12 German Words With No Direct English Translation

The German language uses long, descriptive words to describe concepts English speakers have never even thought of, many of which are super depressing. It’s a cool language because if you want to invent a new word, you can just stick a whole bunch of other words together. As a native German speaker who’s lived in the US since I was little, I feel qualified to teach you some of the most magical words in the German language. Feel free to start using them in English, since it’s already a hodgepodge of Germanic and Romantic languages.


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Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. When you laugh at someone else falling down the stairs, that’s Schadenfreude.


Volkswagen made up this fun word that means the joy of driving. Look at this amazing ad from 1990 (jesus 1990 was a long time ago, this ad looks so old). Fahrvergnügen. Fahrvergnügen. Fahrvergnügen. It really is fun to say.


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You have Weltschmerz when you’re depressed because of the terrible state of the world. It’s sadness or depression, but not about your own life, just because everything sucks so hard.


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You know when you’re watching a movie and a character is doing something so embarrassing that you die on the inside for them? Think about that part in The 40 Year Old Virgin where he’s biking home and crying like “bags of sand?!” That’s Fremdschämen.


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When someone has a really punchable face, they have a Backpfeifengesicht. Martin Shkreli is a great example. What a Backpfeifengesicht.


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I know, I know, you can’t stand an article about Germany that doesn’t bring up the Nazis even once so here you go — Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a word that Germans really needed to invent because of the sh*t that’s gone down there. It means coming to terms with the past, or dealing with the negative parts of the past. In Germany, Vergangenheitsbewältigung refers to how Germans deal with the legacy of the Nazi regime. You can use it in other contexts, though — if you were a bully in elementary school, you might need to do some Vergangenheitsbewältigung yourself.


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Fernweh is the opposite of homesickness. It’s the longing for places far away, the desire to leave home. Interesting that the language that gave us the word “Wanderlust” has another great word for people with a traveling soul (or who are just from a crappy hometown).


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Doch is a really handy word that many languages have an equivalent of but gets confusing in English. One possible translation is “nuh-uh”, though it really has so many uses it’s hard to explain. In English, an exchange would go like this: “You’re not going home, right?” “No.” Then you’d be like “…no, you’re not going home? Or no I was wrong, you are going home?” But in German, you’d say “doch” — and that would mean that the speaker was incorrect and you are indeed going home. There are more ways to use it, but then you’re just getting into grammar and that’s boring.


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Dachlawinen are roof avalanches, when all the snow falls off your roof at once. This is such an issue in Germany that some buildings post signs warning you of your impending doom should you dare to walk or park under a possible snow dump.


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A Schnapsidee is literally an idea you came up with under the influence of schnapps — a drunk idea that doesn’t make any sense.


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Torschlusspanik literally means panic at the closing of gates. It’s that feeling you get when you’re getting older and you see opportunities passing you by, you’re not getting where you want to be in life and your hopes for a bright, shiny future get dimmer and dimmer. Damn, Germans can be really dark.


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In order to explain Sehnsucht in English, you have to use a French word — Sehnsucht is basically when you’re missing, lacking, or craving a je ne sais quoi. It’s a yearning for a better life you can’t have, a sadness at how much life is lacking. The Germans really get deep about our misery.

Think you’ll start using any of these words? If you’re German, do you have any good ones I missed? Tweet at me and let me know @erikaheidewald

Erika Heidewald
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