Word of the Week: Knuffig

The digital age has brought about an era that could be described as extremely knuffig – a saccharine yet sweet term of endearment commonly used to suggest something or someone extremely cute and cuddly and, well, just plain downright adorable, huggable and loveable.

Hello Kitty is knuffig. Knut, the Berlin Zoo’s late celebrity polar bear, was knuffig. Most toddlers are knuffig. Friends, children, lovers, grandparents, husbands, wives – all of them can be knuffig too, depending on your point of view.

Knuddelig is a similar expression which basically means the same thing as knuffig – cuddly and cozy. A more direct translation for cute would be niedlich, süß, or putzig.

Cute and cuddly, in any case, is “in”, at least if the Internet is anything to go by. A gazillion videos on You Tube, for instance, feature all manner of fluffy baby pets, pandas or humans. Some videos have become global sensations, such as the legendary “Charlie Bit My Finger” featuring two little heart-melting boys from the UK. Still other websites feature “cute things falling asleep,” “the cutest cats in America,” and so on and so forth.

While some may find all of this knuffig stuff adorable, others are less amused. Some media commentators have, for instance, insinuated that our obsession with all things cute is a psychological response to the traumas and stresses of an unstable world.

Wherever our urges to adore all things knuffig or knuddelig or niedlich come from – evolution certainly plays a role here (if babies werent’s so gosh darn cute, making us want to take care of them ’round the clock, they would be in big trouble!) – it should be embraced as one of the most compelling of all human quirks, alongside empathy, altruism and honesty (which remain, often, alas, very lonely words in a very competitive world).

After all, what would the world be like if no one ever felt the urge to find anyone or anything else knuffig?

A sad place indeed.

Word of the Week: Plaudertasche

A “Plaudertasche” is a slang expression for “chatterbox”. It is generally used as a cute term of endearment to describe a very wordy person.

While it may also of course be applied in a critical sense, it is more often than not merely a fun way to describe someone who enjoys long, in-depth conversations, preferably (for many task-oriented Germans) laced with some deep thought and analysis.

“Plaudertasche” can also be used, however, as a moniker for someone who is more than a tad gossipy.

This is yet another of the myriad existing compound nouns that is derived from two separate words – the verb “plaudern”, which essentially means to make small talk or to chit chat, and the noun “Tasche”, which means bag. (A handbag, for instance, is a “Handtasche”.)

This noun is not always used in everday language, and is most likely not listed in official dictionaries as it is more of a slang expression. But it could be whipped out to impress German speakers as a cheeky way of describing a chatty friend.

Word of the Week: Muttermal

In German, a “Muttermal” is a birth mark. A more literal translation would be “mother’s mark”, though of course hardly anyone would ever say that in English.

A more negative expression oft cited by media outside of Germany in reports comparing public sector childcare policies in various countries is “Rabenmutter”, which literally means “raven mother”. A woman might be referred to as a “Rabenmutter” if she flees the nest by going to work or otherwise leaving her children up to their own devices, even if she ensures that a grandparent, nanny or daycare center are providing adequate childcare for her offspring in her absence.

This is a real hot button issue in Germany, with people arguing for or against mothers going to work, or seeking out a mix of employment outside the household coupled with traditional maternal childcare duties.

“Muttertag” means the same thing in German as it does in English – “Mother’s Day”. In Germany and the United States, as in many other countries including Austria, Australia, Brazil, Japan and Italy, it is observed on the second Sunday in May.

And of course the word “Mutter” conjures up mostly warm and fuzzy feelings for most Germans, who adore their Moms just like everyone else all over the world.

Word of the Week: Arbeitstier

In the literal sense of the word, an “Arbeitstier” is a work animal, as in a beast of burden on a pre-mechanized farm. The horse at the center of the bestselling 1877 novel “Black Beauty” by English author Alice Sewell, for instance, was an “Arbeitstier” – one, moreover, in need of saving from brutal humans driving an innocent, elegant animal to the limits of its physical capacities.

This expression – like so many German compound nouns – is actually composed of two words: “Arbeit” (work) and “Tier” (animal).

In the modern sense of the word, however, a person who works very hard is referred to as an “Arbeitstier”, a badge of honor for many individuals in a society that prides itself on efficiency and what some Germans refer to as a strong work ethic or “Prussian sense of duty” (though one would be hard-pressed to find a Bavarian using the latter expression).

So an “Arbeitstier” is, essentially, a very hard and focused worker, but not necessarily a “workaholic”, an expression which has many negative connotations in modern western societies.

In Germany the expression “Arbeitstier” is, however, generally used in a more positive sense.

Word of the Week: Schmuddelwetter

Although Germany is the world’s biggest solar power producer, its more northerly and easterly regions, in particular, often experience lots of “Schmuddelwetter” in early spring, when “April showers bring May flowers,” as the universal saying goes.

In northern maritime cities such as Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck, Rostock or Kiel, you may hear people refer, moreover, to “Schmuddelwetter” – literally dirty, foul, or mucky weather – as “Schmuddelwedder,” with an emphasis on the double “dd’s” towards the end and a flat enunciation of the final “e” along the lines of the various “Plattdeutsch” dialects spoken across northern Germany.

This type of weather could encompass anything from a mild mist of rain, or “Nieselregen”, accompanied by genuinely refreshing, if at times bracing, oceanic air, in a major city such as Hamburg, to an all out thunderstorm.

The word “Schmuddelwetter” is – like so many German compound nouns – a mish-mash of words, with “Schmuddel” being derived from “schmuddelig” (literally dirty, in the natural or naughty sense of the word), and “Wetter” simply meaning weather.

Although this word may be less commonly used in southern Germany or Austria, where the sun shines somewhat more frequently on a regular basis, it is a kind of a classic in the northern half of Germany, where you could really dazzle your German friends by saying something like: “Mensch, ist das ein Schmuddelwett(dd)er heute!” (Man, is this some Schmuddelwetter today!)

Word of the Week: Umtrunk

Germans are thought to be disciplined and hard workers who devote themselves to their work. This dedication can only be interrupted by few a things. One allowed interruption is an Umtrunk.

What exactly is it? It’s a gathering of all employees, either from a department or entire workplace, where a special occasion is toasted. Everyone toasts and then hangs around for a bit, talking with your co-workers and eating a little bit if snacks are provided. The Umtrunk is often initiated by the head of the office for occasions as the arrival or departure of a colleague or high-ranking guest. However it can be initated by anyone with something to celebrate. Depending on the professional surrounding and workplace culture, an Umtrunk can be a regular occurrence. Sometimes they are much rarer, so the sight of chilled champagne, orange juice and glasses can cause quite a stir. However, for the most part, the Umtrunk is part of the German culture at work and way to enjoy the workplace while getting to spend some time with co-workers who you may not regularly see.

The term is also used for toasting private occasions when not at work. Often these celebrations may be a little more formal due to the traditional and old-fashioned origins of Umtrunk. The roots of the term are to be found in a Germany of less modern times, where aristocractic language was considered to be the height of style. The term originates from a combination of a verb (trinken=drink) and a preposition (um=around), which gives just about enough an explanation about the meaning.


Word of the Week: Aufheben

Sometimes language is a complicated thing… so complicated that it can take on a philosophical bent.

Take the German word aufheben. It can have multiple meaning that contradict each other. In the most frequent use of the term people can express both the wish to “abolish” as well as to “preserve” something. It all depends on the context.

The famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel used this antipode to explain the motor of dialectic functions. “Sublation,” he argues, shows the movement of Geist (spirit) or mind and can therefore both preserve and abolish at the same time.

For example: during adolescence we struggle with problems that will soon be forgotten. Those problems did not simply vanish, but instead helped to form us into the adults we are today. The same is true for every part of human life and evolution. In history, politics, art and philosophy: we do not simply forget and move on, but instead always keep a part of what we experienced with us.

Aufheben is the exemplary verb of the German language used to express this philosophical complexity. Still it is pretty safe to say that this dualism is lost not only on non-native German speakers, but also on a majority of Germans who use it in everyday life.

It is amazing to see what one word can do, isn’t it?

Word of the Week: Duzfreund

There are still some formalities implemented in European and German linguistic culture. One of the most known formalities, which sometimes surprises many Americans, is the very important distinction between a more distant and more private way to address people. It is known as honorific which expresses esteem and respect by using the third person of personal pronoun in addressing people. Especially in a professional and demographically more diverse context, it is adequate to approach people in a more formal way which is known in German as “Siezen.” It is considered to be very friendly, more distant and respectful form of addressing people up from the age of 18. Once a relationship becomes more personal it is most of the time the older part’s privilege to offer a switch in addressing each other by replacing the formal ‘Sie’ with a more personal pronoun as ‘du.’ Once it is agreed on interacting verbally in a more personal way (‘duzen’), the counterpart becomes a ‘Duzfreund’ which demonstrates especially in a more professional surrounding a special level of proximity and trust. In a private setting the formal way of verbal interaction is actually not applied anymore although it was quite common up to the 1950’s that children addressed their present in the ‘Sie’ form, which appears totally out-fashioned from a present perspective. The English language covers honorifics as well but more by using prefixes instead of playing with the personal pronoun. The form of Mr./Mrs./Ms. actually serve the very same purpose. Asian languages are even more sophisticated in distinction of honorifics due to the fact that most of these cultures are more status-oriented in a high contextual environment.

Word of the Week: Gemütlichkeit

“Look for the bare necessities

The simple bare necessities

Forget about your worries and your strife

I mean the bare necessities

Old Mother Nature’s recipes

That brings the bare necessities of life.”  – © Disney

Many people are familiar with this song from the famous 1967 Walt Disney movie “The Jungle Book”.

“Bare Necessities” was translated into German as “Probier’s mal mit Gemütlichkeit,” which roughly means “Just try it with coziness”. However, the accuracy of this translation is debatable. “Bare necessities” translates to Lebensnotwendigeiten in German and does not exactly have the same connotation with respect to the imperatives in life. But it shows how varied and vague the definition of the term Gemütlichkeit actually is.

Gemütlichkeit or “coziness” is an abstract noun used to describe a feeling, so individual perception plays a significant role in determining the definition. If asked for an illustrated depiction of Gemütlichkeit most Germans would probably picture something like a well-heated, nicely furnished room with a fireplace on a cold and rainy day and a good book. But it means more than just a description of a place. It also connotates a strong notion of social belonging, a sense of well-being or simply the lack of hecticness and uneasiness.

One could say that the term is also multi-layered, in the sense that it can be applied on a public as well as on a private scale. Very open and crowded places, for example an evening spent at the Christmas Market, can be just as gemütlich or cozy as the silent comfort of one’s own living room.

For the lack of a better English word, Gemütlichkeit has found its way into the English language. Queen Victoria is said to have been the first English native to use the term in the form of the adjective gemütlich. If her idea correlated more closely with Balu the Bear’s or with the association of an eased Sunday at home remains unknown, but we know that Gemütlichkeit can actually be found anywhere. And that is a very “cozy” thing to keep in mind.

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.