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.

Word of the Week: Alter Schwede

From your personal impressions, what do Sweden (the country of picturesque landscapes and beautiful blond people) and Germany (Europe’s economic powerhouse with its atmospheric old towns and tasty beers) have in common? Well, you might observe that there are at least similar value systems and extensive social welfare systems in both countries, that Swedish and German both belong to the group of Germanic languages and that the two countries are members of the European Union.

But there is more than that: considering the very popular informal German expression “Alter Schwede!” (Old Swede!), Sweden and Germany seem to have an even stronger relationship. The first meaning of Alter Schwede as an “old friend” or “old chap” (for the Brits amongst you…) symbolizes that very well. When Americans say “Hey Buddy!” to a friend, Germans might for instance say “Na, alter Schwede!”.

Clearly, there must be a reason for that. Somehow, Swedes have apparently earned their reputation as good friends. Before we get to that, let me quickly explain the second meaning of Alter Schwede. In case something unexpected happens or the magnitude/scope of something surprises you, you might shout “Alter Schwede!” as an equivalent to “Wow!” or “What the heck!?!”. German synonyms would be “mein lieber Schwan!” or “krass“.

So now let’s get to the reason for this seemingly deep friendship. The expression Alter Schwede first occurred in the 17th century and is related to the Thirty Years’ War. After the end of the war, Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (elector of the Holy Roman Empire) recruited war-proven Swedish soldiers as instructors for his army. They mostly held the rank of sergeants as they were very experienced in tough military exercise (drilling). Because of that, they were soon referred to as “the old Swedes”, which explains the described first meaning of Alter Schwede as a buddy/friend.

And regarding the second meaning (“Wow!”), just think of a tourist who is visiting New York City for the first time in his life and is overwhelmed by all the skrycrapers in Manhattan. There is a pretty high likelihood his first words will be Alter Schwede!

Word of the Week: Paragraphenreiterei

Who hasn’t experienced the following yet? You go to an administrative office and want to get something done. It might be an application for visa, for a social security card or something similar. Usually, you have to fill out a detailed application and then go to the public servant to hand it in. But guess what – the person behind the counter explains to you in an uncompromising way that your application is simply not acceptable, because you didn’t specify this and that or forgot to bring some sort of “super” important document with you.

In case that happens, Germans have a wonderful word to express their frustration with that kind of strictness. The word is Paragraphenreiterei. It means something like “obsessive adherence to rules” or “pedantry”. If your complaint is directed toward a specific person you could call him a Paragraphenreiter (a “jobsworth”). In doing so you emphasize that this person is a close-minded, unrelaxed and stubborn moralizer who is not willing to interpret the law or rules in a liberal, modern way. Obviously, that is not necessarily the nicest way to address a person. The chances you get that application successfully processed after mentioning the word Paragraphenreiter are probably below zero.

However, the literal meaning of Paragraphenreiter is quite funny and might help you to get over your frustration as well as to be patient and put a good face on the matter. Paragraphenreiter is composed of the two words Paragraph (paragaph, clause, article) and Reiter (rider, equestrian). Thus, just think of an equestrian who rides a clause when you approach that person. Maybe, it will actually get you to put a smile on your face and charm the person, so the application gets processed.

Word of the Week: Pappenheimer

Have you ever heard of a town called “Pappenheim”? Probably not … and frankly why should you? With its 4,030 residents, its castle ruin and its picturesque location in Bavaria south of Nuremberg, Pappenheim is just one of many beautiful and atmospheric small towns in Germany. However, somehow Pappenheim cannot be that ordinary. Why else would there be the popular word Pappenheimer in German. Most often, the expression “ich kenne meine Pappenheimer” is used, which means something like “I know my cardboard homies” or “I know my peers”.

Interestingly, this expression dates way back to the Thirty Years’ War. One of the cavalry units that fought against Sweden was led by Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim. Since his unit was widely known for being courageous, brave and loyal, Graf zu Pappenheim used the expression “ich kenne meine Pappenheimer” to emphasize his trust in his troops. The expression was then picked up by famous German writer Friedrich Schiller in his drama “Wallensteins Tod” (Wallenstein’s death), which is the third part of his Wallenstein trilogy. At one point in the drama, Wallenstein, who was the chief commander of the imperial troops in the Thirty Years’ War, acknowledges the loyalty of Graf zu Pappenheims’ cavalry unit by saying “Daran erkenn’ ich meine Pappenheimer” (That’s why I know my peers). Thus, Pappenheimer was a very positive expression at that time.

Nowadays that cavalry units are slightly outdated, the meaning of Pappenheimer has also changed. When you call somebody a Pappenheimer then you know his weaknesses and guilty pleasures very well as well as what you have to expect of him or what he got up to. Thus, on the one hand the expression is slightly derogatory. On the other hand, a Pappenheimer is someone who makes mistakes but because he actually has a good heart you can’t really be mad at him. Pappenheimer has hence also an ironic and nice touch.

Imagine for example you have kids who, after playing soccer in the backyard, come to tell you with guilty looka that for some unknown reason (of course it was not them…) two flower vases are broken. Then you might say with a knowing smile “Ich kenne meine Pappenheimer“.