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6 lesser known German words that say it all

Between harsh sounds, never-ending words and articles that feel like moving targets, German is a notoriously difficult language to learn. However, its lego-like structure also has its perks, notably the fact that a term seems to exist for EVERYTHING. Here are some of German’s lesser known but finest expressions, that are worth learning even if you’re just passing through. Beware, they could change the way you think forever.

1. Vorführeffekt (der)

Ever discovered a new skill, like juggling four balls, and failed the moment you showed it to someone? Germans would call this the Vorführeffekt.

Composed of the terms “vorführen” (to show / present) and “Effekt” (effect), this glorious word describes the rather inglorious situation, when something does not work precisely at the moment you need it to. This could mean a juggled ball dropping, but could just as easily be a broken stove that suddenly comes to life again just as the electrician arrives. Indeed, all that matters is that the OPPOSITE of what you intended to happen happens. And this might even work in your favour! Sure, you’re always left looking a little silly, but that’s just part of experiencing the Vorführeffekt.

2. Zicke (die)

If there was ever an onomatopoeic word (look it up), then Zicke is certainly one. In equal measures sexist and iconic, this term describes a type of unpleasant female behaviour that is exactly as it sounds. Unlike some translations though, a Zicke is not a bitch. Zicken are not really malicious, simply annoying, difficult or high maintenance, whiny, slightly mean at times, or on edge.

The word refers to a female goat Ziege or rather to its offspring a Zicklein, in short: Zicke. Therefore, using Zicke as a term to describe a complaining, slightly difficult girl or woman, refers to the (rather unpleasant and annoying) sound of a goat as well as the seemingly uncontrolled, clumsy and daring moving about of a young goat.

The matching adjective “zickig” and verb “rumzicken” are also highly useful. But really, there’s no good translation for Zicke. I guess it’s just one of those words you have to be called by a boy in German high school to truly understand.

P.S. Men can be Zicken too so don’t hold back ladies.

3. Versumpfen (verb)

Literally deriving from the word “Sumpf” which means swamp, this term is not to be confused with the English “to be swamped”. German “versumpfen” instead refers to you slowly getting sucked into something and getting stuck there without even realising it. Funnily enough, the term is often used in connection with Berlin, as a place where you can easily “versumpf” in the relaxed lifestyle or party scene instead of getting on with your life. Versumpfen however is not necessarily negative: for example, you can “versumpf” in your bed and be perfectly content. Your friends might frown upon this a little, but you might as well get used to that - you’re in Germany now.

4. Kummerkasten (der)

Literally meaning “sorrow box” this lovely alliterative term is used for someone who is constantly listening to everyone’s else’s problems and complaints. While being a Kummerkasten could be a noble thing, it’s often also used as a reproach for when people are overstepping a little. That’s when you say “Hey look, I’m not a Kummerkasten”.  Either way, it’s a beautiful visual for anyone who feels they are being dumped on. Luckily, now people can get their problems solved online, on mein-Kummerkasten.de.

5. Rausekeln (jemanden)(verb)

Once again, Germans aren’t shy about putting their finger on the more unpleasant side of human psychology. Coming from “sich ekeln”’ (to be disgusted) or “eklig” (gross),  this verb is dedicated to the action of creating conditions that are so unpleasant that someone leaves of their own accord.
It’s behaviour that you find in groups or couples, where whoever finds themselves on the receiving end is unwilling to confront the situation and instead opts for the more sneaky approach (how un-German!) of literally grossing a person out. It’s a terrible term really, but like most German words, has a real grain of truth.

6. Schadenfreude (die)

Although this one is extremely well known, the list just couldn’t exist without it. As probably the most infamous German word, it says so much about the people. The Germans are really the only ones who could create a word to acknowledge the pleasure you can feel in light of someone else’s misfortune. Schadenfreude isn’t straight-forward however. Of course, you could feel it because the unfortunate person is your enemy. But you might also feel it simply because seeing someone else suffer can oddly make your own situation seem less bleak. And while having the words “Schaden” (damage - the same term you use to file an insurance claim, by the way) and “Freude” (happiness) in one word may seem paradoxical, we all have felt it at some point in our lives. Because let’s be honest: when the guy who just screwed you over gets his bike stolen without having insurance, you can call it karma. And in Germany, there’s no guilt in that: we just call it Schadenfreude.

Bianca Pick

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