Word of the Week: Purzelbaum

The German word Purzelbaum sounds like some sort of strange tree. After all, the German word for tree is Baum. But this term actually describes an acrobatic move often practiced by kids – the so-called somersault. 

When you were a kid, you probably remember practicing your somersaults in the backyard. Rolling around may have been fun for your. In German, these are called Purzelbäume (singular: Purzelbaum). It’s a colloquial term primarily used by kids and their parents – after all, adults generally don’t roll into a somersault very often or have a need to describe this. The term comes from the words Purzel (to stumble or fall ungracefully) and aufbäumen (to rear up). The word thus describes the motions of falling and getting up at the same time – sort of like you do when you roll into a somersault. 

© dpa / picture alliance

A Purzelbaum can be executed for fun or by mistake – like in an accident. If, for example, you’re downhill skiing and lose control of your skis, you might fall straight into a Purzelbaum. If you’re lucky, you’ll escape unharmed. Similarly, competitive athletes (such as soccer players) may roll into a somersault if they trip over someone or something. Let’s hope your Purzelbäume have all been intentional!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Habseligkeiten

The German word Habseligkeiten is a beautiful one. Literally translated, it means “belongings”, but it also means so much more! It comes from the words haben (“to have”) and Seligkeit (a state of bliss, happiness or salvation). 

In 2004, the Goethe Institute held a competition for the most beautiful German word. The winner? Habseligkeiten (in the plural form). But why is a word that defines “belongings” so beautiful? It’s best explained in the words of German Doris Kalka, the woman who submitted the word for the competition. 

“The word doesn’t signify ownership or wealth of a person. However, it does refer to his possessions and does it in a friendly and compassionate way. Typical for those with these kinds of possessions would be a six-year-old child who empties his pockets to take joy in what he has collected,” Kalka, who is a secretary at the University of Tübingen, wrote in her submission. “Or the word can be seen from a more pitiful side. It can express the few belongings that someone who has lost his home has and how he has to transport them to whatever shelter available.” 

So Habseligkeiten means more than any old items you have laying around or the items you order on Amazon. It refers to items to which there is emotion attached. A pretty stone that you’ve been carrying for months in your pocket or the diary that you write in every night are both Habseligkeiten. If you were forced to leave your home and could only take one backpack of stuff with you, what would you take? Those items are probably your Habseligkeiten.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Popometer

When you’re shopping for a new car, what do you rely on most as your deciding factor? Some people may rely on ratings, reviews or research, but most of us make the decision based on how the car feels when we test-drive it.

Similarly, people employed to test cars rely most often on their Popometer when writing about, recommending or rating a vehicle. Race-car drivers, in particular, use this measurement more than others.

The German word Popometer comes from Popo (a colloquial word for your buttocks) and Meter (a measuring stick). A Popometer is a word that describes someone’s rear end as a measuring device. When someone sit down in a new car, motorcycle or even on a bobsled or a bicycle, they get a feel for the vehicle – a measurement of comfort taken by their buttocks. When a professional reviewer or race car driver tests a vehicle, the results of his or her Popometer are very important, since it measures the level of comfort someone may experience in that vehicle for years to come.

Although the term is often used in automobile magazines or by people who review vehicles, it is perhaps most commonly used by race car drivers in Germany. The closest English translation is “seat-of-the-pants feel”.

Even if a car has high ratings and good reviews, you will probably not want to buy it if a reviewer’s Popometer gives it a low score. So make sure to find out what the Popometer says about it, since those results are ultimately the most important!

Word of the Week: Hinterland

Do you live in a tiny little house in the middle of nowhere? Somewhere far away from big cities and other people? Germans would say that you live in the Hinterland!

The German word Hinterland translates to “the land behind”. Generally, it is the inland region of a country. The closest English translation is “backcountry”.

But in German, it can be used in two ways. In some contexts, the word describes land that is behind the shore, a city or a port. The Hinterland of a port is the region that it serves for imports and exports.

But more commonly, the word is used to describe any part of a country that is remote and underdeveloped with few people – a place that we might refer to as “the middle of nowhere”. Think the Mojave Desert. Or a small town in Arizona. Or that little cabin in the woods that’s miles away from people.

These days, the word Hinterland is not only used in German, but it has also been incorporated into English, Spanish and French! After all, it is a useful word – every country has its remote regions! So what’s your ideal day trip: a visit to the city or one to the Hinterland?

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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