Thoughts On… Word Hedgehogs

German is a brilliant language. And I will defend that to the grave.

I, like probably every single other person who’s ever learned German, am routinely tagged in the YouTube video of a lederhosen-clad caricature butchering the words ‘Krankenwagen’ and ‘Schmetterling’, among others. It’s true, German may not always be the most graceful language (although ‘Schmetterling’ is an adorable word if you say it right), but it has some of the best words I’ve ever heard.

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Part of the East Side Gallery (once the Berlin Wall)
That’s why it frustrates me sometimes that the German language has made so many concessions to the international prevalence of English (and often our ensuing arrogance that it’s the only language worth knowing) and has adopted so many English words into daily life. As a result, it has abandoned a few of its own brilliant, imaginative, and hilarious words for some of our far more boring ones. It’s for this reason that I want to spend some time today talking about the poor, endangered ‘word hedgehog’. ‘Der Wortigel’.

Picture if you will, a small hedgehog drawn in the centre of a piece of paper, balled up, with all its little spines spread round in a circle, and in this case, all the spines have words written at the ends of them relating to one general theme. In English, you may recognise this as ‘a mind map’. In German, this is now also almost exclusively referred to as… ‘die Mindmap’. I know… it’s tragic. The poor word hedgehog has been callously tossed aside and is now facing imminent extinction. When I was told the plight of this unfortunate creature by my German teacher, I was so moved that I told her, from then on, I would exclusively refer to mind maps in English as ‘word hedgehogs’. Join me, fellow English and German speakers! Protect the word hedgehog.

And don’t even get me started on the poor ‘Klammeraffe’, the spider monkey, who has completely lost his job as the @ symbol…

German has definitely been my favourite language to learn: French and I never clicked as easily, Mandarin was too much for my eleven year old brain, and I don’t remember much about learning English. Although I do distinctly remember walking down a corridor in Primary School, genuinely ecstatic after learning the word ‘ecstatic’.

Just tell me you don’t love German after learning these words:

  • Der Erbsenzähler: someone who is so anal they are literally a ‘pea counter’.
  • Die Faultier: ‘lazy animal’, or sloth. A friend reminded me that we weren’t really much more original with the English term, but ‘lazy animal’ is just so much more literal.
  • Die Gummistiefel: wellies. There’s nothing particularly special about this word, I just think it sounds adorable.
  • Meine Schokoladenseite: my ‘good side’, but literally means ‘my chocolate side’.
  • Die Frühjahrsmüdigkeit: the feeling of weariness in springtime (apparently that’s a thing and the Germans have a word for it).
  • Die Bandwurmwörter: ‘tapeworm words’ – for those German words that just get too long…!
  • Der Kummerspeck: ‘grief bacon’ – weight that you gain as a result of emotional overeating.
  • Die Torschlußpanik: ‘closed gate panic’ – fear of missing out on an opportunity because time is running out, particularly in the context of getting older.
  • Die Schnappsidee: ‘schnapps idea’ – an idea you come up with while drunk.
  • Die Erklärungsnot: being caught doing something wrong and being absolutely tongue-tied for an explanation.
  • Der Treppenwitz: coming up with the perfect response… 10 minutes after the end of the conversation.
  • Fuchsteufelswild: ‘fox devil wild’ – wild animal rage (Google translates it as ‘hopping mad’: not quite the same meaning!).

I’m sure we can agree that the above words are absolutely fantastic, which is why I die a little bit inside whenever I see and hear things like ‘der Burnout’, ‘sorry’, ‘das Happyending’, ‘der Make-Up-Artist’, ‘das Teambuilding’, ‘downloaden’ and ‘fifty-fifty’.

The most ridiculous thing I’ve probably seen is this billboard currently in U-Bahn stations in Berlin. The smallprint at the bottom is actually a translation of the advert’s main tag line, which I feel is kind of missing the point.

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It’s not the case that the German language is taking all its words from English. That would be ridiculous. If anything, historically, it’s the other way round. Both languages are very similar and share a lot of the same linguistic roots. Sometimes I do wonder why I’m actually bothering to learn it. See if you can work out these words:

German words

 

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Although some things just don’t translate well…
I could go on and on and on and on.

Once you know some of the simpler words, the common sound combinations, and some basic grammar you can work out a surprising amount.
Obviously it takes a little more than that to become fluent, otherwise I wouldn’t need a year here, but it just shows that we shouldn’t dismiss German as a harsh, uninteresting, and alien language and we actually share more with it than we think.

I’ll just leave you with the fact that in German ‘ein Zungenbrecher’ (a tongue twister) doesn’t just twist your tongue. It breaks it.
Okay, so maybe sometimes the German language can be a bit unforgiving…

 

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Martin Luther, who did a lot to standardise the German language with his translation of the Bible into German in the sixteenth century
 

 


2 thoughts on “Thoughts On… Word Hedgehogs

  1. Nicely gewritten 😁
    Definitely do one on German idioms.
    My least favourite word is Penaltyschießen – but that’s for (too many) historical reasons!

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