Schadenfreude—feeling satisfaction because of someone else's misfortune—isn't the only phenomenon perfectly encapsulated by the German language. There's lots more where that came from! Here are 7 wonderfully expressive German words that you’ll wish you’d learned years ago...
We’ve all been there—you try with all your might to remember something, but you just can't seem to do it. In German, a mnemonic device to jog your memory is called an Eselsbrücke, which amusingly translates to “donkey bridge.” The term’s origin is just as charming as its name: People often have to build small bridges over streams so donkeys can cross, as they are notoriously wary of water and stubbornly refuse to cross even shallow areas. In a similar vein, we construct mental bridges to overcome memory hurdles. For instance, when remembering the four cardinal directions, German speakers use the phrase Nie ohne Seife waschen (Never wash without soap) for Norden (North), Osten (East), Süden (South) and Westen (West).
Have you ever found yourself in a cringe-worthy situation, witnessing someone do or say something that makes you squirm with discomfort? German speakers have a word for this unpleasant sensation! While sich schämen means to feel ashamed of oneself, sich fremdschämen expresses the feeling of being embarrassed on behalf of someone else. The adjective fremd means “foreign,” “unfamiliar,” or “someone else’s,” so Fremdsprache means "foreign language" and fremdschämen is like foreign (or secondhand) embarrassment! The next time you're the unfortunate observer of a painfully awkward moment, help yourself through it by remembering this unique German verb and feeling camaraderie with the German speakers who get it.
In German-speaking countries, Christmas is traditionally celebrated on December 24th. This means that you don't have to wait until December 25th to unwrap your presents! The act of handing out presents, the Bescherung, takes place on Christmas Eve. The word is derived from the verb bescheren (to give or bestow) and is also used in an ironic sense—if you exclaim Hier haben wir die Bescherung! (Here we have the Bescherung!), you are not referring to any wonderful Christmas presents, but rather to an unpleasant surprise that has been foisted upon you. If you got a dog for Christmas after wanting one for years, you certainly had a great Bescherung… but if your new puppy then steals the Christmas dinner and knocks over your tree in the process, well, that’s a schöne Bescherung indeed.
Zugzwang comes to German from the world of chess, but it's now used in everyday German! It describes a situation where any possible move will only make matters worse for the player whose turn it is: The player would prefer not to move, but they have to and so are under Zugzwang. Outside of chess, Zugzwang refers to a situation in which one is compelled to make a choice or decision—but in non-chess German, it doesn't necessarily mean a disadvantageous result.
If you have a strong imagination, your Kopfkino can be like your very own film festival. The term literally means “head cinema” and encompasses anything from memories to daydreams to worst-case scenarios. What they all have in common is that the scenes you think about play out in your mind as vividly as if you were watching a movie. So grab some popcorn and let your mind take you on a cinematic journey! 🍿
Imagine you’ve baked a delicious chocolate cake for a friend’s birthday and left it on the counter to cool. A few hours later, you find your roommate standing in front of the empty cake plate with a chocolate-smeared face. In this awkward moment, your roommate would likely struggle to find the right words to explain or justify the situation—they are in Erklärungsnot. Erklärung simply means “explanation,” and the not at the end translates to “distress” or “necessity.” You'll frequently see Erklärungsnot in the context of politics, but this state of being at a loss for words can just as easily happen to you or anyone around you, when you’re expected to explain certain circumstances. The moral of the story: Hide your chocolate cake!
Sturmfrei literally translates to “storm-free,” and originally it was used to express that a castle or fortress couldn’t be stormed because it was so well-secured. Today, sturmfrei now means having the house all to yourself because the people you live with aren’t there: Your "castle" is secured! It's used for a person relishing a quiet evening with their roommates, or for a parent's rare night off when their kids are at a friend’s place. But, let’s face it: The most common scenario is a teenager seizing the opportunity and throwing a my-parents-have-absolutely-no-idea party. 🎉 🙌
These words give us *feelings*
Learning German isn't just about words and grammar—it's about viewing the world through a new lens. Stay curious and bis zum nächsten Mal (until next time)!