Words at Play

8 Truly Untranslatable German Words

Accept no substitutes


“Werner Herzog, who understands more than just about anyone the terror of a cold and irrational universe, got some mileage out of remaking Nosferatu in 1979 by keeping what worked in the novel and in Murnau’s 1922 film and leaning heavily into the vampire’s weltschmerz.”
—Kyle Daly, AVClub.com, 25 Oct. 2015

A feeling of sentimental sadness or pessimism; the weariness that comes with knowing that the world is going to let you down no matter what and there’s nothing you can do to stop it: this is what the Germans succinctly call Weltschmerz.

Weltschmerz, or literally “world-pain” or “world-weariness,” first appeared in German in 1827 and was born out of the melancholy and pessimistic Romantic literary movement taking place in Germany at the time. It was coined by the author Jean Paul—born Johann Paul Friedrich Richter—in his novel Selina, where he used it to refer to Lord Byron’s disaffected loathing for the world. The word was popularized by Heinrich Heine not long after, who moved the word’s meaning away from active loathing and toward sentimental apathy. Weltschmerz was borrowed into English in the 1860s and while it has lost its direct tie to 19th-century Romanticism, it does retain a bit of the formality of its original uses.

You’re on your way to work. There’s this jerk who’s weaving in and out of stop-and-go traffic in bursts of 50 mph. Cutting people off, riding people’s bumpers, even splitting the lane to get mere feet ahead of everyone else. They race up behind you and nearly rear-end you, then speed off up the shoulder. Five minutes and one mile down the road, you see flashing lights: the jerk’s been pulled over for reckless driving. That broad smile on your face as you pass the scene is a result of schadenfreude.

A popular lookup on our site, schadenfreude is a noun that refers to the joy you might feel at another person’s pain. It’s a compound of the German noun Schaden, which means “damage,” and freude, which means “joy.” We know that the word was in use in the mid-1700s in Germany, where it appears in a few books with tales intended for children. It was popular in Germany: discussed by Schopenhauer, Kant, and Nietzsche, as well as used by Goethe, schadenfreude shows up in psychology books, literature for children, and critical theory for over 100 years before it appears in English. Why the late adoption into English? Early citations for the word in English indicate that schadenfreude was thought to be a shameful defect first of Germans, and then of humanity in general. In short, the feeling was unworthy, and therefore so was the word.

Schadenfreude was favored mostly among English-speaking academics until the early 1990s, when it was introduced to more general audiences by The Simpsons. In an episode that aired in October, 1991, Lisa explains what schadenfreude is to Homer, who is gloating at his neighbor’s failure. “Boy,” he marvels, “those Germans have a word for everything.” After that episode aired, we saw a steady increase in the written use of schadenfreude in English.

Though less common in English prose than many of the other words on this list, schwarmerei is another word we’ve co-opted from German. But unlike other German loanwords, schwarmerei isn’t all doom and gloom. The word refers to excessive and unbridled enthusiasm or sentiment.

Schwarmerei ultimately comes from the German verb schwärmen, which means “to swarm.” When Schwärmerei (with the umlaut) first appeared in German as a noun, it referred to the frenzied activity of bees swarming. In time, both schwärmen and Schwärmerei came to refer to any enthusiastic activity or feeling.

Ironically, it wasn’t a particularly welcome word when it first appeared in English. Our earliest use of it in print is from the Edinburgh Review in 1845: “His mind is both clear and strong, free from schwärmerei, (a word untranslatable, because the thing itself is un-English,) free from cant and affectation of all kinds.” Once Schwärmerei came into English, it lost the umlaut and the initial capital that marked it as a German word and became schwarmerei. It usually gets it brief moment in the sun every spring during the National Spelling Bee, where it is one of the more difficult words that gets spelled in competition.

Meanwhile, in German, Schwärmerei still refers to excessive enthusiasm or sentimentality, but it’s gained another meaning: it is one of the German words used for what we call puppy love.

Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Richter) is also credited with coining another German word that we’ve borrowed into English: doppelgänger.

The German Romantic movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s was a reaction against the rationalism of the age before, and as such, it ended up producing some literature and drama that focused on nature, individualism, and the unexplainable or supernatural. The doppelgänger is one aspect of the supernatural that took on new life during German Romanticism.

A doppelgänger is an apparition from German folklore: the spirit double of a living person. To meet your own doppelgänger is a bad omen, and a sign that your death is imminent. Richter coined the word for something a little less sinister: in his 1796 novel Siebenkäs, the main character meets and talks to his alter ego, which Richter calls a Doppelgänger (or “double-goer” in German). But Richter’s word was used in German literature to refer to the spirit double. Doppelgängers showed up quite a bit in Romantic horror literature, and English adopted the word in the mid-1800s.

The sinister connotations of doppelgänger have fallen to the wayside in recent years in English; we generally use the word to refer to someone who looks a lot like another person instead of implying that one of those two people is a spirit double of the other.

Say the word poltergeist to Americans of a certain age, and they will immediately parrot back to you the iconic line from the 1982 movie called Poltergeist: “They’re heeeeeeeere.”

The English word poltergeist predates the horror classic by about 140 years, first showing up in print in an 1848 book called The Night Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers by Catherine Crowe. In that book, poltergeists are associated with German spirits, which makes sense: the German word Poltergeist dates back to the 16th century and appears frequently in the writings of Martin Luther, who is most famous for starting the Protestant Reformation. In fact, it’s possible that Luther was the one to coin the German word: he used it when describing events that people believed were caused by playful or mischievous spirits—Poltergeister. The word derives from the German verb poltern, which means “to knock or rattle,” and the noun Geist, which means “ghost.”

The English word poltergeist was, from its first appearance, associated with a whole host of phenomena. Crowe’s book retells several stories of ghosts that purportedly threw crockery on the floor, knocked over glasses and jam jars and clocks, and shattered bottles of rum and wine, and whose activity seemed to be attached to a specific person.

It’s not as though there was a sudden and meteoric rise in hauntings in the 1800s; rather, there was sudden interest in them, helped along, no doubt, by the spiritualist movement, which came into prominence around the same time that the English word poltergeist did.

If you’ve ever watched a TV show that’s set at a frat house, it’s likely you’ve seen people play foosball. It’s a table-based game that’s based (very loosely) on soccer, where players try to hit a small ball into their opponent’s goal by turning rods with wooden figures on them and “kicking” the ball “downfield.”

The word Foosball is an anglicized spelling of the German Fußball, which literally translates to “foot ball.” The origins of foosball, also called table soccer or table football are a little murky, but we can find evidence of patent applications for games called table football going back to 1891. According to one history of the game, west German firms began making tabletop “kicker” games after World War II, and the game gained popularity in Europe and abroad. The game became nationally known in the 1960s, when it became a competitive club sport. This is also around the time that foosball entered English.

While the game in Germany may have been called Tischfußball, or “table football,” the shortened and anglicized foosball didn’t show up in English until 1966, when it was used in another patent filing.

Some German nouns have naturalized so well that we hardly think of them as foreigners. Kindergarten is one such word. The German word means, literally, “children’s garden,” and it was an invention of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator.

Froebel was a 19th-century educator in Germany and something of a mystic. As he taught, he came to believe that education for young children was lacking: most young children were put in something akin to day care until formal schooling began in primary school. He believed that young children should be educated, rather than merely babysat, and that they should be educated primarily through play and exploration—that the care-centers for young children should benefit not just the adults who had to go to work and needed someone to watch their kids, but the kids who were stuck in these centers. Education for Froebel was less about acquiring knowledge, and more about discovering the “inner relationship of things,” by which he meant the interrelationship between nature, the person, and the spiritual.

He opened his first kindergarten in 1837, and the curriculum had three aspects: playing with toys, so young children could become familiar with inanimate objects and how they work; playing games and singing songs, so that young children could not only exercise their bodies, but be instilled with what Froebel considered to be “spirit” and “humanity”; and gardening and caring for animals, so young children could learn empathy for plants and animals. His experimental “children’s garden” garnered much interest, and by the 1880s, kindergartens had been opened in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States.

The word itself came into English in 1852—the same year that Froebel died.

Flak
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There are a number of German words that came into English during the two World Wars. Flak is one of them.

Flak came into English in the 1930s and originally referred to anti-aircraft guns, and then later to anti-aircraft fire, and especially the bursting shells of anti-aircraft fire. That later sense gave rise to flak jacket, or a jacket designed to protect the wearer from injury from flak, shrapnel , or bullets. In the 1960s, flak gained a much broader use: it came to refer to any sudden criticism. It shows up in sentences that still mirror its military flavor, like “The company took some flak from unhappy investors.”

Flak is a direct borrowing from German, where it was actually an acronym. In German, new words can be created simply by smooshing together existing words, and this can lead to some really unwieldy compounds. (Mark Twain wrote, “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective” in an appendix to A Tramp Abroad that was appropriately titled The Awful German Language). One such compound was the name for an anti-aircraft gun: Fliegerabwehrkanone. The word was a compound of the earlier Fliegerabwehr, which means “defense against air attack,” and Kanone, which means “cannon.” Fliegerabwehr itself is another compound made up of Flieger, “aviator,” and Abwehr, “defense.” While not terribly long by German standards, Fliegerabwehrkanone was awkward enough that when the guns were used in the field of war, the name was shortened to Flak, from Fliegerabwehrkanone.

Flak has been so far removed from its German origins that it’s often confused with another word, flack. The latter is used to refer to a press agent or spin doctor; it’s been so confused with flak that we now consider flack to be a lesser-used variant spelling of flak.




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