Word of the Week: Sonnenwendfeier

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Many Germans – like the Scandinavians – celebrate the Sonnendwendfeier, an annual midsummer festival marking the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (on June 20 this year).

The marking of the summer solstice dates back to pre-Christian, pagan times across northern Europe. Stonehenge, for instance, was erected in England to mark the Sonnenwende (“solstice”), which occurs twice per year – the Wintersonnenwende (“winter solstice”) on December 21 or 22, and the Sommersonnenwende (“summer solstice”), marked from June 20 to 23 (or a later date, depending on the country in question).

A traditional Sonnenwendfeier involves the lighting of a big, blazing bonfire. Villagers, for instance, might gather around such a fire on a field in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony or Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. They will hang out together at the fire, which might become the center of a local Volksfest with sausages, beer and other items for sale. (In the same vein, many Germans set up Osterfeuer (Easter fires) in their own backyards, which they observe with friends, family and neighbors.)

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Colin Lloyd

In the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, many cityfolk will drive out into the surrounding countryside and light such summer solstice fires, around which they will launch lively outdoor celebrations that last late into the night. (Legend has it that many children are also conceived on this particular night!)

Do you partake in a Sonnenwendfeier?

Word of the Week: Sommerloch

Although it may at first sound like a reference to a refreshing riverside swimming hole, a Sommerloch (“summer hole”) actually refers to something entirely different – the dearth of “real news” smack dab in the middle of summertime.

The Sommerloch occurs during the Sommermonate (summer months). During these long, languid days punctuated by many vacations in Germany (and beyond – most Germans are avid globe-trekking travelers!), people don their Sommersachen (“summer stuff / summer clothes”) and might even acquire a few Sommersprossen (“freckles”). They may also retro-fit their German-engineered driving machines with Sommerreifen (“summer tires”).

The German media, meanwhile, just might start concocting some far-fetched April Fools’ type tales to confuse and bemuse – their audiences. Past Sommerloch stories in Germany have, among others, included reports of an escaped seal swimming up the Elbe River near the eastern German city of Dresden, as well as alleged “sightings” of a crocodile that decided to call a lake in the southern German state of Bavaria home.

“For most of last week, there had only been one topic of discussion in Schwandorf, Germany: ‘Klausi’ the crocodile, the first big story of the country’s annual silly season of slow summer news,” Spiegel Online International reported a few years ago in a story aptly entitled “What a Croc – Dangerous Reptile Might be a Beaver.”

Welcome to the “Far Side” of the annual German news cycle.

So who ever said Germans have no sense of humor? Clearly some German media folk, at least, like to indulge in the lighter side of life during the Sommerloch, which sometimes leaves them scrambling to find any “hard news” to report on. If they fail to deliver any such Sommerloch stories, their audiences would moreover take note, for they have come to expect them.

Word of the Week: Hüftgold

Many of us may be  carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, and in German there’s a nice word it: Hüftgold!

Directly translated, Hüftgold means “hip gold”, and it refers to the extra weight around your hips. One English translation would be “love handles”, although Hüftgold refers more to the hips than to a person’s love handles. Both the English and German words, however, refer to the weight in a friendly manner: after all, who wouldn’t want hips as valuable (or beautiful) as gold?

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However, most people who possess Hüftgold don’t want it, and they choose to exercise or eat healthier to cut down on that Hüftgold.

But there’s also another definition for the term: Hüftgold may also refer to the calorie-rich foods that cause you to gain weight. In this context, Hüftgold could refer to that gallon of chocolate chip ice cream in your fridge or the french fries you ate last night. Either way, the Hüftgold that you consume will transform into the Hüftgold that you carry.

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By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Bierernst

If you’re trying to express how serious you are about something, what word would you use? In German, you would say you are bierernst (“beer serious”). No joke! Or is it?

The word bierernst (which is an adjective) does not sound like one that you would use to express your seriousness. But it is – seriously! Someone who is bierernst about something is someone who is not kidding around. Germans are clearly serious about their beer – so serious, in fact, that the word “serious” is overly emphasized when combined with the word “beer”.

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Let’s look at an example: your friend tells you she is moving to Fiji. At first, you think she’s joking – why would she take off and fly thousands of miles away? She looks at you sternly and tells you that she is bierernst. At this point, you know she’s telling the truth.

The term can be traced back to the early 1900s. At the time, it was assumed that wine makes people act happy and relaxed, whereas beer changes someone’s mood and makes them more serious. But whether or not this is the case, you can still use the word bierernst to express your sincerity!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy 

Word of the Week: Eiertanz

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Have you ever wondered what to do with any leftover colored Easter eggs you don’t plan on keeping for next year or are unable to eat anytime soon? How about conducting an “Eiertanz” (egg dance) with them, an expression that once was taken literally but today has an altogether different meaning.

“Eiertanz” is mostly used as a figure of speech to indicate how an individual might “beat around the bush” by avoiding the heart of a matter. In this vein, Germans might use the expression “einen Eiertanz aufführen/vorführen” (performing an egg dance) to connote careful or complex behavior and/or conversation used as a stalling and/or avoidance tactic.

Originally, however, this expression was actually used to describe a type of dance that was literally performed around eggs strewn about the dance floor. Among the first known German literary references to an “Eiertanz” was a citation dating back to 1795 in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (Wilhelm Meisters Apprentice Years), in which the character Mignon dances blindfolded between eggs laid out on a floor.

Similar expressions include “Herumeiern” and “Herumgeeiere,” which essentially boils down to “waffling around” or engaging in stalling tactics in difficult situations or social scenarios.

The expression “German Eiertanz” moreover wended its way into the English language according to news agency Bloomberg in 2011 to describe Germany’s alleged reluctance in dealing with the euro crisis.

A common “Spielart” (gaming tactic) of the “Eiertanz” is the “Salamitaktik” (salami strategy), which can in particular be observed in politics.

The English expression “walking on eggshells,” however, is not entirely synonymous with “Eiertanz.” This figure of speech applies more to avoiding conflict or confrontation with a disgruntled partner or adversary, particularly in the personal versus the political realm and is used more to critique the person being avoided due to their generally moody behavior.

Word of the Week: Tortenheber

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What do you use to lift up a piece of pie and place it on a plate? A Tortenheber, of course!

It seems that Germans have a word for everything, even simple objects that do not have a name in English. One such object is the so-called Tortenheber, which translates directly to “pie lifter” or, more indirectly – “cake shovel”. If you don’t know what that is, do not worry – you’ve probably seen one, but can’t think of its name!

A Tortenheber is a tool with a handle and a triangle-shaped surface that is used to pick up a slice of cake or pie and move it onto a plate. This makes it easy to serve cake to a large group of guests – especially when the cake is dry and falling apart. It also prevents servers from having to use their fingers or other tools to serve slices of cake.

Search for a pie spatula, pie lifter, cake server,  cake shovel or any other variation online and you will find photos of a Tortenheber. Luckily, Germans are less likely to get confused when asking for one at the store, since they have a word that clearly defines this highly specific kitchenware.

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By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Verdauungsspaziergang

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What do you do when you ate too much? You go on a Verdauungsspaziergang, of course!

A Verdauungsspaziergang is a walk that you take to get you moving and help you digest your food more quickly.

This colloquial term comes from the words Verdauung (“digestion”) and Spaziergang (“a walk”). A direct translation would be a “digestion walk”. After stuffing yourself, it may be wiser to go for a Verdauungsspaziergang instead of lying down, which would ultimately make it more difficult to get moving again. By getting some fresh air and moving your body, you are speeding up the digestion process.

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In German, there’s a saying that emphasizes this belief: Nach dem Essen sollst du ruh’n oder tausend Schritte tun (“After eating you should rest or take a thousand steps.”) This phrase originated in Ancient Rome, which suggests that people have believed in the benefit of a “digestion walk” for centuries.

So next time you eat too much, avoid the temptation of lying down – and go for a walk instead!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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: 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.”