In Germany, you might recognize a cop car by the large green or blue stripe that stretches around the vehicle. It might seem like a police car is called a Streifenwagen (“stripe-car”) because of this, but it’s a misleading term. Cars were called Streifenwagen even back when they had only a single color and no stripe. The German word Streife, in this context, means “patrol”. But in Hamburg, police cars go by a different name: Peterwagen, which means “Peter-car”.
But who is Peter?
After World War II, the city of Hamburg was under control of the British Forces Germany. In 1946, the British administration decided that Hamburg would be equipped with new radio patrol cars. These cars contained radios that allowed police officers to communicate with one another – a new type of technology for the police force. These cars were therefore called Radiowagen (“radio cars”).
As the story goes, the German word Peterwagen arose from an encounter between a German government worker and a British officer in 1946. The officer did not understand the word Radiowagen, so the German explained, “Radiowagen – it’s like a patrol car!” Due to the government worker’s German accent, the British officer did not understand him correctly, and asked him to spell out “patrol car.” The German man explained that it starts with “P – like Peter”, and the British officer wrote Peterwagen in his documents. Ever since, Hamburg residents have used the word Peterwagen to describe a Radiowagen.
Although many Germans might know what a Peterwagen is, this term is used primarily in Hamburg. In other places, a police car is usually referred to as a Funkstreifenwagen or Streifenwagen.
Do you crave ice cream, chocolate, cookies and anything with sugar? Do you have an overpowering sweet tooth that leaves you fantasizing about dessert? If so, Germans would call you a Naschkatze!
Directly translated, the word Naschkatze means “gnash cat” or “nibble cat” and it describes someone who just can’t get enough sweets, whether it’s candy or baked goods. Naschen describes the act of always nibbling on something; in this context – sweets. If you’re a Naschkatze, chances are that you eat candy throughout the day and always have dessert after dinner. The word choice is ironic, since cats do not consume sugar, and would much prefer a roasted chicken. But a “gnash cat”, however, will always reach for the sweets.
The word Naschkatze is often used to refer to kids, since they are often on the hunt for something sweet. And if you know a Naschkatze, bribery is easy: just bring chocolate into the picture.
In German, there’s a special word for a really bad idea: Schnapsidee. Directly translated, this word means “booze idea” – and it describes a plan of action that’s so bad that you must have been drunk when you dreamed it up!
The German word Schnaps is a term for clear spirits, but it is often used to refer to alcohol in general. When someone is under the influence of alcohol, they are more likely to come up with crazy ideas that Germans call Schnapsideen. Getting a ridiculous tattoo might be considered a Schnapsidee – especially if you do it impulsively after a few drinks.
But you don’t have to be drunk to have a Schnapsidee. Germans use the term to refer to any outrageous or unrealistic ideas, regardless of your sobriety status. Buying a horse for your backyard is probably a Schnapsidee (unless you live on a farm). For most, base jumping would also be a Schnapsidee – as would be rappelling off the side of a cliff. The term, however, is relative: for some, anything out of the ordinary would be a Schnapsidee, while for the more adventurous, only few things would be an outrageous “booze idea”.
What’s your idea of a Schnapsidee? Having children? Skydiving? Moving to Africa? Let us know in the comments!
Do you have travel plans? Are you giddy and anxious just thinking about your upcoming trip? Then you may have fallen ill with Reisefieber!
Literally translated, Reisefieber means “travel fever” – but it’s not the type of sickness that keeps you in bed. Reisefieber describes the feelings of excitement, combined with anxiety and nervousness, that you have in anticipation of a trip. You may have spent weeks daydreaming about your trip to the Caribbean. But the night before, anxiety creeps in as you try to fit everything you need into a small suitcase. You’re worried you might have forgotten something. Your palms are sweaty, you develop a mild headache and your stomach is rumbling. Perhaps you’re engaged in a frantic search for your passport or you’re worried that you won’t wake up in time for your early-morning flight.
It might be difficult to keep calm or fall asleep the night before. You’re struck with Reisefieber, and there’s nothing that can cure it – except, perhaps, taking long deep breaths and calming yourself down. But once you’re lying on the beach a few hours later, your “travel fever” will subside, leaving nothing but bliss in its place.
If you are traveling this summer, beware: Reisefieber could show up without much notice and disrupt a good night’s sleep. But no need to worry: your “travel nerves” will go away soon enough.
Does your imagination run wild? Do you think up detailed stories in your head? Maybe you’ve got a Kopfkino entertaining you all day long!
The German word Kopf means “head” and Kino means “movie theater”. Kopfkino therefore describes a cinema in your head. But unlike scheduled movies at your local theater, a Kopfkino can start playing anytime, whether you’re at the office, in the classroom or in the middle of a dull conversation.
Sometimes having your own built-in movie theater can be useful. If you’re on a long train ride, for example, having a wild imagination helps pass the time. But if you’re having trouble concentration on an important task, then your Kopfkino may do more harm than good – even if your daydreams are pleasant!
Perhaps you have a one-hour deadline to finish a task at the office. All of a sudden, your Kopfkino starts playing and you suddenly find yourself laying at the beach, a warm breeze blowing through your hair as the man or woman of your dreams approaches you. Palm trees sway above your head and the worries of daily life disappear – until the movie starts playing and you realize you’re still at your desk!
But not every Kopfkino is pleasant. If you’re highly anxious or worried, you might have worst-case scenarios play out in your head. If you have an active Kopfkino, let’s hope it prefers romantic comedies over horror films! And make sure you know where the pause button is.
Let’s say you’re lost in Berlin and searching for the nearest metro station. You ask a German where to go, and he tells you the station is just a Katzensprung away. What does that mean? It means you are close!
The word Katze means “cat” and Sprung means “jump” or “leap”. A Katzensprung therefore means “a cat’s leap”. Germans use it the same way an American would use the phrase “a stone’s throw” to indicate how close a place is.
But it is, of course, an exaggeration. Without running, the average house cat can jump to a height of about five feet or more. But something that is a Katzensprung away is probably further than a few feet. That nearby metro station, for example, could be on the next block over, which might be a good one-minute walk.
If you live in the heart of a city, you might be a Katzensprung away from a convenience store or a bus stop. It’s usually a good thing when the places you need to go are a “cat’s leap” away from you.
Germans have been using the word Katzensprung since the 16th century. And although the phrase “stone’s throw” also exists in German (Steinwurf), using the word Katzensprung will spice up your vocabulary!
Have you ever been to a movie theater and found yourself seated behind the tallest person in the room? This person’s head was probably blocking your view, leaving you frustrated throughout the film. In German, there’s a special word for this kind of person: Sitzriese (“seated giant”)!
The word Sitzriese comes from sitzen (“to sit) and Riese (“giant”). It defines a person who looks deceptively tall while sitting down. A Sitzriese typically has a long waist and short legs, making them appear tall while seated and short while standing up.
On the contrary, the German word Sitzzwerg (“seated dwarf”) refers to the opposite – someone who appears short while sitting, but tall while standing up.
We’re all different shapes and sizes, and you can be sure that the Germans have a nickname for everyone! But if you’re at a concert, movie theater or a performance, you better hope that you end up behind the Sitzzwerg, since the Sitzriese will block your view!
If someone calls themselves a Strohwitwe, they’re probably feeling lonely. A “straw widow” is someone who has been temporarily left alone by her partner.
The word Stroh means “straw” and Witwe means “widow”, but fortunately this type of widowhood does not last forever – so don’t offer your condolences just yet! A Strohwitwe has been left to sleep alone in her shared bed for an undefined period of time. Back in the Middle Ages, Germans still slept on beds made of straw, which is where the analogy most likely comes from.
Throughout German literary history, “straw” has often been used as a reference to a bed. A Strohbraut (“straw bride”), for example, was the term for a bride whose groom was not her first bed-partner. And in Goethe’s Faust, there is a passage that reads, Er geht stracks in die Welt hinein / Und lässt mich auf dem Stroh allein (“he goes straight into the world, and leaves me alone on the straw”).
There could be many reasons that someone calls herself a Strohwitwe: her partner might be traveling for several weeks or too busy to come home one night. And there is also a male equivalent: Strohwitwer – a man whose partner or wife has left him alone. In American English, the closest equivalent would be “grass widow” or “grass widower”.
But if you’re a Strohwitwe or Strohwitwer in this day and age, look on the bright side: you may be sleeping alone, but at least you’re not sleeping on a bed of straw!
The German word Butterfahrt might sound strange at first. Literally translated, it means “butter ride” and might evoke images of smooth sailing. This word, however, defines a quick trip into duty-free waters to buy cheap goods – including, of course, butter.
A Butterfahrt takes place on a so-called Butterschiff (“butter ship”), which is basically just a regular ship that takes its passengers out beyond the German customs zone. Once outside of Germany, passengers are able to purchase certain goods and products for a lower price than they would be able to at home. The term Butterfahrt received its name because Germans frequently traveled to Denmark to purchase butter for a lower price. Other common items on a Butterfahrt include tobacco, alcohol and perfume.
The cost of a Butterfahrt is usually low or free, which has sometimes encouraged people to take advantage of the overseas trips, even if they didn’t plan to buy any products. It could certainly be used as a means to travel to a neighboring country for a very low price. Some “butter rides” have also included leisure activities in their program. In some cases, the trips even took place on buses, rather than boats.
The duty-free shopping trips generally took place from the years 1953 to 1999. Laws of the European Union have restricted such trips, but there have been a few exceptions: between 2002 and 2004, Butterfahrt trips took place between Germany and the Czech Republic, which didn’t join the EU until May 2004.
Today, Germans more commonly go on a Kaffeefahrt (“coffee ride”), which is based on the same concept. Passengers board a ship, where they are provided free coffee and cake (or lunch), while vendors sell their items on board. The so-called “coffee rides” tend to attract retirees who enjoy the complimentary food and drinks during the trip.
If you’ve walked around Germany’s residential neighborhoods, you’ve probably seen them peeking at you from behind the bushes: garden gnomes. The German word for these creatures of the garden is Gartenzwerg, and you’ll find over 25 million of them in Germany.
The word Garten means “garden” and Zwerg means “dwarf.” In English, you’d refer to these “garden dwarfs” as “garden gnomes.” Although you might find them all over the world these days, Gartenzwerge originated in Germany and are still a common sight there. And if you see a garden gnome in your neighborhood in the US, there’s a good chance that the family living there is German!
A Gartenzwerg is a small human-like figurine usually wearing a pointy red hat and colorful clothing. These figurines are commonly found in gardens, flower beds and front porches. Although human-like figurines were placed in gardens all throughout Europe during the Renaissance, the garden gnomes we recognize today originated in 19th century Germany.
According to mythology, “garden dwarfs” were creatures who lived underground and had magical powers. If they encountered daylight, then they would be turned to stone by the sun – which explains the figurines in the gardens. Mythology also claims that the gnome statues come back to life at night, providing their help in the garden and making sure the plants grow.
The legend of the Gartenzwerg quickly became popular in Germany, which led Sculptor Phillip Griebel to mass-produce garden gnome statues in Thuringia in the mid-1800s. Today, Gartenzwerge are not only popular in Germany, but across the world; following the legend of the gnomes, gardening enthusiasts often place the dwarf-like creatures on their plots.
But even if you don’t believe in the legend of the gnome, they still make a cute addition to any front yard. And who knows – maybe your lawn will end up greener!