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SWISS GERMAN

Nine fun Swiss German words without an English translation

Some Swiss German words are so culturally specific, or just so strange, that it is impossible to translate them – at least not in a simple, elegant way. From dogs' funerals to egg bumping, some Swiss German words just don't make it across the translation divide.

A large herd of sheep stare directly at the camera.
Schafseckel? What did you call me? Be careful of the language that you use. It might get you in trouble. Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

Often summed up by a phrase which starts “the Germans actually have a word for…”, the extensive vocabulary of the German language is legendary. 

Much of this is due to the German phenomenon of composite nouns, which creates single words which would be multiple words in other languages such as English. 

Examples of this include Aufenthaltstitel (residency permit) and Unabhängigkeitserklärung (declaration of independence). The word ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ literally translates to ‘forest loneliness’, a specific feeling that in most languages would require several words. 

When you add Swiss German into the mix, you have a wide range of words which are either difficult or impossible to translate. 

Here are some of the best. Want more fun Swiss German words? Then check out the following. 

Bettmümpfeli

Did you wake up with crumbs in the bed this morning? Or was there a mysterious plate by the kitchen sink when you went to make coffee?

Chances are that someone in the house got an attack of the late-night munchies, or as it called in Swiss German, a Bettmümpfeli.

Translating literally to ‘bedtime treats’, Bettmümpfeli is a difficult word to say but a feeling we all understand. 

Hundsverlocheti

The Swiss German word ‘Hundsverlocheti’ literally means a ‘dog’s burial’ but it has nothing to do with canine expiration.

Instead, the term refers to an event no one in their right mind would want to go to.

For example, you might say to someone who goes out to every party or happening in town no matter how unexciting it is “Du gosch a jede Hundesverlochti”.

This means something along the lines of “You’ll find any old reason to go out (even a dog’s burial)”.

Feierabend

The Swiss work a lot: around 40 to 42 hours a week is average for a full-time job at a Swiss company. But the plus side is that, generally speaking, the Swiss don’t take their work home.

That magical moment when the working day is done and you are free to leave is known as ‘Feierabend’ (literally ‘celebration evening’) and is pronounced something like Fürabet – depending, of course, what part of Switzerland you are in.

You could, for example, ask someone: ‘Wenn hesch fürabet?’, which means “When do you get off (work)?”

The word is also commonly used in high German. 

READ MORE: Why every country should get on board with the German Feierabend

What’s the best way to celebrate Feierabend? With a Feierabendbier, of course. 

Eiertütsche

It’s safe to say that ‘Eiertütsche’ is not the most useful word on this list, but is popular at certain times of the year as it is seasonal.

Eiertütsche (or ‘Egg bumping) refers to a game in which animal products and sublimated warfare are combined in one brilliant package. The combat involves hard-boiled eggs being knocked against each other.

The owner of the egg with the harder shell (the one that doesn’t break) is the winner. Anyone familiar with the British game of conkers where chestnuts are smashed into each other will get the picture. Who knew Easter could be this much fun?

READ MORE: Five of the more peculiar Swiss Easter traditions

Schafseckel

No list of Swiss German words would be complete without one swear word containing a) a reference to an animal and b) a reference to an anatomical nether region.

In this case, the animal is a sheep (Schaf) and the part of the anatomy is the testicles (from ‘Seckel’ meaning something like sack or bag).

Although the word might sound cute, it is a strong insult akin to ‘wanker’ or ‘asshole’. You have been warned.

Chuchichäschtli

The word Chuchichäschtli came in on top of a poll of Local readers favourite Swiss German words in 2020. 

It means kitchen cupboard or little kitchen cupboard is almost impossible for foreigners – including High German speakers – to get their mouth around. 

On Facebook, Jackie Amey said the word was her “dad’s favourite”. “He was English and he learned how to say it”. 

READ MORE: Seven English words Swiss Germans get delightfully wrong 

Margaret Weber and Sharon Baur also selected the word as their fave. 

Blueschtfaehrtli

When spring finally comes around after Switzerland’s long, cold winter, it’s time to take the convertible out of the garage (preferably an ‘old timer’, as vintage cars are known in Switzerland) and go for a ‘Blueschtfaehrtli’.

A combination of the words for ‘blossom’ and ‘little drive’, this difficult-to-pronounce word refers to the Swiss tradition of going out to admire the technicolour blossoms on the fruit trees.

Little flowers in the Bern Rosengarten.

Have you gone for a little drive (or walk) to check out the flowers while you’ve been in Switzerland? Photo by Jonas Zürcher on Unsplash

Bürogummi

The Swiss equivalent of the seat-warming, pencil-pushing bureaucrat is the delightfully-named ‘Bürogummi’ or, which literally translates to ‘office eraser’ or ‘office rubber band’. 

Röstigraben

The Germans had the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) and Donald Trump wanted to build a wall with Mexico but in Switzerland, the cultural and linguistic divide between the French and German-speaking parts of the country is an invisible border known as the Röstigraben after the typically Swiss German potato dish rösti.

The direct translation: the potato dish ditch.

If you’re interested in the Röstigraben, or just want to find out which side of it you are on, then check out the following link. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

Honourable mentions

Cheib: Rascal, mean person

Güselchübel: Moving van, garbage can or good friend (yeah, this one confuses us too). 

Chrüsimüsi: Literally meaning ‘I need to be crucified’, this refers to a chaotic mess one can find oneself in. 

Trottel: Not unlike Löli (see above), this refers to a clumsy or dumb person. 

For members

GERMAN LANGUAGE

Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

Denglisch - a hybrid of Deutsch and English - can refer to the half-and-half way Germans and foreigners speak to each other. But Germans use plenty of English words amongst themselves - although they don’t always mean the same thing.

Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

English speakers are no stranger to using certain German words when speaking English—schadenfreude and kindergarten being perhaps the most obvious. The process is possibly even more advanced in reverse.

Many Germans are proud of being able to speak English well, and the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 only accelerated the process, as a redefined international community – with English as the main global language – beckoned.

Now English words are found in all parts of German life. Many Germans don’t even necessarily understand why. English-language cultural influence is certainly a part of German life, but the dubbing of television shows, to use just one example, remains far more widespread in Germany than in many smaller European countries, which use original audio with subtitles.

Here’s a selection of anglicisms that Germans use with each other. 

READ ALSO: Could Denglisch one day kill of English?

‘Coffee-To-Go’ or ‘Takeaway’

‘Ein Kaffee zum mitnehmen’ is correct and your coffee shop owner will definitely understand what you want if you ask for it. But plenty of Germans will ask for a ‘Coffee-To-Go,’ even when speaking German to a German barista. This seems to only apply to coffee ordered on the move, however. If you’re sitting down at a table, expect to order the German Kaffee.

Getting a coffee-to-go in Berlin.

Getting a Coffee-To-Go in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Human Resources, ‘Soft Skills’ and ‘Manager’

‘Personalabteilung’ is still used to describe a human resources department. But plenty of German companies—whether international or mostly German will use Human Resources even in German-language communication. Although ‘Leiter’ and ‘Leiterin,’ meaning ‘leader’ are used, even German job titles will use “Manager.” The word ‘Manager’ has even been adapted to accommodate German noun genders. A female manager, may be referred to as a ‘Managerin’.

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

The world of work in Germany is also notable for importing another contemporary English term. ‘Soft Skills’ is used in German when recruiters are looking to see if a candidate might fit culturally into a particular workplace. The words actually describing these skills, like ‘Führungskompetenz’ or ‘leadership ability,’ often sound unmistakably German though. But there are exceptions. ‘Multitasking’ is used in German as well.

‘Clicken,’ ‘Uploaden,’ ‘Downloaden’ and ‘Home Office’

As technology that came of age relatively recently, German has imported many English terms related to technology and the Internet. While web browsers might use ‘Herunterladen’ instead of ‘download’ or ‘hochladen’ instead of ‘upload,’ Germans are just as likely to use the slightly Germanized version of the English word, hence ‘downloaden’.

READ ALSO: Seven English words Germans get delightfully wrong

Even before ‘Home Office’ appeared on German tax returns, to calculate what credit workers could get from remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘Home Office’ was still widely used in German to describe, well, working from home. It can be confusing for English speakers, though, especially those from the UK, because the Home Office is a department in the British government. 

English words that have slightly different meanings in German – ‘Shitstorm’ and ‘Public Viewing’

There are English words Germans use that don’t always mean quite the same thing to a native English speaker. An English speaker from the UK or Ireland, for example, might associate a ‘public viewing’ with an open casket funeral. Germans, however, tends to use “public viewing” almost exclusively to mean a large screening, usually of an event, that many people can gather to watch for free. Placing a large television at the Brandenburg Gate for German Football Team matches is perhaps the most immediately recognisable example of a ‘public viewing’.

Then there’s what, at least to native English speakers, might sound outright bizarre. But former Chancellor Angela Merkel herself used “Shitstorm” more than once while in office. In German though, it can refer specifically to a social media backlash involving heated online comments.

Another typical English-sounding word used in German differently is ‘Handy’ – meaning cellphone (well, it does fit in your hand). It can sound a bit strange to English speakers, though. 

Other words, however, more or less mean what you think they do – such as when one German newspaper referred to Brexit as a ‘Clusterfuck’.

READ ALSO: Shitstorm ‘best English gift to German language’

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