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).
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.