Ten award-winning German words

‘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!

By the Old Gods and the New


It is one hundred years since French mathematician Émile Borel first coined the metaphor of the typing monkeys. Finally, a mathematical theorem everyone could remember and broadly understand, even without a proper grasp of the concepts of infinity, probability and time.

(Quick reminder – an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.)

Here’s another one to ponder, more historical pattern than a theorem. Isolate a group of people for long enough and they will make up their own religion. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of illustrating this human phenomenon.

From the Old Gods of the Forest to the Faith of the Seven, the Drowned God to the Lord of Light, there’s something for everyone in Martin’s brilliant array of belief systems. Fire, water, sand, horse blood, ancient trees – anything can be ascribed sacred properties in his fantasy kingdoms, as in the real world.

Of course not all religions evolve over countless generations, some enterprising folk fast forward the whole process by putting together their own faith package either from scratch or rehashing a new version of what’s gone before. If Martin has the imagination to create a dozen religions, clearly there are enough creative individuals out there with the ability to produce one.

Once the basic stuff is established – the back story of the religion, who or what to worship and a description of the afterlife – there is the option to make up a set of rules for everyday life. It doesn’t matter how silly these rules are, people will lap it up.

Baseball caps must be worn at all times by anyone over the age of ten, breakfast must be eaten within four minutes of waking up, no drinks may be consumed cold, brush you hair only with your left hand, no sex on Mondays, no work on Tuesdays, hop on one leg on Wednesdays. Throw in something about women being simple minded, dangerous, or in some way tainted with evil and you are onto a winner.

My own religion Clarism involves a lot of tea lights and a special devotion to butterflies and tomato plants. I’ll spare you the complicated story linking these elements. Followers are marked with chalk on their foreheads and always carry pepper on their person. Each new convert is allowed to add one line to our holy book in the quest for the one true story. And we’ll all live forever in the eternal lake of dreams.

The Hedgehog News

Everyone knows if you find a dead hedgehog it’s yours. So why is Manny taking over? Because he’s a robber, that’s why. Actually the hedgehog didn’t look that badly hurt the day I found him; only the left back bit was squashed so from one side he looked perfect. I just couldn’t leave him there on the side of the road. Vultures might get him. Now the whole street is coming to look at him under the hedge. Manny is explaining stuff about the maggots and poking with a stick. It’s the last secret I’m ever telling him. I think it’s all because no one else is just my age. Other ages don’t understand the same things. My Mum is sorry about this. It’s just a fluke, she says – twelve houses, twenty-one kids but not a single other seven year old. We weren’t to know, she says. I’m kind of not trusting Mum at the moment since I found some of my Christmas craftwork in the bin. They’re supposed to love that stuff.

When Dad said he was going to a place called Dubai, I laughed. It didn’t sound like a real place – Doob I, Do Bye – I was sure he was joking. But he just looked away for a couple of seconds like he was thinking hard what to say next and then he told me to get the atlas. Maybe he thought I was annoyed he was leaving but at first I was more annoyed about not knowing Dubai was a real place. I know loads of capitals, even really strange ones like Venezuela and Moldova. He taught me them when I was small and we had fun surprising people with that.

Now I’ve learnt a new word which is temporary. But if something is really temporary you should know when the end is. They said he would visit all the time. One week every three months is not all the time. I have a calendar in my bedroom. It’s got pictures of street children in Brazil. One of them definitely looks seven. It’s a pity he doesn’t live here. I’m starting not to like families with Dads living at home but I don’t tell people that.

Everyone keeps telling me isn’t it great we have skype. I don’t know. It might be great if you didn’t have a three-year-old sister. Hannah ruins every call. She climbs over me and taps on the keyboard and talks really loud. Dad doesn’t even understand what she’s saying. Also I don’t like the looking thing. You can’t look at each other properly. I don’t think Dad knows what to ask me.

It’s all because of the mortgage, according to Mum. Mortgage is another word for house. We’d lose the house if Dad didn’t take this job. I mean the house is OK but maybe we could move to a street with more seven-year-old boys. Would that be so bad? Mum didn’t like this question. She is not interested in things like hedgehogs but if Dad was here he would come and see him with me. Then he could tell me Manny is wrong and this doesn’t happen to people too.

Finally I did get skype time alone with Dad. Mum had this idea he could read a chapter a night so we’ve started a great old fashioned story called Kidnapped. The good thing about this is that Hannah is in bed. And the looking thing doesn’t matter; I just watch his face while he looks at the book. I asked Dad last night did he know what happens to hedgehogs after they die. He went quiet for a while and then started talking about animal heaven and it got a bit complicated and I didn’t want him to feel silly. I guess I won’t tell him about the hedgehog after all.

Post visit stress disorder

One thing my family does quite well is emigrate but the experience has changed fundamentally through the generations. When my grandmother’s siblings emigrated to the US in the 1920s and 1930s, they knew they would only cross the Atlantic once. Visits home were unheard of for most long-distance emigrants of that era. When my uncles emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the trip back to Ireland was still expensive and they mostly came back once a year – until they found English wives and then less often. Even my older cousins who emigrated to the US and London in the 1980s baulked at the price of phone calls and visits were infrequent.

I can only imagine to what degree they suffered homesickness and loneliness in their new homes. Ultimately they were forced to let go. For better or for worse they built new lives for themselves.

Mine has been a very different type of emigration. Ten years ago I left Ireland to come and live in Switzerland and now new family ties keep me here. The trouble is I haven’t left Ireland behind, I can’t and I don’t want to. All the time that I’m forging a new life here for myself, I’m carrying around an ailing version of my old one. Through email, phone calls, skype and texts and regular visits I try to keep up contact – but it is an imperfect and fractured kind of contact. I try to stay close but people are having crises I know nothing about and I am having a crisis I never get to explain.

The truth is I come back from visits to Ireland like a bag of cats, suffering from a kind of post visit stress disorder. Instead of being happy that I got to see one aunt, a friend who lost his mother at Christmas, my niece and nephews, my mother and sisters, and a college friend back from England (all in three days!), I am tormented by guilt and regret over the other people I didn’t get to see or speak to, some of whom I didn’t even tell I was coming (more guilt). The long visits are even worse because we all have the mistaken impression two weeks is a long time. Arrangements add up and people say “sure we’ll see you again before you go” and next thing I know I’m squeezing in appointments like a greedy doctor and I’m using my mother’s house like a hotel with free babysitting.

I like to imagine that one day, when my working life is through and my children are established in their own lives, I will end up in an old folks’ home with my sisters, close cousins and friends. We will hang out on the porch, enjoying warm Irish summer evenings (it is a fantasy) and we will talk, talk talk. We will finally get to catch up on all those missing years and belatedly support each other through every past triumph and disaster and all the humdrum days in between. If I find myself feeling nostalgic about post visit stress disorder – not impossible, I can develop nostalgia for almost anything – all I’ll have to do is book a flight back to Switzerland.

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

Swiss crimes against tea

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When it comes to tea, different cultures have different ideas about what is appropriate and what is criminal adulteration. As an Irish tea drinker I am not a tea lover in the gourmet sense. I would never dream of owning a collection of fine teas. I shudder at the thought of accidently consuming Earl Grey. It’s got to be pure black and preferably one of the classic blends that have been sold by the Irish market leaders for generations. This is what we are talking about when we say we’d love a cup of tea.

Living in Switzerland over the past decade I am now wise to the dangers of tea crimes in everyday life here and can avoid the worst. For the uninitiated:

Crime number 1 – Hospitali-tea: Beware of a Swiss person, or French or German, offering you a cup of tea. If you listen closely you will hear that they are saying: Would you like a tea? Can you hear the broad sweep in there? It could mean literally anything, from lemon and ginger to a fruit berry concoction but almost never means a regular cup of black tea. The worst thing is when you are caught off guard and say yes gratefully to the offer of tea only to be presented with a cup of perfumed water which could not be further from the actual beverage you were gasping for.

Crime number 2 – Austeri-tea: You may work your way through the different brands of Schwarztee/ thé noir as systematically as you like, they all share the same unforgiveable weakness – weakness. Put the tea bag in and you will be drawing a pension before it draws to the right strength. Needless to say you can forget squeezing out a second cup.

Crime number 3 – Traves-tea: Sometimes, despite the best laid plans, you are going to have to order a cup of tea in a café or restaurant because it’s just what you want at that moment more than anything else in the world. Let’s ignore the fact that the French-speaking Swiss waiter will sometimes bring a can of sickly sweet iced tea because this is a more popular drink, the biggest problem is that you will be served a cup of hot water IN A GLASS. The water is not boiling hot and it does not contain tea. No, the tea is in an individually wrapped tea bag on the saucer. Good luck cobbling together a cup of tea with these raw materials.

Crime number 4 – Duplici-tea: In my book a cup of tea needs a decent splash of cold full-fat fresh milk before it is complete. This is considered an eccentricity in this part of the world, very Miss Marple. Tea here is served with no accompaniment apart from sugar and if you have the temerity to ask for milk you will be given one tiny container of UHT creamer. I don’t know what this milk-like product actually is, some kind of cream/milk hybrid, but it does not belong in a cup of tea, even in minute quantities.

Crime number 5 – Atroci-tea: A proper cup of tea belongs in the brown and amber part of the colour spectrum. The final crime against tea in Switzerland is not only that it is weak but also that it lets down the eye. When the milk is added all you have is an insipid grey brew which is about as appetising as all the other grey foods we like to consume. Oh wait, there aren’t any.

Disclaimer: Although black tea is my special area of prejudice, I have to admire how knowledgeable the Swiss are about the medicinal properties of various teas. A new mother in hospital will be served breastfeeding tea, babies with conjunctivitis have their eyes cleaned with cold black tea, children with stomach ache are given fennel tea and in every supermarket you can buy cough tea, bladder tea and, most importantly, calming tea.

Image courtesy of podpad at FreeDigitalPhotos.net