Word of the Week: Katzenjammer

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Katzenjammer literally means “cat yowling or wailing” and is certainly not a pleasant sound. If you’ve ever heard a cat yowling during mating season, you may know what we mean. Many would say it sounds more like discordant music.

The word’s origin is somewhat ambiguous. However, many believe it was used during the second half of the 18th century among university students to describe the discomfort and ill feeling after a wild night of partying and excessive drinking, otherwise known as a hangover. Since the 19th century, it is also known as a general term to describe regret, disgruntlement, or misery. Some Germans even use the word to describe an uproar or bewilderment.

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The word is sometimes used in English as well. Have you ever heard someone say, “I recommend you take some aspirin for your Katzenjammer,” “I do hope your Katzenjammer has gotten a bit better since last night,” or “the speech last night caused an outright Katzenjammer.”? The word is not as popular today as it was in the mid-20th century, but you can still find it in the English dictionary.

By Regine Poirier, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Mutterschutz

Maternity Leave concept ©Colourbox

Mutterschutz is the German term for maternity protection or maternity leave.  Mutterschutz in Germany is based on the Mutterschutzgesetz (Act on the Protection of Working Mothers) which provides for paid leave four weeks before and eight weeks after the birth of a new child. If you are expecting multiples or have a premature birth, the time period extends to 12 weeks.

Pregnant woman is walking in the city or make shopping. Maternity leave. Fashion and pregnancy. Urban lifestyle. ©Colourbox

Mothers in Germany also enjoy protection from being terminated during their pregnancy and up to four months after giving birth. Furthermore, each parent is entitled to stay at home for the purpose of raising the child without pay for up to three years.

We are thrilled that one of our colleagues has been able to enter Mutterschutz recently and we can’t wait to see the new arrival in a few weeks. We wish her all the best for the coming weeks and months.

By German Embassy 

Word of the Week: Plattenbau

Plattenbau. ©colourbox

If you’ve ever visited East Germany during the Cold War, you probably saw a lot of grey, cheaply-built apartment buildings that might have made you feel depressed. This sort of building is what Germans referred to as Plattenbau – a structure made up of prefabricated concrete slabs. Basically, an inexpensive structure with little originality.

In this context, Platte means “concrete slab” and Bau means “building.” World War II had left many parts of Germany damaged and in need of reconstruction. By the 1960s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was struggling financially, and most of its new apartment buildings were therefore built in the Plattenbau style. There were several different designs, varying in size and height, but overall each one was made up of concrete panels.

Concrete slabs. ©colourbox

The Plattenbau design made it possible for the GDR to rapidly build new apartments across the country. GDR architects claimed to base their construction on the world-renowned Bauhaus style. Indeed, the Plattenbau was a functional concept, but lacked aesthetic qualities. At first, East Germans were excited about their new homes; many young people wanted to move out of their parents’ apartments to receive a Plattenbau-style apartment of their own, because at a minimum, they had central heating. But after the wall came down in 1989, things changed; East Germans saw the higher-quality homes of the West, and few remained content with their Plattenbau apartments. They sought out homes exhibiting greater originality in their design.

Over time, many of these buildings were modernized. Some were demolished. Others remain occupied, but are often a cheaper alternative to Western-style buildings. But if you visit cities in former East Germany today, you will probably see at least one Plattenbau. You’ll know it when you see it.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Bratkartoffelverhältnis

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A Bratkartoffelverhältnis,  which literally means “fried potato relationship,” is not about how much Germans love fried potatoes, but it is about finding a meal ticket, or at the very least someone who cooks for you.

“Er hat ein Bratkartoffelverhältnis mit ihr,” essentially translates, for instance, into “he only sees her because she feeds and waters him.”

At the same time, “er sucht ein Bratkartoffelverhältnis” means “he’s looking for a meal ticket.”

According to some online sources, the origin of this expression dates back to the early 20th-century, World War I era, when short-term love affairs were entered into because of the better provisions provided by one particular partner in the relationship.

These “relationships of convenience” often revolved around adequate food, shelter and other basic needs – things that are often in short supply in wartime or other crisis situations.

Today, however, this expression is more often than not used in Germany as a tongue-in-cheek, synonym for a “wilde Ehe” (wild marriage), a reference to co-habitation without tying the knot. This is a not entirely uncommon relationship status, for instance, in Germany and most Nordic countries, where a couple might live together for decades, with or without children, in what is officially recognized after a certain period of time as a common-law marriage.

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Bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes) are, incidentally, a very popular side dish in Germany, usually fried up in a pan with some onions and bits of ham or bacon. They are often served with fried eggs, sometimes with ketchup on the side, a meal that is also known as “chips’n’egg” in Great Britain. (Note to anyone who might want to try this at home: the Bratkartoffeln are usually prepared by slicing already pre-cooked, boiled potatoes into a hot, greased-up skillet – this is a way of using up leftover boiled potatoes, another staple of the traditional German diet.)

A Verhältnis, moreover, refers to a “relationship.” So if you hear someone say “er hat ein Verhältnis mit ihr” (he has a relationship with her), it usually means there is some kind of hanky panky going on.

Other nouns that share the “Brat-” prefix – besides the classic bratwurst (sausage), or brats, natürlich (of course) – include: Bratfisch (fried fisch); Brathering (fried herring); Brathühnchen/Brathendl (roast chicken); Bratfett/Bratenfett (fat for frying); Bratensoße (gravy); Bratenfleisch (meat for roasting); Bratenwender (fish slice); Bratofen/Bratröhre (oven); Bratpfanne (frying pan); and Bratrost (Grill).

Word of the Week: Sauregurkenzeit

With four or more weeks of vacation per year, many German workers are out of the office during the summer months – especially in July and August, when schools are also closed. As a result, this time period is often referred to as the Sauregurkenzeit, which translates into “pickle time.”

But what does this have to do with pickles? Well, not much!

The word originated in the late 18th century in Berlin, where pickles from the nearby Spree Forest hit store shelves at the end of the summer. Although Sauregurkenzeit has nothing to do with pickles, pickle season coincided with the time when people were typically on vacation and stores and offices were empty, which is how the term received its name. Sauregurkenzeit means something along the lines of a summertime “off-season”. Businesses often found it difficult to make money during the late summer, and those who did come into work could sometimes be found taking naps, trying to pass the time or avoiding the heat.

“We are on vacation.” ©colourbox

Newspaper reporters, in particular, complained about the Sauregurkenzeit, since there wasn’t much to write about with politicians and businessmen out of town.

To this day, people continue to experience the effects of the Sauregurkenzeit. And although this term is uniquely German, the phenomenon occurs around the world: in Washington, D.C., for example, Congress is on recess for the month of August, leaving some political offices and newspaper bureaus with less work than usual.

And Germans even have a second word to describe this time period: the Sommerloch (“summer hole”), which is most often used by the media when they are unable to fill up their programs or newspapers.

Is your workplace empty? Do you have less work than usual? You can now refer to this period as a Sauregurkenzeit!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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: 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”.

Serious face. ©colourbox

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