Word of the Week: Erbsenzähler

Germans have a very specific word that describes someone who is nitpicky, obsessed with details and a control freak: an Erbsenzähler. In German, the word Erbsen means “peas” and Zähler means counter — as in, someone who is keeping a numerical record. Thus, an Erbsenzähler literally describes someone who counts peas — you know, the kind of peas you might find on your dinner plate.

So how did a “pea counter” become the term for a nitpicky individual?

According to a story that has been passed down for over a century, the term originated in the year 1847, when a German publisher was visiting the Milan Cathedral.

Spiral staircase

Karl Baedeker (1801-1859), founder of a tourism guidebook company called Baedeker, was known for being very precise, careful and calculated. When he was climbing the stairs of the Milan Cathedral one day, German Shakespearen scholar Gisbert von Vincke witnessed one of Baedeker’s most peculiar actions: after every twenty stairs, the book publisher would reach into his right trouser pocket, take out a dried pea and place it in his left trouser pocket. After reaching the top of the cathedral, Baedeker could determine the number of stairs he climbed by checking to see how many peas he had in his left pocket and multiplying them by 20.

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Word of the Week: Familienkutsche

If you have a large family, how do you transport everyone all at once? In the olden days, you would use a horse and buggy. Today, you might choose to buy a minivan for that purpose.

To take your whole family with you on a trip, you would probably need a Familienkutsche. This form of transportation usually has a large amount of horsepower. And no, we are not talking about the animals. We are talking about a vehicle with a lot of power and space – something like a camper van, SUV or minivan.

The term Familienkutsche comes from Familie (“family”) and Kutsche (“carriage”). In the olden days this may have referred to a horse-drawn carriage, but today, it refers to a large automobile filled with parents, children and all of their stuff. A Familienkutsche is great for road trips in the countryside, but it’s not something you want to try to find parking for in a city!

Word of the Week: Elefantenrennen

Few things are as annoying as being stuck behind a truck on a highway – with no way around. Germans have a unique word for one such phenomena.

The German word Elefantenrennen translates to “elephant racing”. But this strange German word has little to do with elephants.

“Elephant racing” occurs when one truck tries to overtake another truck on the highway with minimum speed difference. This results in a blockage of lanes – making it challenging (or sometimes impossible) to pass the large vehicles.

Like elephants, trucks can be massively sized, take up a lot of space and keep you stuck behind them.

An Elefantenrennen can cause slow-downs and traffic jams when there are many vehicles on the roads. In fact, Elefantenrennen is even illegal in Germany (that is: trucks overtaking trucks at “low speeds” is illegal). That doesn’t stop it from happening every once in a while.

If you’re stuck behind two racing elephants, the best thing you can do is slow down and hope the race ends quickly.

Word of the Week: Eigenbrötler

We all know someone who hates teamwork, avoids other people and willingly spends a lot of time alone. You might call someone like this antisocial or introverted. But in German, you would call this person an Eigenbrötler.

Eigenbrötler is a noun that comes from the words eigen (ones “own”) and Brot (“bread”). Basically, this describes someone who eats his or her own bread. But there’s more to it.

The German word Eigenbrötler is a very old word that first arose in the 16th and 17th centuries. Back then, the term was used to identify a person who kept to him or herself in a care- or retirement home. Instead of participating in community meals, an Eigenbrötler would pay to eat his or her “own bread” (meals) all alone. An Eigenbrötler often also paid extra to have his or her own furniture, room and other necessities. Overall, an Eigenbrötler did his own thing, separate from all the other residents in the home.

Today, Germans use this word to describe any type of person who keeps to him or herself. An Eigenbrötler is absolutely not a team player and tries to avoid participating in group activities. Usually, he or she has some peculiar habits or traits and spends more time alone than with others. We all know someone like this – right?

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Dampfplauderer

You know that friend of yours who just won’t stop talking? That person you can never get off the phone, or the person who goes on and on with pointless stories? Germans have a name for someone like this: a Dampfplauderer! A Dampfplauderer is a person who has always has something to say, but never says anything of substance. This sort of person likes to hear him or herself talk. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we’re often stuck listening to a Dampfplauderer, pretending to care while contemplating how to end the conversation. The English translation for the word Dampfplauderer is “chatterbox” – and that’s a pretty good translation. The word chatterbox, after all, is usually associated with someone that has a lot of idle chatter, but says very few meaningful things. Listening to a Dampfplauderer, you might start wondering what the point of their story is, only to realize there is no point. The term consists of the words Dampf, which means “steam”, and plauder, which means “chat”. So a literal translation could be “steam chatter” – someone whose words come out like steam – lacking real substance.

Whether it’s a friend who likes to talk or a colleague who speaks too much in meetings, I’m sure we have all got a Dampfplauderer in our lives!

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Dachlawine

East Coast residents, watch out! With every blizzard comes the danger of many Dachlawinen! If you brave the cold and head out into the snow, watch your head as you pass beneath the roofs of buildings; they could drop a Dachlawine on your head! The German word Dachlawine is unique and particularly useful when it snows. There is no English translation. The word Dach means “roof” and Lawine means “avalanche”, so this word describes a so-called “roof avalanche”. In other words – the large amounts of snow that could slide off of a roof and endanger pedestrians (like a miniature avalanche).

In some cases, a Dachlawine may be small and simply drop some ice cold snow down your neck. But in other cases, it can be quite large and even dangerous. Dachlawinen have the potential to hurt pedestrians and German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info damage cars. It all depends on how much snow has fallen, how heavy it is and how much is falling off the roof. In Germany, you may see cautionary signs warning pedestrians of possible Dachlawinen. But some home and business owners take the initiative to prevent Dachlawinen altogether, installing Schneefanggitter (“snow catching gratings” or “snow fences”) at the edge of their roofs. But watch out – a Dachlawine can always take you by surprise!

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

Word of the Week: Jeck

Carnival seems to be the best time to have a look at an interesting German word: Jeck.

The word is used almost exclusively in the Rhineland, especially in the city of Cologne and, to a slightly lesser degree, in Bonn and Düsseldorf, the strongholds of German carnival.

Jeck can be a noun (ein Jeck), as well as an adjective (you can be jeck). Originally, it refers to a person who actively participates in a carnival celebration. During Carnival, all inhabitants of Cologne are, or at least should be, somewhat jeck.

But the more important meaning of the word is used year round. In this sense, it is an adjective that reflects the tolerant Cologne way of life and the general attitude of the Rhinelanders, who like to refer to themselves as jeck.

Ein Jeck thus means a humorous person who does not take things – or himself – too seriously. The Jeck may even be slightly crazy, but in a nice way. At least in the Rhineland area, the word clearly has a positive connotation.

Famous Rhineland sayings (Jeder Jeck ist anders – “Every Jeck is different” or Jet jeck simmer all – “We’re all a little jeck”) express this concept of tolerance. Knowing – with a wink– that you are not perfect helps in recognizing that others aren’t either. They are, in fact, as jeck as you are.

Word of the Week: Frühlingsgefühle

Large parts of the countryside may still be covered in snow, but in some areas people have already had the pleasure of taking the first stroll of the year outside without a jacket. The first signs of Spring have sprung!

As the temperatures rise and the days become longer and brighter, our mood often improves. When walking down the street you see more people smiling, the salesperson might be a bit friendlier. Even the security guard seems to get into the spirit.

This seasonal happiness is what Germans call Frühlingsgefühle (literally: spring feelings). Frühlingsgefühle describe the increased amount of energy and vitality that many experience during this time of the year.

Some scientists argue that the cause is the reduced production of Melatonin, a hormone known to cause fatigue. Others say that the advantages of modern civilization’s electric lights has saved the northern hemisphere from this ancient experience.

Regardless of the explanation of this phenomenon the Germany.info team wishes all of our readers nothing but the best as we move into Spring.

Word of the Week: Krass

Have you ever had a friend tell you an amazing story and you just weren’t sure how to react? Enter the word krass, the ultimate comeback word for any situation!

Mostly used among younger Germans, krass is very informal and can mean practically anything. Originally krass had several meanings. Several literal translations are glaring, blatant and complete. However, there is no exact translation for the way krass is used today. In fact, the popularity of the word probably comes from its meaninglessness. This allows it to be used whenever comment on something you maybe shouldn’t or express something there just isn’t a word for. Krass is a word that helps you out in precarious situations.

Word of the Week: Zeitreise

The popular German expression Zeitgeist has, like Kindergarten and Gesundheit, wended its way into the English language (which some might even go so far to claim is “based on German,” which it is – at least partially). Zeitgeist is a fantastic word.

Two of its temporal cousins, however, are less known in the anglophone world – Zeitzeuge and Zeitreise. Both of these words are worth mentioning as close relatives of Zeitgeist, so it seemed only fitting to highlight them together, even if this is the “Word of the Week” column.

Zeitzeuge is composed of two nouns – Zeit (time) and Zeuge (witness). It basically means “a witness to history.” A particularly eloquent chronicler of his or her times could be hailed as an especially effective Zeitzeuge. At the same time, all of us, at the end of the day, are Zeitzeugen of the events we live through that serve to shape our collective conscience.

In a similar vein, Zeitreise brings together “time” with Reise, or journey. A Zeitreise, however, refers not just to “time travel” in the nerdy sci-fi sense, but more broadly and poetically to a journey through time as in a flashback or a panorama voyage through history.

One of Germany’s most highly regarded newspapers is the cerebral, Hamburg-based weekly “Die Zeit.” Like the US newsweekly Time magazine, it simply refers to our times as it chronicles them with in-depth news and feature stories. Even though it is beloved among many well-informed Germans, a common phrase in Germany is: “Wer hat die Zeit die Zeit zu lesen?” (Who has the time to read Time?)