German words you wont find in English

written on 15/10/2020
by Jutta Triebe

Compound words are typical of the German language. This creates creative combinations that can hardly be translated. Here are some expressions and my attempt at explaining them:


Germans don't just agree to meet up at two, and then rely on their mobile phones to explain why they're late. They make utterly clear, unambiguous appointments. And then they describe themselves as "verabredet." Being “verabredet” (on an appointment) does not allow delays.


This does not just mean flag. It's also the special type of flag that flutters in your face and stings your eyes when a drunkard tries so talk with you.


You've stayed out late and you weren't supposed to. Or you are about to pay the mother-in-law a visit. What you will need is Drachenfutter - a gift that will, literally, feed the dragon, outmoded sexist interpretations of gender roles notwithstanding.


The English have "comfort food," but the ever-thorough Germans have taken that concept to its obvious biological conclusion. Kummerspeck, literally "sorrow bacon," are the extra bulges that develop once you've consumed too much comfort food. Often referred to as “Rettungsring” (Lifebuoy) as well, depending on the reason for these unwelcome bulges.


This is a truly vital word, missing in the English language, and indeed every language in the world (probably) - except German. It means to be ashamed FOR someone else. How often have you wanted to express that feeling in one neat, perfect word?


In keeping with their 19th century image of family roles, Germans have a special word for a bad mum or bad parents. It literally means "raven mother/parents." It descends from the wrong impression that baby ravens in the wild are kicked out of the nest before they are ready. First used in 1350 by Konrad von Megenberg for mothers and the term 'Raven parents' in 1433 by Konrad Bitschin.

Pechvogel oder Unglücksrabe

The term unlucky bird is derived from medieval bird hunting. At that time, birds were caught with liming rods to which the animals would stick.


According to a possible - but unconfirmed theory - the ancient Germanic tribes are said to have been intoxicated by the fly agaric mushroom. They used it in different ways, sometimes they used it like a narcotic drug, (which can cause a state of happiness) and at other times they used the toadstool in battle. Because of its numbing effect, they tried to fight better, more courageously and more aggressively. They also felt less pain. This theory is unconfirmed. The fly agaric is still a symbol for luck.


Everyone hates the coward who criticises from a safe distance. The Germans equate this person with someone who wears gloves when throwing snowballs. For them, a snowball fight isn't a snowball fight until someone gets frostbite.


Another wonderful German word for a bittersweet situation surely familiar to almost everyone. The Treppenwitz, literally "stair-joke," is the brilliant reply you think of when you're already out of the door and halfway down the stairs.


There's being ham-fisted, or putting your foot in it, or there's just plain clumsiness, but in German there's the very specific act of verschlimmbessern, which is when you make something worse in the very act of trying to improve it.


This is a word for cyclist, but in a second meaning it also hints at the cyclist’s movement and posture: “Nach oben buckeln und nach unten treten”. It refers to an employee who always bows to his superiors while treading on his inferiors. Not literally though.

Photo 1: ©Candice Gärtner