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: 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

Word of the Week: Honigkuchenpferd

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If you’ve got a big dorky grin across your face, a German might tell you that you’re grinning like a Honigkuchenpferd – a “honey-cake-horse.” Basically, a horse-shaped honey cake. But why the strange comparison?

Well, even Germans aren’t quite sure where the expression came from, but they use it frequently. A close English equivalent would be “to grin like a Cheshire cat”, since the striped purple cat from Alice in Wonderland is known for its excessively large smile.

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A Honigkuchenpferd, on the other hand, is a Lebkuchen (gingerbread) horse that usually has a big grin painted onto its face with icing (these are often found on fairgrounds and marketplaces). But rather than describe the pastry, Germans more often use the term to describe a person with a grin so big that it lights up the room.

A teenager who just had his or her first date might be grinning like a Honigkuchenpferd – or someone who just got a promotion at work. Whatever the reason, their smile is unusually large – almost as large as the smile on a horse-shaped honey cake.

There are multiple other ways to make the comparison as well: someone can laugh like a horse-shaped honey cake (lachen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd) or radiate like a horse-shaped honey cake (strahlen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd) – you get the picture.

So next time you see your German-speaking friend, colleague or family member smiling from ear to ear, you may want to tease them about it and call them a Honigkuchenpferd!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Sehnsucht

The German language is filled with words that do not exist in English. One such word is Sehnsucht, which is difficult to translate accurately. Sehnsucht is a deep emotional state; it describes an intense longing, craving, yearning or “intensely missing” something or someone. English translations do not do this term justice; it is a much more emotionally charged word in German.

Someone can possess Sehnsucht for a faraway place – a deep yearning to be somewhere else, one that consumes your thoughts. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for another person; two lovers separated by distance may possess this sort of craving for each other. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for a different life – one that occupies their dreams while their reality is mediocre.

The term comes from the words das Sehnen (“yearning”) and das Siechtum (“a lingering illness”). The yearning described by Sehnsucht is, in some regards, like an illness, because it is all-consuming and will not go away easily. What do you have Sehnsucht for? Your star-crossed lover? A life in Hawaii? Your childhood? Or the future of your dreams?

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Winterdienst

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If you live in a cold place, there’s a good chance you might get some snow this winter! And if you do, you might stay at home until the Winterdienst clears the roads!

Literally translated, the word Winterdienst means “winter service.” It’s a broad term that can be used to describe any person or service employed to clear the mess created by winter weather conditions, whether it’s snow, ice or freezing rain! The Winterdienst could refer to a snow-plowing service, winter road maintenance, snow and ice control, snow plowing or sanding. If you see people salting the roads, it’s the Winterdienst. If you see someone driving a snowplow, it’s also the Winterdienst!

In English, we don’t have a single word that describes all of these services. It’s a practical – and commonly used – word that you will hear in Germany when the snow begins to pile up. Where is the Winterdienst? Hopefully the Winterdienst will be working overnight to make it safe for you to drive the next morning!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Lebkuchen

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You’ve probably had it – or know what it is; Lebkuchen is a German delicacy commonly found at German-style Christmas markets, as well as other festivals and events. But do you know the origins of the word Lebkuchen? They can be traced back hundreds of years!

As you may know, Lebkuchen is a German treat that is similar to gingerbread. At Christmas markets, it often takes on a heart-shaped form and is topped with icing that spells out messages of joy. The treats can vary in shape and flavor; some are round, some are spicy and others are sweet.

The origins of the holiday delicacy can be traced to ancient times; the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans believed that honey had magical healing powers, so they created a “honey cake” similar to what we now know as Lebkuchen. Some people wore these honey cakes around their neck as a sort of protection against evil. Honey cake has even been found in the tombs of pharaohs who died 4,000 years ago!

But the German-style Lebkuchen we know today first arose in the 13th century. German monks in Ulm and Nuremberg had heard about the healing powers of the magical honey cakes, so they brought the delicacies into the monasteries. Although the origins of the word Lebkuchen itself remain unclear, it is suspected that it comes from the Latin word libum (Fladen, or “flat bread”) or the German word Laib (loaf).

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And while some Germans refer to it as Lebkuchen, others call the delicacy Pfefferkuchen (“pepper cake”), since many types of spices can be added to the cake (and all spices used to be referred to as types of Pfeffer).

In some regions of Germany, it has also been referred to as Lebenskuchen (“cake for life”), Magenbrot (“bread for the stomach”), Labekuchen or Leckkuchen. In most cases, the words either describe the supposed healing properties of the delicacy or use a more general description of its ingredients or appearance.

But one thing is clear: Lebkuchen has become an important part of German culture. Whether you’re at Oktoberfest or a Christmas market (during normal, non-pandemic times), you’re bound to find rows of Lebkuchen hearts and stars lining the booths of vendors. So when you bring your friends and family a souvenir from Germany, don’t tell them it’s gingerbread; refer to it as Lebkuchen!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Tatendrang

Have you ever leapt out of bed on a particular morning flooded with the uncontrollable urge to get something done, such as hit the gym, clean up your home, or finally start writing that novel you’ve already mapped out in your mind? Then you were gripped by a sense of “Tatendrang.”

Germans are often defined in international organizations, when experts suggest how to work with folks from all over the world, as “task oriented people.” Such generic cultural cliches may not, of course, apply in each and every individual case. (Some German teenagers, for instance, may exhibit the same lack of “Tatendrang” when their parents suggest they clean up their rooms as many of their similarly cheeky and rebellious counterparts all over the world.)

So “Tatendrang” – which literally means “action urge” – describes that feeling you have when you just can’t wait to start getting stuff done. Another in a long and proud line of awesome German compound nouns, it is based on the words “Tat” (action, deed, task) and “Drang” (urge). (This is not to be confused, however, with “Tatort” (Scene of the Crime), which just happens to be the most popular and longest-running detective series on German television.)

Clearly the opposite early morning urge (rising early is another classic German cultural trait) to “Tatendrang” would be the desire to hit the snooze button and sleep in. People who do not like mornings in Germany are, moreover, known as “Morgenmuffel” (morning curmudgeons, morning grumpus) – and they are definitely a minority in a nation of “task oriented” early risers.