Word of the Week: Sonnenwendfeier

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Many Germans – like the Scandinavians – celebrate the Sonnendwendfeier, an annual midsummer festival marking the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (on June 20 this year).

The marking of the summer solstice dates back to pre-Christian, pagan times across northern Europe. Stonehenge, for instance, was erected in England to mark the Sonnenwende (“solstice”), which occurs twice per year – the Wintersonnenwende (“winter solstice”) on December 21 or 22, and the Sommersonnenwende (“summer solstice”), marked from June 20 to 23 (or a later date, depending on the country in question).

A traditional Sonnenwendfeier involves the lighting of a big, blazing bonfire. Villagers, for instance, might gather around such a fire on a field in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony or Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. They will hang out together at the fire, which might become the center of a local Volksfest with sausages, beer and other items for sale. (In the same vein, many Germans set up Osterfeuer (Easter fires) in their own backyards, which they observe with friends, family and neighbors.)

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Colin Lloyd

In the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, many cityfolk will drive out into the surrounding countryside and light such summer solstice fires, around which they will launch lively outdoor celebrations that last late into the night. (Legend has it that many children are also conceived on this particular night!)

Do you partake in a Sonnenwendfeier?

Word of the Week: Sommerloch

Although it may at first sound like a reference to a refreshing riverside swimming hole, a Sommerloch (“summer hole”) actually refers to something entirely different – the dearth of “real news” smack dab in the middle of summertime.

The Sommerloch occurs during the Sommermonate (summer months). During these long, languid days punctuated by many vacations in Germany (and beyond – most Germans are avid globe-trekking travelers!), people don their Sommersachen (“summer stuff / summer clothes”) and might even acquire a few Sommersprossen (“freckles”). They may also retro-fit their German-engineered driving machines with Sommerreifen (“summer tires”).

The German media, meanwhile, just might start concocting some far-fetched April Fools’ type tales to confuse and bemuse – their audiences. Past Sommerloch stories in Germany have, among others, included reports of an escaped seal swimming up the Elbe River near the eastern German city of Dresden, as well as alleged “sightings” of a crocodile that decided to call a lake in the southern German state of Bavaria home.

“For most of last week, there had only been one topic of discussion in Schwandorf, Germany: ‘Klausi’ the crocodile, the first big story of the country’s annual silly season of slow summer news,” Spiegel Online International reported a few years ago in a story aptly entitled “What a Croc – Dangerous Reptile Might be a Beaver.”

Welcome to the “Far Side” of the annual German news cycle.

So who ever said Germans have no sense of humor? Clearly some German media folk, at least, like to indulge in the lighter side of life during the Sommerloch, which sometimes leaves them scrambling to find any “hard news” to report on. If they fail to deliver any such Sommerloch stories, their audiences would moreover take note, for they have come to expect them.

Word of the Week: Katzengold

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Ever gone panning for gold? Probably not, but if you have, be careful not too get too excited when you find Katzengold!

Literally translated, Katzengold means “cat’s gold”, but it has nothing to do with your furry housemate. The best English translation is “fool’s gold.” The word Katzengold usually refers to pyrite – a very common mineral that is often mistaken for gold. During the California Gold Rush, many people had their dreams crushed when they realized that the mineral they had found was actually Katzengold, not real gold! Although it can still be used for jewelry, it is far less valuable! Real gold can be worth $1,700 per ounce, while the same amount in Katzengold or Fool’s Gold – might just get you $1. Sometimes, however, Katzengold might contain traces of real gold – but extracting it is difficult.

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But why would Germans call the mineral pyrite Katzengold? It seems that this was simply the evolution of a very old German word. Initially, the Old High German word Kazzüngold was used to describe the substance. This meant “gold-yellow cherry resin” and had nothing to do with cats.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Hüftgold

Many of us may be  carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, and in German there’s a nice word it: Hüftgold!

Directly translated, Hüftgold means “hip gold”, and it refers to the extra weight around your hips. One English translation would be “love handles”, although Hüftgold refers more to the hips than to a person’s love handles. Both the English and German words, however, refer to the weight in a friendly manner: after all, who wouldn’t want hips as valuable (or beautiful) as gold?

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However, most people who possess Hüftgold don’t want it, and they choose to exercise or eat healthier to cut down on that Hüftgold.

But there’s also another definition for the term: Hüftgold may also refer to the calorie-rich foods that cause you to gain weight. In this context, Hüftgold could refer to that gallon of chocolate chip ice cream in your fridge or the french fries you ate last night. Either way, the Hüftgold that you consume will transform into the Hüftgold that you carry.

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By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Bierernst

If you’re trying to express how serious you are about something, what word would you use? In German, you would say you are bierernst (“beer serious”). No joke! Or is it?

The word bierernst (which is an adjective) does not sound like one that you would use to express your seriousness. But it is – seriously! Someone who is bierernst about something is someone who is not kidding around. Germans are clearly serious about their beer – so serious, in fact, that the word “serious” is overly emphasized when combined with the word “beer”.

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Let’s look at an example: your friend tells you she is moving to Fiji. At first, you think she’s joking – why would she take off and fly thousands of miles away? She looks at you sternly and tells you that she is bierernst. At this point, you know she’s telling the truth.

The term can be traced back to the early 1900s. At the time, it was assumed that wine makes people act happy and relaxed, whereas beer changes someone’s mood and makes them more serious. But whether or not this is the case, you can still use the word bierernst to express your sincerity!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy 

Word of the Week: Stein im Brett

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Let’s pretend your coworker surprised you with your favorite Starbucks drink during work. How do you feel about her? Most likely, he or she is now on your good side. Germans might even say you now have a Stein im Brett with him/her (literally translated: a “stone in the board”).

In German, if someone has a Stein im Brett with you, it means that person now has your sympathy. In other words, that person did something to win you over. But to understand where this phrase came from, we will have to take a close look at the origins of this strange German saying.

The phrase has its roots in the 16th century, when a board game called Tric-Trac was popular (in English, this game was often called “tables”, and later evolved into Backgammon). Tric-Trac, as the Germans and French call it, is one of the oldest games in the world, and first appeared in Europe during the 9th century. In the board game, players strategically block their opponents from advancing by creating a blockage with two stones (or, more recently, with cubes). During the Middle Ages, German Tric-Trac players began calling this situation a “stone in the board.”

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Over time, this phrase made its way into the German language in different contexts. If, for example, someone was traveling by a horse-drawn carriage and left the carriage on its own for a while, then a friend who guards the carriage had a Stein im Brett with the traveler. Literally, the friend served as a type of blockage to ill-intentioned people who might otherwise try to steal the carriage. Like the stones in the board game, the friend blocked opponents from making a move.

But the phrase continued to evolve, and is now used to describe any situation in which someone gains someone else’s favor. So by giving someone preferential treatment, helping them with a project or paying them a compliment, it could very well be that you will have a Stein im Brett with them.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Eiertanz

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Have you ever wondered what to do with any leftover colored Easter eggs you don’t plan on keeping for next year or are unable to eat anytime soon? How about conducting an “Eiertanz” (egg dance) with them, an expression that once was taken literally but today has an altogether different meaning.

“Eiertanz” is mostly used as a figure of speech to indicate how an individual might “beat around the bush” by avoiding the heart of a matter. In this vein, Germans might use the expression “einen Eiertanz aufführen/vorführen” (performing an egg dance) to connote careful or complex behavior and/or conversation used as a stalling and/or avoidance tactic.

Originally, however, this expression was actually used to describe a type of dance that was literally performed around eggs strewn about the dance floor. Among the first known German literary references to an “Eiertanz” was a citation dating back to 1795 in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (Wilhelm Meisters Apprentice Years), in which the character Mignon dances blindfolded between eggs laid out on a floor.

Similar expressions include “Herumeiern” and “Herumgeeiere,” which essentially boils down to “waffling around” or engaging in stalling tactics in difficult situations or social scenarios.

The expression “German Eiertanz” moreover wended its way into the English language according to news agency Bloomberg in 2011 to describe Germany’s alleged reluctance in dealing with the euro crisis.

A common “Spielart” (gaming tactic) of the “Eiertanz” is the “Salamitaktik” (salami strategy), which can in particular be observed in politics.

The English expression “walking on eggshells,” however, is not entirely synonymous with “Eiertanz.” This figure of speech applies more to avoiding conflict or confrontation with a disgruntled partner or adversary, particularly in the personal versus the political realm and is used more to critique the person being avoided due to their generally moody behavior.

Word of the Week: Tortenheber

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What do you use to lift up a piece of pie and place it on a plate? A Tortenheber, of course!

It seems that Germans have a word for everything, even simple objects that do not have a name in English. One such object is the so-called Tortenheber, which translates directly to “pie lifter” or, more indirectly – “cake shovel”. If you don’t know what that is, do not worry – you’ve probably seen one, but can’t think of its name!

A Tortenheber is a tool with a handle and a triangle-shaped surface that is used to pick up a slice of cake or pie and move it onto a plate. This makes it easy to serve cake to a large group of guests – especially when the cake is dry and falling apart. It also prevents servers from having to use their fingers or other tools to serve slices of cake.

Search for a pie spatula, pie lifter, cake server,  cake shovel or any other variation online and you will find photos of a Tortenheber. Luckily, Germans are less likely to get confused when asking for one at the store, since they have a word that clearly defines this highly specific kitchenware.

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By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Verdauungsspaziergang

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What do you do when you ate too much? You go on a Verdauungsspaziergang, of course!

A Verdauungsspaziergang is a walk that you take to get you moving and help you digest your food more quickly.

This colloquial term comes from the words Verdauung (“digestion”) and Spaziergang (“a walk”). A direct translation would be a “digestion walk”. After stuffing yourself, it may be wiser to go for a Verdauungsspaziergang instead of lying down, which would ultimately make it more difficult to get moving again. By getting some fresh air and moving your body, you are speeding up the digestion process.

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In German, there’s a saying that emphasizes this belief: Nach dem Essen sollst du ruh’n oder tausend Schritte tun (“After eating you should rest or take a thousand steps.”) This phrase originated in Ancient Rome, which suggests that people have believed in the benefit of a “digestion walk” for centuries.

So next time you eat too much, avoid the temptation of lying down – and go for a walk instead!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Geborgenheit

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The German word Geborgenheit is difficult to translate, but it encompasses a range of feelings that make it a powerful word. A translation dictionary might describe Geborgenheit as “feelings of security”, but that does not do the word justice. Geborgenheit is the sum of warmth, protection, security, trust, love, peace, closeness and comfort. Imagine all of those feelings described in one word – that’s Geborgenheit!

Perhaps the best way to understand Geborgenheit is through examples. Someone might describe Geborgenheit as the feeling he gets when he visits his grandmother and she brings out his favorite dish from childhood. Another person might describe Geborgenheit as the feelings he or she gets when returning to their old bedroom in their parents’ house. It could be the feeling you get at a fireplace beside your lover, or the feeling you get when you are under your blanket on a cold night. Basically, Geborgenheit can be the result of any situation where you feel secure, content and protected.

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Most languages (including English, French and Russian) do not have a word for this expression. However, adequate translations of Geborgenheit do exist in Dutch and Afrikaans. And Germans are particularly fond of this term: in 2004, the Deutscher Sprachrat (German Language Council) and the Goethe Institute selected Geborgenheit as the second most beautiful word in the German language. A beautiful word for a beautiful feeling!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy