MY FIRST TRIP TO GERMANY was courtesy of my law school, which gave me the opportunity to apply for a summer job in Hamburg. My undergraduate degrees were in Music and German, and I’d always thought I’d get a job singing in Germany. But I was in law school, so I took the law job. As it turns out, reading Schiller’s plays and singing Goethe’s poems doesn’t actually make you fluent in contemporary German. Here are a few of the useful words and phrases I didn’t learn in college:
[Editor's note: Below each subtitle is the phonetic pronunciation in English with the word stress in italics, along with the pronunciation written using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Within the word description, the links point to audio files of the author saying the words.]
1. das ist Bescheuert – that’s ridiculous
das ist beshoyert — /dɑs ɪst bɛʃɔʏɘɾt/
Bescheuert is usually translated as “crazy” or “stupid” but it seems to be the catch-all word for “bad”. Das ist bescheuert is the equivalent of “that sucks”. You got stood up? Das ist bescheuert. The U-Bahn was late? Das ist bescheuert. Whatever it is, if you don’t like it, it’s bescheuert.
2. na? — so…?
naa — /na:/
People who know each other well say na? to ask “how’re you doing?” It’s also used when the topic is understood and the speaker is inquiring how something turned out. For example, saying it to someone who had a big date the previous evening means, “so how’d it go? I want details!” This is not to be confused with na und? (“so and?”), which means “so what?” or “what’s your point?”
3. das ist mir Wurst — what do I care?
das ist meer voorsht — /das ɪst mir vurʃt/
A bit more emphatic than das ist mir egal (“I don’t care”), das ist mir Wurst (literally, “it’s sausage to me”) means, “I don’t care, it’s all the same to me,” or even, “I couldn’t care less.”
4. Ich besorge das Bier – I’ll get the beer
eeh bezorge das beer — /ɨx bɛzɔrgɘ das bir/
Besorgen means “to take care of,” and it’s used informally to mean get something or pay for something. Ich besorge das Bier (“I’ll get the beer”) is useful at Oktoberfest or any gathering with kiosks selling refreshments. After you say “Ich besorge das Bier” your friend will probably offer to get the food. And when she asks whether you want Bratwurst or Knackwurst, you can answer, “Das ist mir Wurst”. You’re now punning in German!
5. kein Schwein war da — nobody was there
kayn shvayn var da — /kaɪn ʃvaɪn var da/
The word Schwein (“pig”) is possibly the most used word in the German language: you can attach it to almost anything. Sometimes it’s a noun by itself, as in kein Schwein war da (“nobody was there”), or kein Schwein hat mir geholfen (“not a single person helped me”), but it can also be added to nouns to make new words.
Eine Schweinearbeit is a tough job. Something that kostet ein Schweinegelt is ridiculously expensive. If you call someone a Schwein, that’s as insulting as it is in English. But if someone is an armes Schwein (“poor pig”), he is a person you feel sorry for. And most confusing of all, Schwein haben (“to have pig”) means to be lucky!
6. der spinnt – he’s nuts
dayr shpint — /der ʃpɪnt/
The verb spinnen originally meant (and can still mean) “to spin,” as in spinning yarn at a wheel. But in contemporary German, spinnen is more often used as “to be crazy”. This usage may have derived from the fact that in previous centuries inmates in mental asylums were taught to spin yarn. Saying der spinnt (“he’s nuts”) is often accompanied by the hand gesture of moving the palm side to side in front of the face. In fact, sometimes you’ll just see the hand gesture.
7. langsam langsam – little by little
langzam langzam — /laŋzam laŋzam/
Langsam means slow or slowly, so you might think that repeating it would mean “very slowly”, but langsam langsam is the expression for “little by little” or “step by step”. It’s a good non-committal answer to, “how’s your German coming along?”
8. das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen – tell it to your Grandmother
das kanst doo dayner ohmah airtsaylen — /das kanst du daɪnər oma ertseːlɘn/
Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen is the response to an unbelievable claim. For example, “I’m studying German three hours a day. I’ll be fluent in a week.” “Oh yeah? Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen!”
9. nul acht funfzehn (0-8-15) — standard issue / mediocre
nool acht foonftsayn — /nul ɒxt fʊnftsen/
The standard issue issue rifle in WWI was a 0-8-15. The term caught on and is now used as a classy insult. I first heard this phrase from a friend describing a less than memorable sexual encounter. When she described it as nul-acht-funfzehn I thought she was talking about some obscure sexual position. What she was actually saying was, “meh”.
10. Ich habe die Nase voll davon – I’m sick of it
eeh habe dee naze fol dafun — /ɨx habə di nazə fɔl dafɔn/
Ich habe die Nase voll davon literally means “I have the nose full,” which really means to be sick of something or someone. As in, “enough already, Ich habe die Nase voll von German phrases”.
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Ellen Rabiner has been writing about travel since her teenage years on the road as a violist in a youth orchestra. After college her focus shifted to singing, although she did some creative writing as a lawyer. She returned to singing as a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and is currently traveling and writing from her home in Antalya, Turkey. She blogs at Talking Turkey.