Word of the Week: Milchmädchenrechnung

A Milchmädchenrechnung (literally “a milk maid’s account”) is a naive calculation. In English, we might say it is the result of counting the chickens before they’ve hatched. 

Let’s say you’re entering a writing contest where the cash prize is $100. You’re confident that you will win, so you start fantasizing how you will spend the money before you’ve received the prize. Those fantasies are a Milchmädchenrechnung – a naive calculation – since there is no guarantee you will even win the contest. 

German politicians involved in a campaign sometimes use the word Milchmädchenrechnung to describe their’s opponents promises, thereby claiming that those promises cannot be fulfilled because of unforeseen costs. It might, for example, be a Milchmädchenrechnung to blindly promise a pay increase of 50 percent, since employers might not be able to afford those costs in the first place. 

The origin of the term Milchmädchenrechnung comes from a well-known fable that has been around since the 14th century and gained lasting popularity from its inclusion in La Fontaine’s Fables. In the story, a young farmer’s wife carries a jug of milk to the marketplace, which she plans to sell. During her trip, she fantasizes about how she will spend the money. While distracted by her own thoughts, she spills the milk and says farewell to her dreams.

The lesson? Don’t spend your money (metaphorically) before you have it! A Milchmädchenrechnung won’t get you anything.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy