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March 18, 2012

8 German words with no English equivalent

Wrote Ignatius Graham in a January 12, 2012 Socyberty post: "Sometimes there just isn't a word for what you want to say. But sometimes, there is — in German."

"The German language is one that has fully embraced the compound word. I've heard it said, even by German-speakers, that if there's no German word for a concept, the Germans will just make one up. Perhaps English could take a lesson, especially considering these eight words that succinctly describe ideas that English-speakers obviously have but need many more words to express."


1. schadenfreude: Every non-German speaker's favorite German word, schadenfreude literally means "harm-joy," and it's used for the feeling of taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune or unhappiness. Like The Simpsons' Nelson jeering "Ha ha!" or your smile when you find out something unfortunate happened to your ex. There's a whole song about it in the Broadway musical Avenue Q [top].

2. fremdscham: Almost the opposite of schadenfreude, fremdscham is the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else (presumably someone who’s not embarrassed for themselves, but should be).

3. torschlusspanik: Fear of decreasing opportunities as time passes. It's the feeling that you’re running out of time and the pressure's on. It's often used to refer to a woman’s "biological clock" increasing desire to have children, but I wonder if it could also be used for college kids who feel they need to have their fun now before being released into the drudgery of a full-time job, or simply for people growing older and worried about all the things they’ve yet to do.

4. waldeisamkeit: A feeling of solitude in the forest.

5. weltschmerz: Literally, "world-pain." When you watch the news, and it's all about war and murder and global warming and political catfights, and you start to wonder if there's any good left in the world at all, and get completely depressed about the state of thing... that feeling you have is weltschmerz. Getting down about how far off the world is from what would be ideal.

6. fernweh: My personal favorite, fernweh is the opposite of homesickness; it's a longing to venture out into the world. Almost like wanderlust, but sadder and lonelier. Think homesickness — that same sense of not just wanting something, but missing it — in reverse.

7. gemütlichkeit: "the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you are cozy, a little drunk, and surrounded by friends." What a great word. Similar to the Danish word hygge.

8. stammtisch: This strangely specific word means a gathering of friends at a bar, to talk about life. In other words, many of the sitcoms of the last few decades.

March 18, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Thank you, Erica, for this heads-up on bookofjoe's dinner venue (http://www.gasthofzg.com) when my upcoming World Tour hits the Twin Cities.

Also, great news: I've just named you Bureau Chief of my Minneapolis-St. Paul Crack Correspondent Team®™©.

The pay is terrible and the benefits are even worse.

Bonus: You can put it on your resumè and be certain I'll recommend you without reservation for any position you're applying for.

Posted by: bookofjoe | Mar 19, 2012 1:58:11 PM

In Minneapolis we have a restaurant called Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit. "Guesthouse of the the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you are cozy, a little drunk, and surrounded by friends." It's a super great place to eat and drink.

When I visited Germany last year and asked around for a good restaurant I was referred to all sorts of wonderful cuisines from around the world - but what I wanted was a good German restaurant. When I finally found one the food was not as tasty and delicious as the food found at Gasthof's.


Posted by: Erica Taylor | Mar 19, 2012 1:50:24 PM

I would say 6 is better described by /wander-lust/. 5, I'd describe that more as someone being /emo/ or /melancholy/.

Posted by: Rocketboy | Mar 19, 2012 11:47:02 AM

From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27esprit_de_l%27escalier):

L'esprit de l'escalier

"L'esprit de l'escalier" or "L'esprit d'escalier" (literally, staircase wit) is a French term used in English that describes the predicament of thinking of the right comeback too late.


This name for the phenomenon comes from French encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot's description of such a situation in his "Paradoxe sur le comédien." During a dinner at the home of statesman Jacques Necker, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time, because, he explains, "l'homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu'au bas de l'escalier" ("a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs"). In this case, "the bottom of the stairs" refers to the architecture of the kind of hôtel particulier or mansion to which Diderot had been invited. In such houses, the reception rooms were located on the étage noble, the noble story, one floor above the ground floor, so that to have reached the bottom of the stairs means to have definitively left the gathering in question.

Diderot's fellow-philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau also recognized his own affliction with l'esprit de l'escalier. In his autobiographical book "Confessions" he blamed such social blunders and missed opportunities for turning him into a misanthrope, and reassured himself that he was better at "conversations by mail."

American English speakers sometimes also call this "elevator wit". [3]

Other languages:

The German loan translation "Treppenwitz" (when used in an English language context expresses the same idea as "l'esprit de l'escalier." However, Treppenwitz in contemporary German has a different meaning: It refers to events or facts that seem to contradict their own background or context. The frequently used phrase "Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte" ("staircase joke of world history") derives from the title of a book of that name by W. Lewis Hertslet and means "a paradox of history."

Posted by: bookofjoe | Mar 19, 2012 9:35:42 AM

Stammtisch is table reserved for the regulars.

Posted by: Jaap | Mar 19, 2012 5:13:08 AM

Oy! No Treppenwitz?

A mentsh tracht und Gott lacht.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Mar 18, 2012 11:25:22 PM

You forgot treppenwitz. :-)

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Mar 18, 2012 6:52:32 PM

All these words should be capitalized. They are all nouns, and all German nouns are capitalized.

Posted by: antares | Mar 18, 2012 4:35:23 PM

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