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.”

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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.

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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

Word of the Week: Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

When spring arrives, not everyone is struck purely with joy and vitality. Some are just the opposite, developing a fatigue that Germans call Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (“spring tiredness”).

In German, the word Frühjahr means “early year” – as opposed to Frühling, which means “spring.” But regardless, Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is usually attributed to weariness, laziness and lethargy in the springtime — generally between mid-March to mid-April.

Do you find yourself staring at the cherry blossom tree outside your window, unable to concentrate on your work? Has it become more difficult to wake up early? Do you get headaches more often than usual? Do you spend weekends on the couch rather than outdoors? Then you might be suffering from Frühjahrsmüdigkeit.

“Spring tiredness”, however, is a phenomenon that has not yet been scientifically confirmed. In fact, it stands in contradiction to what Americans call “spring fever”, which usually refers to a surge in energy. But some scientists speculate that springtime weariness comes as a result of changing seasons, which leads to hormonal readjustments in the body. When the days get longer, the body increases its production of seratonin and reduces its production of melatonin. During this transition, the body may be more tired than usual. Additionally, fluctuating temperatures can affect blood pressure, which may also lead to tiredness.

But the scientific basis for Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is still being studied. And there’s also plenty of Germans who speak about Frühlingsgefühle (“spring feelings”) — a state of vitality, joy and liveliness that is comparable to “spring fever”.

But these aren’t the only German words that deal with the changing seasons: while Americans talk about “spring cleaning”, Germans have their own word for it: Frühjahrsputz (“early-year cleaning”). Perhaps it’s the cleaning that leads to feelings of Frühjahrsmüdigkeit. Maybe it’s the weather or the allergies. Or perhaps it’s just an excuse for slacking off.

Whatever the cause may be, one thing is certain: at this time of year in Germany, you’re likely to hear complaints about Frühjahrsmüdigkeit, while also hearing uplifting comments about the Frühlingsgefühle that come with the warm weather. Which begs the question: which one do you feel today?

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Farbenfroh

Are you wearing red pants, a blue shirt and green socks? If so, we’re sure you stand out – and you’re definitely farbenfroh today!

The German word farbenfroh means “color happy”. It is an adjective used to describe someone or something with many colors. Someone’s outfit is farbenfroh if they are wearing many different colors – or even just one bright color that catches people’s attention. An apartment can be described as farbenfroh if its decorations are colorful or if the walls are painted in different colors. Even a program of events can be described as farbenfroh if it includes a diverse program (in English, we would call this a “colorful event”).

Most of the time, farbenfroh is used in a positive context (because after all, who doesn’t like colors?). But if you notice your coworker proudly wearing a bright orange dress that makes her look a little ridiculous, you can simply call her farbenfroh (which is more of a fact and in this context and neither an insult nor a compliment).

Although you can be farbenfroh at any time of the year, it might brighten up a rainy, cloudy or cold day if you add a little bit of Farbe to your life!

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Word of the Week: tote Hose

If you’ve ever been to a party that had nothing going on, you might want to call it tote Hose.

The German word tote Hose is a slang term that originated in the 1980s. Literally translated, tote Hose means “dead trousers”, but it has nothing to do with your pants. The phrase tote Hose is used to describe something that is boring, uneventful or dull – like a bad party or event.

Although it sounds like it should be used as a noun, tote Hose is mostly used in place of an adjective. You might tell your friend, “Gosh, last night’s party was so tote Hose – I only lasted an hour before I ditched my friends to go somewhere else.”

There is no English equivalent for tote Hose; you must simply imagine a phrase that describes an extremely boring or uneventful situation. The phrase remains highly popular among youth in Germany today. There is even a German rock band that named themselves Die Toten Hosen.

So next time you’re bored at a party, feel free to describe it as tote Hose to impress your German friends with your cool new slang. Just don’t tell the host that – or you may never get another invite!

Word of the Week: Schrottwichteln

If you’re American, you’ve probably heard of “Secret Santa” or “White Elephant” gift exchanges. In Germany, however, we have what’s called Schrottwichteln, which basically means “the exchange of crap”.

The holiday season is all about gift exchanges. Even if you’re giving away junk – it’s the thought that counts, right? In German schools, workplaces and social circles, people often organize a so-called Schrottwichteln. The word Schrott means “crap”, “garbage” or “junk”. Wichteln is the organized exchange of gifts during the holiday season. So people who participate in Schrottwichteln essentially give each other things they don’t want themselves – like that ugly Christmas sweater they received from their grandmother or an overly fancy candleholder for which they have no use. Often times, they will regift an item or contribute a gag gift. It is not
uncommon for these gifts to be wrapped up in newspaper, rather than gift wrap – anything to make it look more like junk.

When people organize a Schrottwichteln, they will often set a limit on the value of the item – perhaps 5, 10, 15 or 20 Euros. Participants usually have a few days to decide on a gift – and will often search for the ugliest, funniest or most useless possible item they can think of. Sometimes Schrottwichteln organizers will choose a “winner” – a gift that is the most worthless of all.

Those who participate in Schrottwichteln parties do so for the holiday spirit and the humor associated with it. And if the gift they receive is perfectly useless, they may regift it the following Christmas at another
Schrottwichteln party.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy