Matador Network

10 untranslatable German terms

Photo: Rita E.

The German language is ranked as one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn as both are a branch of the West Germanic language tree. That said, German can also be a complicated language to directly translate as words are often a conglomeration of multiple words, forming words we just don’t have in English. Often times, these words are severely lacking in the English language and should be adopted.

Here are 10 untranslatable German words.

1. Treppenwitz

If literally translated, treppenwitz means “staircase joke” (treppe meaning “stair(case)” and witz meaning “joke”). In the past, this was commonly used as a phrase to refer to a moment when someone said something to you and you thought of a witty comeback after the moment had passed.

However, today the term is used to refer to an event which, in hindsight, was not a good idea. This phrase is connected with unintentional and/or negative consequences. Here’s an example. An NFL team hires a new quarterback with outstanding skills. This player is going to take them to the Super Bowl, unfortunately, his skills don’t live up to expectations and they don’t make it to the playoffs. The hiring of the quarterback becomes the treppenwitz.

2. Verschlimmbessern

Which leads me to verschlimmbessern (the verb verschlimm means “to make things worse” and the verb verbessern means “to improve”). This word literally equates to making something worse during the act of trying to improve it.

For example, this word might be used in reference to someone who is continuously putting their foot in their mouth when trying to explain themselves out of a situation.

A similar term is kaputtverbessern but this is used more in reference to someone who is trying to improve something that was broken without any background knowledge, such as DIY plumbing.

3. Luftschloss

The English equivalent of luftschloss is “delusions of grandeur.” It has a stronger and more negative connotation than describing someone as a daydreamer. This term is used to describe someone who needs a reality check and to be brought back down to earth.

4. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit

This term literally translates to “spring fatigue” with das frühjahr meaning “early year” and die müdigkeit, which is the noun from the adjective müde, meaning “tired”.

Frühjahrsmüdigkeit is the name given to the temporary moody, physical condition to people in the northern hemisphere between mid-March and mid-April. During this time it is said that people experience a state of low energy and weariness. Other symptoms include irritability, headaches, aching joints and a lack of motivation which are all said to be side effects of changes in weather.

It is not a diagnosed illness, yet 50-75% of Germans state that they have experienced spring fatigue at some point and often use it as an excuse to play hooky from school or work.

5. Backpfeifengesicht

Backpfeifengesicht roughly translates to “cheek”, with pfeifen as a variation of ohrfeige (meaning “bitch slap”) and gesicht meaning “face”.

Germans use this to describe someone who they feel desperately needs to be slapped in the face or more specifically, a face that needs to be slapped as hard as humanly possible, preferably with a chair.

To use the term, you would literally say, “Stefan hat ein richtiges Backfeifengesicht” which implies that Stefan has a slappable face.

6. Erklärungsnot

Remember those days as a child when you quickly had to come up with an excuse to give to your teacher as to why you didn’t have your homework assignment and all you could think of was “My dog ate my homework”? Well, combining the nouns Erklärung (meaning “explanation”) and Not (meaning “emergency”) literally translates to that moment when you suddenly find yourself in a sticky spot and need an excuse or alibi for something you have failed to do.

This is a term most often reserved for lying politicians, cheating spouses, and school children who didn’t turn in a homework assignment who have been caught red-handed and must suddenly explain themselves. Most often, the term is used as a verb in Erklärungsnot geraten/kommen which directly translates to “come under pressure for failing to offer an explanation”.

7. Erbsenzähler

Germans would refer to anyone who is a serious nit-picker, control freak, or who is hard-core OCD as Erbsenzähler. Literally translated, the noun Erbsen means “peas” and Zähler is a “tally” or “numerator”, which together describes someone who keeps a tally, or more specifically, counts their peas.

To use the term, you would simply say something along the lines “Diese Prüfer ist ein Erbsenzähler und hat jedes noch so kleines Problem gefunden” which means “The inspector is a “bean counter” and found every single tiny problem.”

8. Honigkuchenpferd

Have you ever had one of those incredibly awkward moments when you are embarrassed in front of someone important and your face becomes contorted with every possible expression and emotion? Germans have a phrase for that, which when directly translated means “horse-shaped honey cake”. Honig meaning honey, kuchen meaning cake and pferd meaning horse to refer to the ridiculously large, dorky grin on your face or a honigkuchenpferd smile.

9. Geborgenheit

This is quite possibly the most idyllic German word. The literal translation means to have a feeling of security. The adjective geborgen meaning “secure” actually implies so much more than this.

For example, it might be used in reference to cherished moments snuggled up on the couch with your loved ones knowing that everything is where it should be. The word is used as a blanket of security which encompasses everything from protection, happiness, warmth, comfort, love, peace, and trust.

10. Kuddelmuddel

No, this German word doesn’t mean to cuddle with someone. Rather it describes an absolute chaotic state, a mess or hodgepodge, such as a kids bedroom or a house after a party.

The word Kuddelmuddel actually consists of two words: the old German word koddeln, which meant “dirty linen,” and muddle, which may have come from the word modder meaning “mud”. Its literal translation means very little, it does not mean that someone has washed their clothes in mud, rather it refers to something that has got out of hand.

Other similar words would be Tohuwabohu and Wirrwarr meaning a chaotic clutter or tangle, but good luck pronouncing them!