Word of the Week: Kobold

© Wikimedia Commons

With Halloween just around the corner, Americans are excitedly gathering for haunted hayrides, telling scary stories around campfires, and searching for frightening costumes. At this time of year, it’s common to hear stories about the chupacabra, Bigfoot, and the headless horseman.

Mythological creatures exist throughout the world, but let’s take a look at one that has existed in German folklore for centuries. A popular supernatural creature is the Kobold, a mischievous household spirit that is usually invisible, but will occasionally materialize, taking the form of a human, an animal, or an object. An ill-tempered Kobold might, for example, take the form of a feather, descend onto the nose of a sleeping homeowner, and trigger a sneeze.

Most images of a Kobold depict small, human-like figures often dressed like peasants. But there are many types of Kobolds. Some are friendly spirits that live in one’s home, taking care of chores and playing malicious tricks if they feel upset, neglected or insulted. Others live underground, haunting old mines. Some reside on ships, accompanying sailors as they navigate the open seas (this type of Kobold is called a Klaubautermann).

The origin of the Kobold and its etymology remains shrouded in mystery, but this mythical creature is believed to have emerged from Pagan customs many centuries ago.

There are numerous other legendary German creatures that are closely related to the original Kobold, such as the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes). But while the Heinzelmännchen are good-natured creatures that tend to the house, Kobolds also have a darker side to them, often wreaking havoc. In some cases, the damage Kobolds inflict might resemble that imposed by a poltergeist.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Word of the Week: Witzbold

From Friedrich Nietzsche to Immanuel Kant and Heinrich Heine, Germany has long been home to philosophers, poets, scientists and other great thinkers. Germans are often stereotyped as being “too serious” and often accused of lacking a sense of humor. A German Witzbold, however, contradicts all of these stereotypes.

The German word Witz means “joke”, and a Witzbold is a type of joker or prankster who loves to be entertained. We’re sure you’ve met one, whether it was your high school’s class clown or that friend who loves to mess with you. When a Witzbold isn’t busy cracking jokes, you might find him playing pranks on others to get a good laugh – all in good nature, of course. Synonyms for Witzbold are Spaßvogel (“humor bird”) and Scherzkeks (“prank cookie”).

But being called a Witzbold is not always a good thing; sometimes jokes can go too far, becoming a nuisance to others. In many cases, there is a negative connotation to being called a Witzbold. So make sure you know when your humor is unwanted – it’s always best to strike a healthy balance!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Schlafmütze

Are you nodding off at your desk, even after three cups of coffee? Can’t get out of bed in the mornings? Are you always late and missing opportunities? Sounds like you might be a Schlafmütze!

Directly translated, this German word means “nightcap”, but the closest English equivalent of its meaning would be a “sleepy head” or a “zombie”.

In modern German language, a Schlafmütze usually refers to a person who is always tired, lazy and slow, spaced out and late all the time or unable to roll out of bed. But in the olden days, this word simply defined the nightcap that people wore to bed to keep warm. Before central heating was available, homes in northern Europe were often very cold – especially in the winter. To keep warm, Europeans would wear nightcaps when they went to sleep. Women usually wrapped a long piece of cloth around their heads, while men had more pointed caps with a long tip that could sometimes be used as a scarf.

Due to the availability of central heating, nightcaps are no longer used, but paintings, books and movies about the pre-industrial days often depict people wearing them in the comfort of their homes.

In addition to sleepwear, nightcaps were used throughout the 19th century to secure bandages that were applied to head injuries.

But ever since the 18th century, the word Schlafmütze has also been used to define a sleepy or lazy person. Someone who sleeps in until noon every day would be considered a Schlafmütze. And even if you sleep late just once, you might inherit the title by a friend or relative who rolls their eyes at your habits. So get out of bed and make sure you’re not a Schlafmütze! After all, there’s probably plenty of things you could do instead.

A 19th century painting by Wilhelm Busch depicts a man wearing a Schlafmütze. © dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Begrüßungsgeld

The German word Begrüßungsgeld means “welcome money”. Free money? Pretty much. And lots of people wanted it.

The idea of “welcome money” is a concept that was created by the West German government in 1970. Begrüßungsgeld was a monetary gift from the Federal Republic of Germany to visitors from the eastern side the German Democratic Republic.

In those rare instances where East Germans were approved to visit the West, the GDR only allowed them to exchange 70 East-German Marks into West-German DM (by 1989, it had been reduced to 15 M per year -enough to buy a couple of groceries but not much more).

The monetary restriction made it difficult for East Germans to travel to the West, which prompted the West German government to introduce the Begrüßungsgeld. GDR citizens who visited the West were given 30 DM of “welcome money” up to twice a year, paid out at a city or local government. By 1988, they were entitled to 100 DM per year. The West German government’s Begrüßungsgeld therefore made it possible for a greater number of East Germans to pay a visit to the other side – assuming, of course, that their visitation request was approved by the GDR first.

©dpa / picture alliance

Naturally, when the Berlin Wall fell, thousands of East Germans flocked to the West German city and local governments to claim their promised 100 DM. In only three weeks following the fall of the wall, millions of people claimed their “welcome money”, costing the West German government 1.8 billion DM. And between November and December 1989, an estimated 3-4 billion DM was paid out in “welcome money”. The demand for this Begrüßungsgeld was so high on November 9 and 10, 1989, that Berlin mayor Walter Momper ordered banks to make the Begrüßungsgeld payouts. Long lines formed outside of West German banks as millions of East Germans lined up for the cash.

The West German government never expected to be paying such large sums of money in such a short amount of time, and ended its Begrüßungsgeld payouts on December 29, 1989. Those who didn’t claim it earlier were out of luck.

But for millions of Germans, the Begrüßungsgeld helped them with the transition to a reunified Germany.

And in July 1990, the DM became Germany’s sole currency, which it kept until adopting the Euro at the turn of the century.

©dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

German “Mauerspechte” responsible for Berlin Wall souvenirs

If you’ve ever traveled to Germany, there’s a good chance you’ve seen tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall for sale at a souvenir shop. But the wall is gone – so where did these colorful pieces come from?

After the East German border was opened up nearly 30 years ago, countless people made their way to the wall, equipped with pickaxes and sledgehammers. They tirelessly chipped away at the wall. Their motivations varied, but in general such a person was called a Mauerspecht.

In German, Mauer means wall and Specht means woodpecker. A Mauerspecht, therefore, refers to a person who chips away at a wall (specifically, the Berlin Wall, since the word arose in this context and had never been used before). The closest English equivalent would be the word “stonepecker.”

©dpa / picture alliance

After the border was opened, many Germans flocked to the wall, eager to help break apart the object that blocked their freedom for so long. To many, chipping at the wall was an emotional act in which they gained power over a restrictive barrier that was now a symbol of their triumph. Previously, this concrete structure was representative of the political system that confined and controlled the people in the GDR through fear, which made it even more satisfying for the wall’s former victims to break it apart themselves.

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Word of the Week: Dreckspatz

If you have kids, there’s a good chance they’re sometimes a Dreckspatz – especially if they love playing in the mud. The German word Dreckspatz is a fusion of the words Dreck (“dirt”) and Spatz (“sparrow”), and describes a person who gets him-or-herself dirty easily.

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Sparrow birds bathe themselves in dust or sand to clean their feathers – thus, people who do the same are known as Dreckspätze in Germany.

Someone who constantly drops food on his lap might be called a Dreckspatz – especially if this person struggles to clean himself up afterwards, and walks through life with stains on his shirt. But more commonly, a Dreckspatz is used to describe a child — perhaps because children are more likely to get themselves dirty.

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If you’re a parent, you’ve probably cringed after seeing the grass stains on your child’s brand new dress pants or chocolate on that white shirt. Maybe your child likes to jump into puddles or play in the mud. Either way, it can be frustrating to scrub stains out of your kid’s clothes on a daily basis.

Du bist so ein Dreckspatz! (“You are such a Dreckspatz!”) is what an angry or frustrated parent might say after their child builds a mud pie or wears his dinner instead of eating it. But it’s not a serious insult – a parent might roll their eyes lovingly while calling their child that.

A similar German word is Schmutzfink. The word Schmutz is a close synonym for Dreck – both words mean dirt or filth (but Dreck is also used to describe soil). Additionally, the word Fink describes a finch – another bird species that often bathes in dirt.

©dpa / picture alliance

But ultimately, while it’s normal for children to be called a Dreckspatz or Schmutzfink, you probably don’t want that reputation. So make sure to keep those stains off your shirt to avoid the name-calling.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Filmriss

Can’t remember what happened last night? Then you’re suffering from a Filmriss!

The German word Filmriss is a gap in your memory. Directly translated, Filmriss means “film tear”, and the word originated from the days when film projectors were used to play movies. Before the arrival of modern technology, moviegoers occasionally dealt with a Filmriss – an instance where a tear in a role of film temporarily stopped the movie. As you can imagine, this could get quite frustrating if it occurred during a suspenseful scene of the movie! Luckily, today’s digital technology prevents such inconveniences from interrupting a movie.

Over the years, however, the meaning of the word Filmriss has grown, and it now describes instances where your memory has gone black. Perhaps you can’t remember what you did while drinking too much, or maybe your memory is just bad in general. Luckily for you, digital technology has made it easy for others to take photos and videos of your behavior, allowing you to get a glimpse of what happened during your Filmriss!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Spinnefeind

If you have a spinnefeind relationship with someone, the other person may be toxic and scare you away. But even though though this German word translates to “spider-inimical”, it describes a relationship with someone who has two legs and not eight!

The word Spinne means “spider” and Feind means “enemy” – or, in this case, it is used as “inimical”. Despite what it sounds like, this term does not refer to the hairy little buggers that crawl up your walls at night and hide in the corners of your house – even though you might consider them your enemies. Instead, this word is an adjective – and it describes the relationship you have with an enemy – someone that you cannot stand to be around and whose intentions toward you are not good.

In a spinnefeind relationship, your enemy wants the worst for you (and you want the worse for him or her). Adding the word Spinne to the word Feind (“inimical”) creates an adjective that emphasizes just how bad that relationship is.

In German, you might say, Sie waren einander spinnefeind. (“They were spinnefeind towards one another.”)

Just like a spider might cause you to run in the other direction, seeing your someone with whom you have a spinnefeind relationship could cause you to walk the other way. But it may be better to confront your fears than to run from them. You may realize that they’re not as bad as they may seem, and that they look scarier than they truly are.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Erklärungsnot

What do you do when you find yourself in an awkward situation that you caused? Well, you would probably try to find an explanation for your actions, but it might not be so easy. And Germans have a special word for this type of emergency: Erklärungsnot!

The German word Erklärungsnot means “explanation poverty” or “explanation emergency” and it describes a state in which you are put on the spot without an explanation or excuse for your actions. Once caught, you might be at a loss for words. Some situations that might arouse Erklärungsnot are cheating on a test, stealing, lying, cheating on your spouse, or looking through someone’s phone – basically, situations that make it difficult for you to explain yourself. If caught doing something that you know is wrong, you might be at a loss of words.

But Erklärungsnot is not always associated with grave immoral actions. You can also experience it if you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar, or caught while planning a surprise birthday party for a friend. When put on the spot, your excuses might be so ridiculous that no one will believe you.

“My dog ate my homework,” might be the result of Erklärungsnot when a child is put on the spot for skipping his homework.

So remember: next time you find yourself in a state of Erklärungsnot, take a deep breath and think before you explain yourself!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Schnarchnase

You’ve been staring at the ceiling for hours. Despite all your attempts, you just can’t fall asleep – and you blame the Schnarchnase beside you for that!

Literally translated, the German word Schnarchnase means “snoring nose”. The term comes from schnarchen (“snoring”) and Nase (“nose”), and it identifies someone who snores loudly while sleeping. The reasons for this can vary – maybe the Schnarchnase has a stuffy nose, maybe it’s sleep apnea or maybe there’s no explanation for why this person snores every time he or she goes to sleep. Regardless of the cause, sleeping next to a Schnarchnase can be annoying – especially if you’re a light sleeper!

But the word doesn’t always define someone who snores in their sleep. The term is also used to describe someone who has messed up a task or is slow in finishing something. A so-called sleepy-head or a slowpoke (like, for example, a slow driver) can also be called a Schnarchhase. Even if someone has good intentions, he may still be called a Schnarchnase because he can never seem to get it right.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy