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GermanyinUSA is the home of the monthly newsletter “Germany for Americans”, produced by the German Embassy in Washington, DC. For the embassy’s official website, visit Germany.info.

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Word of the Week: Affentheater

Germany is a well organized and calm country where everybody is always obedient and dead serious, right? To tell you the truth, that’s just one side of the story. Sometimes, living in Germany can be quite different – at least when you consider the word Affentheater and its societal relevance.

Literally translated Affentheater means “ape theater” (or monkey theater) but a “complete farce” probably describes its meaning most accurately. It is an informal and derogatory expression that you use to characterize human behavior as exaggerated, ridiculous and annoying. It is also often used along with a verb (e.g. “ein Affentheater veranstalten” – literally “to stage an ape theatre”).

Interestingly and despite the not very exotic wildlife in Germany, the emergence of the word Affentheater is linked to a specific historical context. Ape theaters were quite popular in Europe, especially in the second half of the 19th century. They were used for entertainment purposes on fairs, in inns or in theaters. Disguised apes performed acrobatic shows and impersonated human behavior in little sketches. As you can imagine, nowadays this is not really a common event anymore – the German entertainment industry has certainly moved on to other ventures. Whether these projects are more sophisticated and less trivial than the ape theaters is, however, a tough question. Just think of some talk shows which from time to time end up in an Affentheater when the invited guests start to attack each other in a very “civilized” way.

Hence, people sometimes seem to behave like these disguised apes and that is why Affentheater is still such a prominent word in German. Often, an Affentheater is also characterized by lots of noise and chaos. Thus, some teachers might associate an Affentheater with what their school trips look like.

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