Those literal Germans

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with Linda of Expat Eye on Germany on her blog. It’s been buzzing around in my head for a while, and now I’m finally getting around to writing it.

We all know that Germans like to shove words together to form new ones, often resulting in crazily long constructions that seem to exist for the sole purpose of putting off learners. One example has been going round on Facebook… a photo of a Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih with the caption “The reason Germans don’t play Scrabble…” (here it is). If you break the word down into its component parts, it actually makes perfect sense: Fussboden = floor, schleifen = to grind or sand, Maschine = machine (Schleifmaschine = sanding machine) and Verlei = rental service. So it’s a floor sanding machine rental service. Where English uses five words, the Germans stick them all together to create one giant word. This can be done with almost any combination of words – Musik + Schule = Musikschule (music school), Plastik + Tüte = Plastiktüte (plastic bag), Schwarz + Tee = Schwarztee (black tea – what we Brits would simply call “tea”) Woll + Mütze = Wollmütze (wooly hat), Holz + Kiste = Holzkiste (wooden box/crate).

Even when it's got milk in, it's "Schwarztee"
Even when it’s got milk in, it’s “Schwarztee”

The examples above would still make sense if you exchanged some of their parts – they’re mostly just used as descriptions. So instead of a Musikschule you might have a Kunstschule (art school) and if your box was made of cardboard, it would be a Pappkiste.  In other cases, two words are put together to form an entirely new word, which can be a lot of fun when you stop to consider what the individual words mean! (And also useful for learners who can work out the translation from the very literal German word). Here are a few of my favourites:

Der Handschuh (literally hand shoe) = glove

Die Nacktschnecke (literally naked snail) = slug

Der Selbstmord (literally self murder) = suicide

Der Fingerhut (literally finger hat) = thimble (and also Foxglove, as in the plant – presumably because the flowers look a bit like thimbles)

Der Büstenhalter (literally bust holder) = bra

Der Kühlschrank (literally cool(ing) cupboard) = fridge

Der Staubsauger (literally dust sucker) = hoover/vaccuum cleaner

Das Katzenklo (literally cat toilet/loo – I always imagine a tiny flushable toilet for cats) = cat’s litter tray

Das Stinktier (literally stinky animal) = skunk

Das Zahnfleisch (literally tooth meat) = gums

And finally, my absolute favourite: der Vorschlaghammer. It means sledgehammer, but the component parts are der Vorschlag, meaning suggestion, and der Hammer, which means exactly what you think it means. That’s one hell of a suggestion…

Do you have any favourite literal words, in German or any other language? Let me know in the comments.


40 thoughts on “Those literal Germans

  1. I wish I’d had a suggestion hammer at the Amt 🙂 Those are brilliant (esp. naked snail) – and really, it’s not the long words that are the problem, I think. If you can break them down and know 2 or 3 of the parts, you can figure out what they mean. It’s all the bastarding little words that kill me! 😉

  2. hahaha Fun post to read 😀 I’ve too taken notice of these words and many others like them during my years of getting to know (and being fascinated by!) the German language, but it’s always so much fun to hear other people mention it too. Thanks for the smile today 😀

  3. lol, this is quite similar to how Norwegian and Swedish words are built up – but they are Germanic languages after all, reading them I think they make perfect sense in describing what the things are meant to do 🙂

    1. Vorschlaghammer though… is it like “I suggest you run away now before I hit you with this!”?

      Yes, most of them do make perfect sense. The images they conjure up are fun though 😀 I imagine people with actual shoes in their hands and teeth attached to slabs of meat.

      1. Dutch does exactly the same – in fact, most of the words in your list can literally be translated into Dutch and ‘work’, e.g. naaktslak, handschoen, stinkdier. Not surprising given how closely related they are. And I hate to disappoint your friend Sophie, but Dutch too readily combines more than two words, an infamous tongue twisted being hottentottententententoonstelling (an exhibition of Hottentots’ tents) 😉

      2. Wow, even looking at that hottentotten word is mkaing my tongue feel knotted!

        Yes, I’m always amazed by how many words I can actually understand when I’m in the Netherlands (if they’re written down at least).

  4. I have always loved the word Handschuh! And I thought Krankenhaus was kind of funny too, though I then learnt hospital is translated as “sick house” in quite a few languages. Who knew!?

  5. I used to play “Stump the Teacher” with my German students in the US. They each had a dictionary to look up German words and pronounce them (correctly), and I had to spell them. The point was to show them how phonetic German is – and to make them practice pronunciation. If I misspelled it, the class earned a point. If I didn’t know what it meant, they earned another point. The silly twits always went for the long words, and I swear, every year this one came up: “Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel.” Their jaws dropped when I spelled it correctly, and then the meaning: “Well, Schwanger is pregnant, -schaft is ship, Verhütung is prevention, and -Mittel is an agent. So clearly that means contraception.” Then my little Catholic school children tittered and blushed. 🙂

    Good list you have there! I especially like Nacktschnecke. It just sounds so funny – “Careful, don’t step on the naked snail!” Nasty little buggers.

  6. Haha, this was so much fun to read. I remember one time I wanted to talk about a litter box but did not know the English word and so I called it the “cat toilet” and everybody looked at me like I was crazy.

    1. LOL, I don’t think I know enough American English to judge. I only found out last year that Americans apparently don’t use the word “fortnight”. I was all “but… it’s a perfectly ordinary word!”

  7. haha they have “handschoenen” in Dutch and it get’s me every time! Hand shoe!
    It’s quite similar in Dutch to the German… they just much everything up and bam! new word! No one has yet explained to me, how you know if a word can be combined or not though, because some times they don’t and there appears to be no rule to follow haha

  8. Great post! Super interesting that some of those words are almost exactly the same in Latvian – something I’d never thought about. (Sorry no diactrical marks….) Suicide is pasnaviba (self death), bra is krustturis (breast holder), fridge is ledusskapis (ice cupboard). I’d have to think about other such German or Latvian words. Other words are not compounds, but two separate ones – such as “puteklu sucejs”, which is dust sucker. 🙂

    1. This is really interesting! I know zero Latvian. Love “ice cupboard” 😀 Another (slightly old fashioned, I think) word for suicide in German is “Freitod”, which literally means “free death”.

      1. It makes sense, seeing as -hmm, how to put this in a politically correct way?- Germans ruled Latvian territory for years and years and years. There used to even be Latvianized version of German words, such as ‘kekis’ for ‘Kueche’ and ‘sirze’ for “Schuerze”. However, having just returned from a really nice weekend away and with my brain still being on vacation, I am not coming up with any additional good Latvian compound words. A good English one is pineapple. Apparently in pretty much every other language it is called some version of ‘Ananas’?

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