Ten award-winning German words

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‘Ugly, me?'(library.sandiegozoo.org)

After ten years in Switzerland, living right on the French/Swiss-German language border, I have gradually been won over by the charms of the German language. Like many foreigners here I started off with classes in one of the adult education centres run by the Swiss retail chain Migros. The learning curve is dragged down a bit by the huge gulf between the standard German learned in class and the dialect spoken by the locals, but hey you get there eventually.

Which brings me to my list today. One of the joys of learning a new language is finding words that express new concepts and ideas, or that describe familiar concepts in different ways. As a newcomer to a language you can also appreciate words purely for how they sound. Without further ado …

1. Ameise (ant): This is the year of the ant in our garden and with a three year old who points out every member of the animal kingdom with equal excitement, including the humble ant, Ameise is a word I hear very often. Far superior to ‘ant’, Ameise (almost rhymes with Eliza) is a great word to announce dramatically.

2. Kavaliersdelikt (peccadillo): One of those compound words that are the hallmark of German, I like the marrying of Kavalier (gentleman) – with Delikt (offence). These days Kavaliersdelikt, which has such a breezy devil-may-care ring to it, is mostly used in the context of the international tax dispute. Part of the reason Switzerland is viewed as a tax haven is because tax evasion is considered a Kavaliersdelikt in this country, i.e. no big deal.

3. Übrigens (by the way): I just enjoy this word because I learnt it early on and managed to sound like I had a bigger vocabulary by sticking it at the beginning of random sentences. Also it sounds funny to my ear – ‘oobrigens’ – as if it’s referring to something rude or silly.

4. Hebamme (midwife): There should be a reggae song written in German with the title Hebamme (sort of rhymes with Obama). It’s one of those bouncy musical words that instantly appeal to me. Might also have something to do with my HUGE respect for this line of work – the true oldest female profession, alongside farmer, market vendor, weaver, child minder, chef and healer. (Side rant: I really think we should protest every time we see prostitution referred to as “the oldest profession”. Enough already!)

5. Baubewilligung (building permission): There is a host of compound words made up with Bewilligung (w pronounced as v in German), such as residence permit, a nice long one Niederlassungsbewilligung. Bau, pronounced like the bow of a ship gives a good punch to this word.

6. Schwach (weak): You’ve got the ‘sh’, the ‘v’ and the ‘ch’ (like Scottish Loch) here. It’s a word you can really get your teeth and throat into. Although it means weak it’s a strong word. Imagine a vindictive voice shouting: ‘Du bist Schwach!’ Scary.

7. Vielfalt (variety): Pronounced feel-falt, I like the Fs and the Ls here. It’s all’s very soft and it’s another one of those words you can use early on to give the impression of an advanced vocabulary.

8. Verrückt (crazy, mad): This is another very expressive word, especially when you hear it pronounced the Swiss-German way as they have a pretty extreme ‘K’ which sounds like someone clearing their throat before spitting. It’s interesting too that the Swiss Germans use verrückt to mean angry as well, like the American double meaning of the word mad.

9. Einsamkeit (loneliness): There’s something gentle about this word. It’s romantic, poetic. You can just imagine someone writing it in a love letter 100 years ago. In general I like the –keit ending (pronounced ‘kite’), like Aufmerksamkeit (attention), Möglichkeit (possibility) and the old chestnut Ausländerfeindlichkeit (xenophobia).

10. Schildkröte (tortoise): I’ve sneaked this one in, not because I like it – I actually find it quite ugly – but because I can never remember the word and I hope to conquer it once and for all here.

I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying foreign words. Anyone care to add to the German list or present some favourite words from other languages? I’m all ears!

4 thoughts on “Ten award-winning German words

  1. My Swiss German favorites:
    Finke – Sandal
    Dräck – dirt
    Chrüsimüsi – all mixed up
    Gwafföör – Hairdresser
    Abig – evening
    Mercy vielmol – Thanks a lot
    Schiint – Shine
    Pressiere – Hurry up
    Füdli – Ass /Butt

    1. Excellent list, thank you! I also think Füdli is cute, along with many other -li words like Meitli (little girl), Broteli (bread roll) and it’s always nice to be offered ‘as Kaffeli’ (a little coffee).

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