Photo: Sascha Kohlmann
Did you hear what Mark Twain said about the German language? It was invented by a lunatic, it takes 300 years to learn, and it makes about as much sense as chocolate elbows on a warm day. English speakers’ prejudices about the German language prevent them from enjoying the charms of its complexity. But here are a few of our favorite German words and idioms we think will help remedy that.
1. Ear worm (Ohrwurm)
“A bit of song that gets stuck in your head”
There’s a grassroots campaign in England to introduce the German concept of “ear worms” into the English language. (Okay, “grassroots campaign” is a slight exaggeration, but Stephen Fry did once tweet about it.)
At present, English lacks any useful way to label this curious phenomenon — the worst song from the pub plays endlessly in your head, replacing cherished memories with Boney M or the Village People. Like a burglar, only for the mind, it takes a song, smashes it up, glues random parts back together again, and adds some of its own personal suggestions until you’re left humming a distorted mishmash of vaguely similar-sounding nonsense, like: “Sometimes I feeeeel *beep beep* / Painted love *beep beep* / Oh…painted love! / Run away / I’ve got to *beep beep* get away…”
2. Head cinema (Kopfkino)
“When your imagination runs away from you”
“Head cinema” is a beautiful German expression the English language desperately needs so we can better describe the occurrence of having your normal thoughts hijacked by your weirder, stupider ones. You know, like when you’re lying in bed trying fruitlessly to sleep but end up staring at the ceiling as your imagination loops movies you’d never wanted to see. Movies with titles like Remember That Time In Gym Class When You Were 12 And Your Trousers Fell Down?, You Still Didn’t Do Your Tax Return IV, or Your Wife Is Getting Kind of Friendly With That Guy Alan at Work, Isn’t She.
Movies that all seem to feature you, only not as the movie’s plucky young star, the one who overcomes all odds and triumphs in a climactic, joyous finale with a Bollywood-style dance scene and the release of several dozen white doves. No, you’re not that character. You’re the character who crosses the road whilst texting and gets hit by a bus.
3. Here is dead trousers (Hier ist tote Hose)
“There’s nothing exciting going on here”
In most languages, when a party ‘has life,’ it’s good. If it ends with clothes all over the floor, obviously it’s even better. Champagne all round, Binky. If it doesn’t have either of these things — life or clothes on the floor — then a qualified party doctor should be called immediately. Only once they’ve checked the pulse and confirmed the time may they finally declare that any potential for fun is well beyond resuscitation.
This should be proclaimed with a loud and/or bored Denglisch pronouncement: “Ugh…Here is dead trousers.” Apparently the phrase derives from a term for men with erectile dysfunction, who are said to possess dead trousers.
4. Over liquid (Überflüssig)
“More than is needed to the point of redundancy”
In cheesy movies about American football, it’s not uncommon to hear some intensely deranged coach screaming at a fresh team of underdogs, “GO OUT THERE AND GIVE ME 110 PERCENT!!” And it seems to encourage the muscular dullards, presumably because their specialty is not maths.
The same battle cry wouldn’t work for Germans, who are brought up with the embedded wisdom that any liquid that doesn’t fit in the container isn’t useful. 100% fits in the container. 110% is water on the bathroom floor. Beer on the bar. Tsunami on the power plant. “No, Coach,” the wise Denglischman will reply, “you shall only get 100 percent of my effort until you buy a second container in which to put the overflow.”
5. Donkey bridge (Eselsbrücke)
“A clever method used to remember something”
The English language has no poetic equivalent of Eselsbrücke. It has “mnemonic,” but that’s, rather ironically, a very unmemorable word. A flamboyant combination of M and N, tripping up both speakers and spellers. And it has “memory aid,” which sounds like a vitamin supplement you might see on offer in your spam folder: “Are you struggle to remember stuff, feel confidante, live you’re life, or remember stuff? Then you need Memoray Aid!”
But “donkey bridge”?! Perfect. Saddle whatever you want to know on the back of your trusty memory steed; it’ll easily carry the weight of whatever needs remembering. Looking up at you, your memory donkey says, “Relax. I got this, buddy. Over we go. Over the donkey bridge to Memoryville. I won’t let you down.”
6. Is it art — or can I chuck it? (Ist das Kunst — oder kann das weg?)
“On the tenuousness of certain ‘art'”
London has an art gallery called the Tate Modern. It’s big and contains art. It also contains rubbish. Sometimes the rubbish looks like art. Sometimes the art looks like rubbish. It’s all very modern. Like Tracey Emin’s art-rubbish, rubbish-art exhibition “My Bed”, an old, unmade bed that’s been celebrated and sold for hundreds of thousands of euros. Outside a museum, however, “My Bed” would be grudgingly removed by workers in a lorry, at the cost of the taxpayer.
The wonderful, pretentiousness-challenging Denglisch expression “Is it art — or can I chuck it?” is a direct and quite German reminder to artists that if they’re going to make ‘art’ that’s confusable with rubbish, they must also justify its presence inside art galleries with the impressive paintings, not outside getting urinated on by a cat.
For more long-overdue fun with the German language, including more Denglisch, fun advice for authentic swearing, and the timeless wisdom of German proverbs like nett ist der kleine Bruder von Scheiße (“Nice is the little brother of shit”), check out Denglisch for Better Knowers now!