Word of the Week: Tohuwabohu

Common descriptions and stereotypes depict Germans as disciplined, tidy, dutiful and organized people who in one way or another seem to have a deep inner  desire for order. If this description is right, how come there is this exotic sounding word Tohuwabohu in German?

An online dictionary even lists 66 synonyms for it, which clearly reflects its societal importance – especially as the main meanings are first Durcheinander (confusion) and secondly Unordnung (disorder/chaos). It almost appears that this single word points out a whole new dimension of “German-ness”.

In its historical context, Tohuwabohu stems from the Hebrew original of the bible and can be found in the Old Testament in the First Book of Moses. It is used to describe the state of the earth before God started creating it. Accordingly, Tohuwabohu is composed of three words: “tohu” (desert, desolate place), “wa” (and) as well as “vohu” (emptiness).

The great thing about the modern sense of the word is that the sound of the word matches its actual meaning (=chaos). Looking for associations in order to figure out the sense of the word will be a hopeless and desperate quest. Likewise, Tohuwabohu is unique because in contrast to its 66 synonyms, it feels way more friendly and congenial, almost ironic and amusing. Therefore, it is more an informal than formal expression.

Interestingly, Tohuwabohu is relatively often used in a political context, when members of the parliamentary opposition intend to attack the governing coalition by depicting it as chaotic.

Thus, Tohuwabohu is without a doubt relevant for German society. It might be at odds with common stereotypes about it, but mainly is what a messy kids’ room or your apartment look like after a house party.

Word of the Week: Aufbrezeln

When someone is heavily made up, sporting a dramatic hairstyle, and/or wearing flashy clothes, they could be described as “aufgebrezelt,” which has nothing to do with looking like a pretzel.

Essentially, “aufbrezeln” (OW f bray t sell n) means “done up” or “dolled up.” This expression is more often than not used to describe women who’ve taken a lot of time getting ready to go out on a Saturday night.

But it could also be used to describe fancifully dressed and heavily made up stage actors, dancers or drag queens – basically anyone who has spent a lot of time getting ready to look absolutely fabulous, albeit perhaps a tad “over the top,” depending on your point of view regarding style and good taste.

Although the German word for pretzel is “Brezel,” obviously “aufbrezeln” really is only indirectly associated with this soft or crunchy universally beloved snack.

At the same time, “aufbrezeln” is derived from this tasty noun, as it basically means “to get all pretzeled up.” (The German verb for on, as well as – in certain contexts – up, is “auf” – as in “aufsteigen,” or “to climb up,” etc.)

Perhaps the twists and turns made in the pretzel’s dough before it is baked inspired this expression.

Either way, it is a fun, tongue-in-cheek word often used in a lighthearted, jocular fashion, sometimes by exasperated male partners of the women in question spending a lot of time getting “aufgebrezelt.”

Word of the Week: Heimat

Heimat is a loaded word in the German language. Translating it simply as “home” does not fully do it justice. The powerful emotional ties it evokes in many German citizens when speaking about their hometowns or home regions would best be described as “a sense of belonging”.

Heimat also, alas, has some cheesy connotations in the German language. Some films popular in the first half of the 20th century known as Heimatfilme are viewed as cinematic versions of pulp fiction by serious film critics. These flicks sought to hark back to kinder, simpler times allegedly free of political, economic or social strife. Featuring bold boys and buxom milkmaids usually found frolicking in bucolic, pastoral settings, they were produced – not unlike today’s more fantastical summer blockbuster movies – to help people forget about the ravages of war, uncertain economic times and other disasters. (An exception to the saccharine variety of Heimat films is the critically acclaimed, award-winning German TV miniseries called Heimat, which is well worth watching.)

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?