Word of the Week: Verschlimmbessern

We’ve all encountered situations where we try to make something better, but only make it worse. And in German, there’s a word for that: verschlimmbessern

The term verschlimmbessern is colloquial, and it is a fusion of verschlimmern (“to make something worse”) and verbessern (“to make something better”). Thus, verschlimmbessern means making something worse while intending to make it better. 

Man having headache.

The term is used in the past tense to describe a situation. For example, a company may have updated their iPhone app to add more features, but the update may have made it more confusing for users to navigate. This would be an example of verschlimmbessern, since the update actually made the product worse.

The term is often used in the context of legal situations. If, for example, the government passes a new law with good intentions, but it’s not very popular with the public, the public might accuse government officials of making it worse. This would be a Verschlimmbesserung (and in this case, the term is a noun.) Despite our good intentions, there will always be times where we or someone else makes a situation worse. Let’s always hope for a Verbesserung instead of a Verschlimmbesserung!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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

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

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

Word of the Week: Republikflucht

When East Germans escaped over the inner German border during the Cold War, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) described their actions as Republikflucht, which means “desertion from the republic“ or “flight from the republic.” Additionally, the word Republikflüchtlinge describes “deserters from the republic.”

When used by GDR authorities to speak of deserters, the word had a negative connotation, associating them with a crime against the state. The word closely resembles the more generalized Fahnenflucht, which literally means “desertion from the flag” and in this case refers to military desertion. The word Republikflucht therefore invoked similar feelings of betrayal against the state, and specifically referred to escape from the GDR.

Millions of Germans fled the east during the post-war period before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 – and even after its erection, several thousand others managed to escape. Some even obtained permits to visit the west, never to return again. Many who attempted Republikflucht, however, were shot at the border. Tens of thousands of others were imprisoned for up to eight years for their attempts.

The GDR publicly condemned the actions of Republikflüchtlinge, and in 1955 outlined the seriousness of such a crime in a booklet published by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

A woman is pulled out of a tunnel through which she escaped from East Berlin to the West on October 5, 1964. In total, 57 people escaped through this tunnel German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info before it was discovered by East German border guards.

“Leaving the GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity,” the booklet says. “…Workers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists.”

Today, the word Republikflucht is one of many unique words associated with the GDR, and is often used to describe the many escape attempts from the communist regime. If you are reading German history related to the fall of the wall, this is a term you will surely come across – a term that partially defines the way we remember the effects of the Cold War.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: “Ossi” & “Wessi”

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, generalized nicknames arose to distinguish people who lived on either side of the border. Those in the west were informally referred to as Wessis (“from the West”) and those in the east were called Ossis (in German, Ost means “east”).

Depending on the context in which they were used, these nicknames were occasionally perceived to be offensive. On some occasions, however, they were used simply to distinguish between the Easterners and the Westerners, without any harm intended. But often, their use was based on common stereotypes assigned to Germans from either side of the wall.

“Did you see what that Wessi is wearing?!” one might, for example, have heard on the street during a divided Germany – or shortly after its reunification.

Wessis were often stereotyped as capitalistic, arrogant and rich, while Ossis were often stereotyped as paranoid, poor and socialistic. Even after German reunification, stereotypes continued to live on for many years – and to some extent still exist today, even if there is little truth behind them. Ossi Wessi jokes were common in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and can occasionally still be heard among those who grew up in Cold War Germany.

But regardless of the negative characteristics often assigned to Ossis and Wessis, the nicknames became deeply integrated into German culture before, during and after reunification. Additionally, nicknames such as Besserwessi (“better-knowing-Wessi” or, in other words, “know-it-all”) and Jammer-Ossi (“whining easterner”) also sprung up from these terms.

The distinguishing nicknames demonstrate how deeply Germany was divided not just geographically, but also culturally, and how Germans perceived each other at the time.

©dpa / picture alliance

The year 2019 marks the 30th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which means Germany has been one nation for three decades. While there are still some who label themselves – or others – as Ossis and Wessis, it is an increasingly rarer distinction as Germans gather in celebration of the achievements they have made as one nation.

But as you read about the fall of the wall and Germany’s reunification, it’s likely you’ll come across the words Ossi and Wessi. Just make sure not to label anyone with them!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Stacheldrahtsonntag

The events of August 13, 1961 brought a new word into the German language: Stacheldrahtsonntag, which means “Barbed Wire Sunday”.
If you’re familiar with German history, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out the meaning of this word. Stacheldrahtsonntag was the day that GDR authorities began sealing off the border between East and West German using barbed wire and other barriers that which were quickly replaced by a wall. The day became so significant that it was referred to without the date. Everyone knew about “August 13” or, in other words, “Barbed Wire Sunday.”

Between 1945 and 1961, around 2.7 million people fled East Germany for the West, which was about 15 percent of the GDR’s population. To stop the mass emigration, GDR authorities hastily closed the border on the night of August 12 – and they didn’t wait long before sealing it with physical barriers. The use of barbed wire was quick and efficient, keeping people from crossing the border until a system of metal and concrete walls reinforced it a few weeks later. Nearly 17 million people were trapped inside the GDR on August 13, and 533,000 East German troops and police were employed to make sure no one escaped.

Families were separated, East German residents were unable to go to their jobs in the West and some of those along the border even lost their homes. As barbed wire further separated the two Germanys, August 13 quickly became known as Stacheldrahtsonntag.

©dpa / picture alliance

As the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, Stacheldrahtsonntag is a word you might hear in conversation – especially among those who lived through that fateful day.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy