My favourite and least favourite German words (so far)

Well, we finally have the internet at our flat – a process that took longer than we expected thanks to Deutsche Telekom’s insistence that before we needed a German phone number before they’d send an engineer to set up our German phone number.

Anyway, in the dark pre-internet days I spent my hours learning German and stealing the wifi at Starbucks. One of the best things about German as far as I can tell is its vocabulary – with complicated words often being compounds of simpler ones, it’s generally not too difficult to work out the meaning. As a random example, where English uses the word “pyjamas” – not related to any other word in the language and therefore impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t learned it – German uses “Schlafanzug”; literally “sleep suit”.

The compounding system isn’t always clear (it seems rather a nonsequitur that oxygen, which is fairly obviously a flavourless gas, should be called “sauerstoff” (literally “sour stuff”), but apparently it’s because oxides tend to taste sour), but it does give rise to some brilliant words. These are my favourite ones I’ve come across, although bear in mind that I might not always have got them quite right:

  • der Weltraum – The German word for outer space, this literally means, evocatively, “the world room” (though admittedly “Raum” seems to be used a lot to refer not just to rooms (which it is cognate to), but to spaces in general).
  • gegengleich – This word came up in an explanation of antimatter, and describes the property of antimatter that all its features (except mass) – charge, strangeness, lepton number, etc – are equal in magnitude but opposite in sign to the equivalent piece of regular matter, something English doesn’t really have a proper word for. With a bit of poking Google translate comes up with “diametrically opposed”, which I suppose comes pretty close (especially if you’re thinking in terms of complex numbers).
  • die Wissenschaft – It must be lot harder to be anti-science when your word for science literally just means “knowledgehood”. That’s what science is, after all – a collection of knowledge.
  • verlaufen – The “ver-” prefix seems to be a pain in the arse when it comes to learning words – it modifies the verb it’s connected to in one of several incredibly abstract ways, meaning that generally I end up having to just look up what a ver- verb means in the dictionary – but I do like its “to do something with negative consequences” meaning. “laufen” is “to walk”, “verlaufen” is “to walk with negative consequences” – i.e. to get lost.
  • die Bremse – It’s a brake. I’m putting it here just because it gives us one of the best physics words ever, bremsstrahlung.

Then again…

  • der Durchfall – It means “diarrhoea”. Literally, it’s “through fall”. Things that fall through you. Ew.
  • das Eiweiß – This means both, literally, “egg white” and, by analogy, all protein in general, so according to the back of the carton of orange juice in front of me, each glass of juice contains 1.4 grams of egg white. I imagine German food science labs being like one giant, neverending “Who’s on first?” routine.
  • Every occupation name ever – For most occupations, German lacks any gender neutral word. If you talk about a Lehrer, for instance, you’re talking not just about a teacher, but a male teacher specifically – the female form is Lehrerin. This means that all job adverts have to, completely unnecessarily, advertise for both the masculine and feminine forms – eg, Lehrer/in.

This list also originally contained Zwolffingerdarm – the German word for the duodenum – which literally means “twelve finger intestine”, for being incredibly gross, until I realised that the English word for it means exactly the same thing – we just had the sense to mask it in Latin first. Duodenum digitorum indeed.

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