannenprinzip can be beneficial if a person or organization strives to treat everyone equally. But in other instances, it is not always fair or practical. If you’re reading the news in Germany, you may find articles using the word Gießkannenprinzip to describe an organizations flawed economic principles or a political party’s perspectives.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Tatendrang

Have you ever leapt out of bed on a particular morning flooded with the uncontrollable urge to get something done, such as hit the gym, clean up your home, or finally start writing that novel you’ve already mapped out in your mind? Then you were gripped by a sense of “Tatendrang.”

Germans are often defined in international organizations, when experts suggest how to work with folks from all over the world, as “task oriented people.” Such generic cultural cliches may not, of course, apply in each and every individual case. (Some German teenagers, for instance, may exhibit the same lack of “Tatendrang” when their parents suggest they clean up their rooms as many of their similarly cheeky and rebellious counterparts all over the world.)

So “Tatendrang” – which literally means “action urge” – describes that feeling you have when you just can’t wait to start getting stuff done. Another in a long and proud line of awesome German compound nouns, it is based on the words “Tat” (action, deed, task) and “Drang” (urge). (This is not to be confused, however, with “Tatort” (Scene of the Crime), which just happens to be the most popular and longest-running detective series on German television.)

Clearly the opposite early morning urge (rising early is another classic German cultural trait) to “Tatendrang” would be the desire to hit the snooze button and sleep in. People who do not like mornings in Germany are, moreover, known as “Morgenmuffel” (morning curmudgeons, morning grumpus) – and they are definitely a minority in a nation of “task oriented” early risers.

Word of the Week: Überzeugungskraft

Top politicians tend to possess it. So do the best trial lawyers and the most charismatic of silver screen sirens. It’s called “Überzeugungskraft” – literally “the power to convince” – and it’s something most of us either admire in others or aspire to achieve ourselves in various fora, from the personal to the political.

There is no plural form for this compound noun composed like so many German expressions of (at least!) two separate words – “Überzeugung” (conviction or – depending on the context – convincing) and “Kraft” (strength, power).

So it literally means “the power of convincing,” as opposed to “the power to persuade” which is “Überredungskraft” (which essentially means the power to persuade or talk someone into something).

The verb form is “überzeugen” (to convince). If someone is “überzeugend,” they are “convincing.” And if an individual is “überzeugt” he or she is “convinced” (or dedicated) or – in the religious sense – “devout.”

In this vein, you could for instance say: “Die Deutsche Mannschaft hat überzeugend gespielt.” (The German team gave a convincing performance.) Or one might say: “Sie kann sehr überzeugend sein.” (She can be very convincing.)

To ease the mind of a supporter of renewable sources of energy you could moreover, for instance, suggest: “Sie dürfen überzeugt sein, dass Deutschland die Energiewende schafft.” (You may rest assured that Germany will achieve its energy transition. – In this context: from a complete phaseout of nuclear power by 2022 towards more renewable sources of energy.)

At the same time, the expression “zu der Überzeugung gelangen / kommen dass … ” translates into “to become convinced that … ” or “to arrive at the conviction that … ” something or other may be the case. “Kraft” – not to be confused with a certain American company that produces cheese products and other foodstuffs – meanwhile adds the “oomph” to round out this expression.

Alternatively, a lack of strength in the physical sense is described via the adjective “kraftlos,” whereas a lack of power in the political sense is “machtlos.” Someone who has been stripped of their power, in turn, has been “entmachtet.”

Power, pure and simple, is “Macht” in German. But to achieve bona fide power, at least in the democratic sense of the word, you will need to convince others to genuinely believe in the particular course you would like to chart. To this end, you would be well advised to burnish your own personal powers of conviction, or “Überzeugungskraft.”

Word of the Week: Weichei

A “Weichei” (soft egg) has nothing to do with eating breakfast in Germany and everything to do with insulting a (usually) male individual by suggesting he really should “man up” about something or other, lest he run the risk of mockery for his wimpy ways.

This expression, like many jocular insults, is often used in jest of course. But it can be deployed to suggest someone is really being a “wimp” – either as a general character trait or within the context of a certain situation.

Yet another German compound noun, it is comprised of the words “weich” (soft) and “Ei” (egg), to literally mean “soft egg,” but actually mean “wimp.” It is thereby a synonym of sorts for “Feigling” (coward).

Another similar expression that boils down to mean just about the same thing is “Warmduscher”, which literally means “hot showerer.” This expression is used to connote someone who is a “wimp” because he (again, this usually applies exclusively to guys!) takes hot showers.

So if you are a guy and happen to be in Germany and hear someone call you a “Weichei” or a “Warmduscher”, you may want to ask why you have been branded a “wimp” by somebody.

“Waschlappen” (wash cloth) and “Memme” – a reference (like Mamme, or mammory) to female breasts – are also similar to “Weichei” in that they may be used as to describe a “wet rag” or “womanly” type of “wimpy” or “sissy” guy.

A “Weichei”, however has nothing to do with the soft-boiled eggs Germans enjoy during breakfast.

This is not the kind of Weichei we’re talking about.

Word of the Week: Leseratte

Do you read every night? Are you obsessed with your book collection? Do you feel like there’s something missing whenever you’re without the pages of your favorite author? Germans would likely call you a Leseratte!

In German, lesen means “to read” and Ratte means “rat” — yes, the kind you might find in the subway tunnel… or the pet store. So directly translated, Leseratte means “reading rat”.

But don’t feel insulted.

The word Ratte is often used to define someone who loves something very much. A Leseratte is a person who loves picking up a good book. Meanwhile, a Wasserratte is a person who loves being in the water (Wasser means “water”) and a Landratte is someone who is afraid to set foot on a boat and would rather spend his or her life on land.

But unlike a “book worm” (in German: Bücherwurm) who lives with his nose between the pages (and doesn’t get out very much!), a Leseratte simply loves to read. The closest English equivalent would be an “avid reader”.

The colloquial term originated in the late 19th century and has been used ever since. Rats were considered voracious creatures and people who “devoured” books without end were thus compared to rats. Although the presence of the word “rat” may give the word a slightly negative connotation, a Leseratte describes someone who possesses a love of books — which is in no way negative. So crack those books and keep on reading, you Leseratte!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy