The ability to conjure up new words out of thin air is one of the best features of the German language. Just combine two, three or six words and you’ve got yourself a new expression with a completely different meaning. The most intriguing new German words find their way into everyday language use. They’re the ones that fill a much-needed gap in our attempt to describe the world. Condensed into a single term, they capture ideas, feelings and emotions with deep philosophical undertones.
Let’s explore sixteen of the most philosophical ones. Some are fairly new and some are classics. Some are well-known loanwords and some are German words that have yet to make their way into the English language.
The one question to rule them all
Gretchenfrage (literally: Gretchen’s question) is a pivotal question that goes straight to the heart of a matter. A litmus test so to speak. The effect is predictable. The person being asked such a question is often flustered, hesitant or tries to evade a clear answer. They may not have considered the issue deeply enough. Or the question confronts them with a harsh truth they chose to forget. The term goes back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic play Faust.
The protagonist, Heinrich Faust, makes a pact with the devil himself: Knowledge and pleasure in exchange for his soul. This is when his beautiful, young and modest love interest Gretchen asks a seemingly innocent question. One that strikes the core of Faust’s morals and beliefs: “Now, tell me, how do you feel about religion?” Faust knows perfectly well that being truthful about his business dealings with Mephisto would jeopardise his relationship with faithful Gretchen.
Shooting a movie in your head
Kopfkino (literally: head cinema) is a form of mental entertainment the mind turns to whenever it pleases. A story or a mere remark we hear may trigger a stream of consciousness. Vivid imaginations about an event, past, present or future. Kopfkino can be a euphemism. Because too often these are thoughts we‘d rather not have. How do you picture your next public speaking event to go? And did you hear the story of the dog that got under a tractor?
The good news is: Our mental production studio can also shoot a pleasant short film. When reading a good book that tickles our imagination for example. Or when we’re being told that the dog just rescued a little kitty from underneath the tractor. Kopfkino is a rather new, colloquial term. It also seems to be somewhat linked to Fremdscham. But more on that later.
The art of disimprovement
Verschlimmbesserung (literally: worse betterment) is the art of supposedly improving something to such a degree that it actually gets worse. A practical example would be a tight screw you want to tighten just a little bit more, which leads to your shelf falling off the wall entirely. You can verschlimmbessern pretty much anything. A dinner, an essay, or a cobra plague.
This German word reeks of overeagerness and clumsiness, overthinking and a lack of the same. It’s like putting legs on a snake. The culprit means well. But failed to act with care or factor in unintended consequences. The term is more of a colloquial nature. It seems to have become a popular word when talking about politics.
Feeling the pain of the world
Weltschmerz (literally: world pain) invokes feelings of melancholy, regret and a weariness of the world. It emerges when we compare the world as it is to the world as we‘d like it to be. It’s certainly not as perfect as it could be in our imagination. And if we look at our own inadequacies, neither are we. Sigh. Perhaps we’re too inexperienced, too naïve or too idealistic about how the world should be.
It’s reminiscent of Dukkha Bias, our tendency to find flaws in every situation. No matter how perfect it may be. Weltschmerz is a common loanword and was coined by German author Jean Paul in 1827. It’s no coincidence that it emerged during Romanticism, a time when emotions, imagination and transcendence ruled the arts.
Petty little wars
A Kleinkrieg (literally: small war) is essentially a feud between people trapped in their egos. A classic example of a German Kleinkrieg would be that between two neighbours who fight over the appropriate height of a hedge. It usually involves years of bickering and denunciation.
Originally a military term for irregular warfare it has come to widespread use for petty civilian conflicts. If you find yourself in a Kleinkrieg, you may want to check if your counterpart is just trying to distract you by tempting you into false victories.
Paining for the Distance
Fernweh (literally: distance pain) describes someone‘s deeply felt urge to go on a long-distance journey. As opposed to Wanderlust, it has to be reasonably far from home. From a German perspective, Australia would be a satisfactory destination. The Netherlands definitely don’t count.
Fernweh is a deep yearning to go out into the wide world, explore new countries and cultures and meet new people. Only to return with a little yet unique item of appreciation to be put on your shelf. Because German author Janosch knows, a faraway place is never where we currently are.
The joy of hiking
Wanderlust (literally: hiking lust) has become a popular English loanword. In its German original, it describes the feeling that befalls us when we have a strong desire to go walkabout. In contrast to Fernweh, it’s not about any destination in particular. The reference to hiking is important, too. It implies a desire to use our own two feet to explore new places. In my personal interpretation, the activity tends to be close to home.
Today’s use in Germany is rather archaic. This is probably due to the word wandern being fairly old-fashioned. It’s long been replaced by the more dynamic English loanword hiking. This is why in Germany, Wanderlust may invoke a Kopfkino of senior citizens in boots and with walking sticks hiking up a Bavarian mountain. But maybe that’s just me.
A lapse of taste
A Gesschmacksverirrung (literally: taste aberration) describes how someone’s sense of taste goes AWOL. It’s much more than a lapse, though. Rather, the German word expresses how our taste stumbles into unknown territory and loses itself completely.
The term applies more to someone’s taste in the figurative sense than the literal one. The results of a Gesschmacksverirrung can be as innocent as a mere disagreement over architecture. Or as culturally far-reaching as the fashion choices of the 1990s.
Compelled to make your move
Zugzwang (literally: move compulsion) is a state of being forced to act. Even though making the move is to our disadvantage. It’s often accompanied by a feeling of powerlessness and regret. Unless you’re at the other end of the table. Then you rub your hands in glee as you’ve strategised to put someone in a situation where the only move they can make is one against their own interests.
Chess players will be familiar with the term. It was presumably coined in German chess circles in the 19th century. Imagine your king is in check and there’s nothing you can do that wouldn’t make your situation worse. You’re forced to move your most valuable asset in order to avoid defeat. Or breaking the rules.
It’s almost 12 o’clock
Torschlusspanik (literally: gate close panic) is another of those German words that invoke uneasy feelings. We experience it whenever we feel that a window of opportunity is closing and we won’t be able to take advantage in time. Often in relation to our age, our life achievements or family planning.
The term originated in the olden times when cities were surrounded by walls to keep the out-group out and the in-group in. Citizens going about their business in the country had to return at night before the gates would close. Being late meant they had to sleep outside. Who wouldn’t get Torschlusspanik at the thought of being exposed to raiders and wild animals?
The spirit of our times
Zeitgeist (literally: time spirit) should be a very familiar German word. It stands for an intangible set of collective feelings, opinions, emotions, beliefs and attitudes typical or representative of a certain time period. Think Zeitgeist of 1990s fashion for example.
The term has its origins in German philosophical circles of the 18th and 19th centuries. On a side note, the German word Geist can also mean spectre or ghost. Haunting and hard to get rid of. Like the 90s. I guess sometimes, Zeitgeist and Geschmacksverirrung are the same words.
Ridiculed are the unlucky
Schadenfreude (literally: damage joy) should be in the vocabulary of any language. It‘s the feeling of joy and glee we have when we watch someone fail, crash and/or burn. It can range from a minor amusing mishap to a serious tragedy. Schadenfreude is particularly satisfying when misfortune affects people we despise. “Serves him right!”
In a sense, the term opens a window into our shadow self. Sure, Schadenfreude has always been expressed openly or in secret. But it seems it wasn’t until the term was coined that we had a way to pinpoint and label this bittersweet feeling. Being an export nation, Germany has exported the word to six other languages, including English.
The feeling is at your fingertips
Fingerspitzengefühl (literally: fingertip feeling) can mean many things depending on the context. If you considered having Fingerspitzengefühl you’re acutely aware of the intricacies of a delicate situation and know how to handle it. Tact, empathy, sensitivity, instinct, diplomatic talent, or generally the employment of a carefully calibrated skill set. These are all qualities attributed to this talent.
As such it’s the counterpart to the clumsy, awkward and inelegant Verschlimbesserer. Think of a bomb disposal expert who needs a steady hand and fine motor skills. Or a negotiator who brings together two parties who’d rather see each other dead than succeed.
The endless horizon of expectations
Erwartungshorizont (literally: expectations horizon) is a German word from the world of teaching. Before you give your students a task, you should know how to assess their answers. One of the best ways to do this is by doing the task yourself.
What would be a satisfactory response? What would be a good answer? Or an excellent one? Your expectations being conceptualised as a horizon implies they’re open-ended. There’s always a student who will solve your task in ways you didn’t expect. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a technical term. But there seems to be a genuine need for it in the English language.
The cringeworthiness of others
Everyone feels Fremdscham (literally: stranger’s shame) at some point in their lives. This reaction of misguided compassion is the feeling you have when you witness someone doing something cringeworthy. You feel ashamed on their behalf, especially if they’re oblivious to their own embarrassment. Unable to ignore it, Fremdscham effectively makes you feel as if you violated the social norm yourself.
Interestingly enough, it’s a term from psychology. Fremdscham can be addictive, too. Like a car accident from which you cannot look away. Or that cringeworthy reality TV show you can’t help but watch. When compassion goes wrong and you feel the feelings of someone else in such a way, it can have a compounding side-effect and trigger Kopfkino.
Justifying our existence
Daseinsberechtigung (literally: existence justification) is perhaps one of the most philosophical German words. The question of why we are even here is one of life’s Gretchenfragen. Failing to answer it and find our life’s purpose can cause us to fall for St George in Retirement Syndrome. Though, what the French call raison d’etre is not limited to the meaning of our lives.
In a melancholic reading, Daseinsberechtigung implies the need for a justification or even permission for one’s own existence. It can apply to more than just individuals. Even organisations, institutions and companies are eternally struggling to prove their work is indispensable. On a more positive note, perhaps our bonus German word helps you find your Daseinsberechtigung.
Finding your eternal soulmate
I am confident that never in the history of the German language has anyone ever uttered this expression other than as an ironic reference to the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. According to the show’s writers, Lebenslanger Schicksalsschatz (literally: life-long destiny darling) is a German expression for your one true soulmate.
Supposedly, you’d know when you found your Lebenslanger Schicksalsschatz because it “happens instantaneously”. This abomination of a German word is a notable attempt to create one with a deep philosophical meaning. Needless to say, it hasn’t found its way into everyday German since.
German is an equal-opportunity language. Everyone can have a go at packing as much philosophical punch as possible into a single word. Granted, most German DIY phrases are of little utility besides getting a few laughs or using them for effect as a linguistic oddity.
Grammatically everything is possible. Pragmatically not so much. But every now and then, someone strikes philosophical gold with a timeless German word that captures the Zeitgeist like no other expression.