The times when learning German has made me feel like a real geek

The Local editor Jörg Luyken gets a nerdy kick every time a German word helps him understand a little more about his own language.

The times when learning German has made me feel like a real geek
Photo: DPA

One of the things I really like about learning a new language as an adult is that you spot absurdities that you don’t often see if it's your mother tongue.

As children we seem to accept ridiculous words at face value, so that by the time we've grown up we have stopped noticing their weirdness. It took a German comedian to open the eyes of the English-speaking world to just how strange the word daddy-longlegs is.

The German word that always cracked me up when I was first learning was Bock. Literally it means a ram or a buck, but you mostly hear it in the colloquial phrase hast du Bock? which means do you want to do something. If you’re turning the invitation down, the reply is nein, Ich hab keinen Bock. An invitation to the cinema sounds like it involves an ancient bartering system. ‘Got a ram for the cinema?’ ‘Sorry, I’m all out of ram today’.

There are other examples of words which Germans use without a moment’s reflection, but which still make me laugh. Their word for nipple is the incredibly unerotic Brustwarze, literally a breast wart; they make your toilet seem like a pervert by calling the part you put your bum on its Klobrille (toilet-glasses); even the word for gloves, Handschuhe (hand shoes), conjures up images of Germans scurrying around on all fours when the weather gets cold.

But taking the language literally isn’t just funny, it’s also informative. For me at least, it provides a nerdy rush of excitement when I realize the hidden meaning behind an English word.

My first eureka moment happened when I was visiting my German grandfather on a stormy winter morning several years ago.

‘Ist ja Donnerstag,’ my nonagenarian companion commented sagely, as thunder rumbled across the field.

Only after several sips of coffee did I realize what he meant. Donners-tag, the day of thunder.

“Thunder, hmmm. Thursday, hmmm.” I let my thoughts percolate.

Then it struck me, yes, like a bold out of the blue. If Thursday is thunder-day, it is surely no coincidence that Thur is one letter away from Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

Indeed, it was no coincidence. It was one of the first words in my, and every other child’s vocabulary, and I had never even realized what it meant. I soon discovered that all the days of the week except Saturday were named after Norse gods.

There have been several other moments of lucidity since. When rock climbing, I realized when my German partner kept talking about abseilen that every time we go abseiling in Britain we are using the German for 'rope down.'

One that only recently struck me was the real meaning of Austria. In a conversation of broken English with a Syrian, he told me that he’d travelled through Nimsa before coming to Germany. Eventually I figured out he was talking about Austria. A bit of googling revealed that the Arabic word is derived from the Slavic for eastern kingdom. Of course, I thought – Öster-reich, eastern realm. Apparently the name goes back to the days when Bavaria had its own kingdom and Aust-ria was a vassal state in the east. So, even if the Bavarians aren't best pleased about being taken over by Prussia in the 19th century, they can content themselves with still being masters of Austria, in name at least.

It could be that I have a deplorably unquestioning mind. Perhaps most people knew these hidden meanings all along. But learning German has often given me a geeky sense of excitement that I’m hacking into the code of the English language.

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10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.