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These militaristic German words aren’t

Militaristic German words: Arschbombe

 

Literally: Ass bomb. It’s none of those things you’re thinking. Not even close. It’s not even gross. And in America we use our own militaristic lingo to describe it: The cannonball. That thing you do off the edge of the pool to drench your sister. Straighten a leg out while you’re doing it and you’ve got a jackknife. But Germans don’t do jackknives, they just do Arschbomben. They’re purists.

 

Militaristic German words: Tintenkiller

 

Literally: Ink killer. Germans make children learn to write with fountain pens, like 16th century monks. The kids need some way to correct their mistakes and that way is Tintenkiller. It kills the ink so it is no longer alive on the page. Most German elementary school kids believe the magic ingredient in Tintenkiller is animal urine, specifically bull urine. And yet they use it happily every day.

In America we had the No. 2 pencil with an eraser. But Germans sometimes like to deny technological advances and so, during writing class, they make their children live as though there is not yet running water. Or penicillin. But Tintenkiller.

 

Militaristic German words: Mordshunger

 

Literally: Murderous hunger. I was well into my 30s before I ever heard the word “hangry”, that thing you get when you’re hungry and everyone is annoying as F–k. Like Gilbert Godfried. The kind of annoyed that makes you leave a restaurant because you think the service is too slow only to discover on the sidewalk that you’re still super hangry. And now annoyed at your own impatience. And also hungry.

If you’ve never heard the word “hangry” before and you’re a little thick, it’s a combination of “hungry” and “angry”. But Germans don’t have a word like that because it would be sauunger (sauer hunger) or bönger (böse hunger), which make no sense. In Germany it’s murderous hunger. It means you’re really, really hungry. So hungry you could kill someone.

But not eat them.

 

Militaristic German words: Gulaschkanone
Foto thanks Mister G.C. via Creative Commons.

 

Literally: Goulash cannon. The other words on this page make sense at some level. We might have even figured out their meaning ourselves if we didn’t have German friends. But Gulaschkanone makes no sense. Not even close. A Gulaschkanone is a giant vat of goulash, which is a great stew of meat, tomatoes and paprika. Best served with bread dumplings and a cold beer, unless you’re underage, in which case don’t get caught with the beer.

The Gulaschkanone is most often loaded during parties and festivals and is more often than not a surplus field kitchen. Of course the German army – the Bundeswehr – is the biggest source of goulash cannons. You line up to get a bowl of goulash from the cannon. Usually the guy serving is in a good mood.

Be forewarned, a Gulaschkanone is not always loaded with goulash. Sometimes it’s full of pea soup. But they’ll still call it a Gulaschkanone. A Gulaschkanone with Erbsensuppe (pea soup).

 

Militaristic German words: Sturmfreie Bude

 

Literally: Storm-free abode (Bude is German slang for your place of living. Your crib. Your pad). I speak pretty good German. But I don’t always really, really know the meanings of German words and sayings. Often I just go with instincts. The same instincts that had me ordering erections at the cafe for months. Sturmfreie Bude is one of those times. Germans use it when they have the house to themselves — like when the parents are off to Mallorca or the kids are at camp, helping to write automotive emissions software.

“Great!” your friends would say, “Sturmfreie Bude!” Up until five minutes ago I assumed that meant the house is clear and you can storm in, like an army. Throw in some flashbangs, get out your battering ram and storm into the house because there’s no one in there.

But I looked it up over at Deutsche Welle and the killjoys over there say it means that the house is free of being stormed. No one’s going to storm in and interrupt you while you do whatever it is you do when you have Sturmfreie Bude.

That sounds slightly lascivious but since the family’s off traveling around Europe and I happen to have Sturmfreie Bude, I can tell you exactly what I do: Hang out on our bed with the cats and watch Netflix.

The middle-aged married bachelor’s version of Netflix and Chill.

Sturmfrei!

Militaristic German words: Kissenschlacht

Literally: Pillow slaughter (ok, ok, Schlacht also means battle). So the English version, pillow fight, isn’t much different. My kids were just looking for a reason to have a pillow fight.

 

How I made my kids bilingual

*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.

We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.

Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.

Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.

“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.

Just because I conjugated incorrectly.

 

bilingual kids

We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.

But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.

“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”

But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.

When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.

There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.

Making kids bilingual

My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.

Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.

Creepy.

We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.

I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.

“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”

My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”

The cowboy just laughed.

I never spoke German to him again.

Yes, there is a German word for it

Compound German words

There’s a new saying for whenever someone finds themselves in a strange position: “There must be a German word for this.”

I’m not a big fan of the saying because of course there’s a German word for it. Not because the language is so expansive or all-encompassing. But because if there isn’t a word for it, you can make one. German, as the joke goes, is the Lego of languages. You can take entire words, weld them together into compound words and then open an amusement park full of your wonderful creations.

Want to express a prevailing funk affecting everyone? Weltschmerz (pain of the world)! How about a dry, precise definition of your current love interest? Lebensabschnittpartner (life segment companion)! Wet-dry vacuum? Nasssauger (wet sucker)! Wanna talk about the captain of a steamboat on the Donau river? Donaudampfschiffs… ach, never mind. No one actually wants to talk about him, they just want to point out the length of his, ahem, title (one of the longest German words).

Compound German words
Kinderfasching (Kids’ Carnival) is a derisive term for an absurd situation.

But my favorites are the casual ones. The ones that are used in everyday conversation at the water cooler or in the Biergarten (See? Compound German words are everywhere!). Verschlimmbessern – which means to make something worse despite trying to improve it. It’s a mutant of the two words verschlimmern (make worse) and verbessern (improve) but contains the DNA of as many as half a dozen words. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I wasn’t at the autopsy.

Verschlimmbessern is something anyone who’s ever worked in a committee can identify with. Also, anyone who ever had a boss.

Wichtigtuer is perhaps the only German word for which we have a single word: Poseur.

Ok, the French have a single word for.

And then there’s Jein, which is the child of the inevitable romance between ja (yes) and nein (no). There might actually be twins but it’s difficult to tell.

People who use jein are sometimes the subject of derision, much like anyone with a penchant for dad jokes (dads, for instance) and Millennials who literally have too much love for the word “literally”. There’s even a compound word for these kind of people: Warmduscher (someone who takes a warm shower because they’re not tough enough to take a cold shower, like a German).

However, most people accusing Jeinsager (people who use the word “jein”) of being Warmduscher often have to resort to using jein because, like most German compound words, jein can be so ideal for a particular situation.

I know. I’m one of those people.

“Were you happy with today’s blogpost Drew?”

Jein.

There must be a linguistic reason why the German language is so good at cementing words together to create bigger meaning. But you’ll have to find someone with a real degree and a measurable IQ to find the answer. I’m just here to tell you the lay of the land, ergo the Gesamtsituation (the current situation, though the German seems more exact).

To be fair, we do something similar in English. It’s just that instead of devising single words, we form complete sentences. Like humans. An American comedian – Rich Hall – once tried to adopt the German practice to the English language. He called the Frankenstein words “Sniglets”. But in the end it was more Spassmacherei (forced fun) than Verbesserungsvorschläge (suggestions for improvement).

My secret to learning German: Asterix and Obelix

When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.

Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.

My German wasn’t great.

learning German secret

After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.

I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.

But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.

I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.

But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?

It didn’t really matter.

Learning German

The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.

Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.

Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.

Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”

I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.