Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different “Word of the Week” in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.
Compound nouns abound in the German language. One that applies well to a variety of scenarios yet is difficult to translate precisely into English is “Fingerspitzengefühl.”
The literal translation of this expression – often used to connote someone who deftly handles all manner of tricky social situations, accurately assesses various signs of the times, or cleverly strategizes solutions in a range of contexts – is “finger tip feeling.”
Most German native speakers would use it to positively describe an individual or his or her actions.
For instance, if an employee named Klaus had done a great job of sussing out a new consumer trend and implemetend a successful marketing event for his company related to it, while cleverly stroking the fragile egoes of various colleagues and/or potential clients in the process, he would probably reap praise for his keen business acumen by keeping his finger on the pulse of his field as well as assessing any interpersonal pitfalls that could throw up roadblocks to sealing a successful deal.
“Klaus showed real Fingerspitzengefühl in masterminding that sale,” is what one of his superiors might say to another, for instance.
Unbeknownst to many modern Germans, the origins of the word seem to stem at least in part from the world of military strategy.
According to an entry in English on the word “Fingerspitzengefühl” in the popular global online encyclopedia Wikipedia, it refers to “a stated ability of some military commanders … to maintain with great accuracy in attention to detail an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield.”
In this vein, the encyclopedia goes on to state, “the concept may be compared to ideas about intuition and neural net programming.”
Most Germans, in day-to-day civilian language, however, would most likely not immediately relate this word to military strategy.
A random, unscientific sampling of German diplomats at the German Embassy in Washington supports this more general connotation of Fingerspitzengefühl, which they would use to describe someone having a deft grasp of a given situation.
In terms of traditional handicrafts or trades such as watchmaking, wood carving or hairdressing, the expression Fingerspitzengefühl, may also be taken literally – namely as someone showing fine dexterity with their hands, or excellent “finger tip feeling.”