This is how you learned German. Then you moved to Germany, only to discover that the conversations you practiced in your language class made you sound like a 1950s B-movie. And that some of the most common vernacular didn't even appear in your textbook.
We present here a highly selective compendium of everyday phrases meant to shed some light on the workings of the German language — and the mindset of its native speakers.
Kreislaufstörung: Literally translated as "circulatory disturbance," this mystery disease is the national pandemic. Causing cold extremities, slight dizziness and an overwhelming conviction that any form of sustained work is impossible, it's a fly-by-night illness that seems, curiously, to have become entrenched within German borders and nowhere else. While other nations might ascribe ist symptoms to digestion or genetic predisposition, the culprit in Germany is, of course: the weather.
Die Handwerker kommen: Here is the rare case where German prefers a generic and English insists on the details. Die Handwerker are an institution — be they painters, plumbers or electricians — and that they are coming means you've got to stay home to wait it out. Trying to get an exact time of arrival is impossible and even a "window of opportunity" is hopeless. So you sit next to the peeling paint or stopped-up sink. If and when they do appear, they set to work sawing, drilling, yanking or sloshing about and once they have gone, you have anywhere from an hour to a day's cleaning ahead to undo traces of their helpfulness. In a nation that prizes renovation and functionality, Die Handwerker kommen is, after Kreislaufstörung, the second most prevalent reason for missing a day's work.
Es zieht: One of the first proverb-like sayings taught in German language courses is Frische Luft ist gesund, "Fresh air is healthy." Don't be fooled. For obscure reasons, Germans have got it into their heads that air is the enemy, especially indoors.
For a bit of enjoyment, go into a cafe on a dull winter's day, one where the guests can barely be distinguished through the cigarette smoke, and tilt open a window just a crack. Before you have retreated three steps, the cry Es zieht! - "There's a draft!" - will go up and in a flurry of panic the window will be slammed shut. In Bavaria, some patrons will make the sign of the cross. What elsewhere is known as a breeze is, in the Teutonic realm, the grim reaper's mocking breath. To help the recovery from this near brush with oblivion, butane lighters will flare as the entire room lights up as one.
Er grüßt nicht: There's a certain someone, male, let's say, coworker, neighbor or total stranger. You see him often, maybe you've even been introduced. Oddly, though, when approached from a distance, he doesn't say "hello." He doesn't avoid contact, but doesn't seek it out, either. The commuter train, the dog run in the park, the office hallway: These are the venues where you feel invisible despite your best efforts at amiability.
At first you may have raised a hand in greeting, but it went unseen or was met with a blank stare. You have since become more reserved. Then annoyed. Then angry. What's his problem? Would it kill him to say Guten Tag? Or crack a smile? What is it? Willful blindness? Preternatural asociability? Dauer-bad hair day? You may ruminate and reflect as long as you like, but all suspicions remain pure conjecture. The long and the short of it is: Er grüßt nicht.
Was sind deine Werte? Similarly, eyeglass wearers are sometimes queried on the strength of their lenses. The response requires a technical understanding of myopia and other ocular phenomena. True, "20_20" is an English synonym for perfect vision, but what the numbers actually mean and what happens when they begin to diverge is a subject for optometrists and Fachidioten (see below). In Germany, not knowing the specs behind your specs is akin to replying to the question "What kind of car do you drive?" with an unenlightened "blue."
A-Säule: Literally the "A-column," this is the part of the car frame that runs from the top of the windshield down past the door to the chassis. Automobiles also have a B-, C- and T-Säule. It may seem arcane, but to regular Joes in Germany this is common knowledge.
na: Two letters, one word - this is the true Guten Tag of the German language. An exchange of Na? Na? is, in fact, an entire conversation. Spoken when two acquaintances meet, it can mean anything from "Hi! Good to see you!" to "How are you?" to a more tight-lipped "Well, look who's here" or "Oh, it's you again." In a language where verbosity is the major stylistic hallmark, this one syllable can carry more freight than perhaps any other. Add a few facial gestures and some telling tone of voice and you're armed for every social encounter.
tja: Na's impatient sibling. The get-smart answer to such queries as "So, why did he leave his wife for the young blonde?"
Aber hallo, du: In the last decade or so, the word "hello" has taken on added meaning in the United States, namely, as a cry calling attention to some egregious moment of third-party stupidity. "She thought Oprah was a health food. HELL-oh!" What once was a mere greeting is now a wake-up call for the reality-impaired. The German hallo! has always served this clarion purpose in its primary sense, often bellowed down the street after the idiot who just left his car keys at the check-out counter.
Similarly, Aber hallo, du! is a reply to the obvious — roughly comparable to "You can say that again!" or "And how!" Did they celebrate after winning the lottery? Aber hallo, du! As ist pronoun suggests, however, this is only an appropriate response to intimates or in informal settings. The polite Aber hallo, Sie! is socially schizophrenic and a major faux pas — and thus has no home in the national lexicon.
cool: How German is it? Kühl exists and applies, as does its English counterpart, to temperature or temperament. In the mouths of Anglo-Saxons, "he's cool" can point in opposite directions, suggesting either fashionable savoir faire or frosty ennui. Germans, in taking on the foreign phrase have allowed themselves a clear differentiation. Without the umlaut he's hip. With the umlaut, steer clear.
evaluieren: Speaking of foreign words, this little number means - surprise! - "to evaluate." The real German word is auswerten and is - let's be frank - much more handsome. Someday, for reasons having to do with the Internet, the market economy, American "fun" culture and Germany's disturbing past, speaking the national language may well consist of little more than speaking English with an accent. Cognates and other linguistic twins are certainly convenient, but shouldn't a foreign language be, well, foreign?
The -ieren suffix and its progeny (reduzieren, publizieren, kommunizieren) are just one breach point allowing in the rising tide of non-German expressions. Anyone wishing to learn a more pristine Deutsch should scour used-book stores and flea markets for foreign language primers printed in linguistically fastidious former East Germany.
geil: Literally, "horny" or "randy" but in its most common sense, "great," "terrific" or "fantastic." We also have affengeil ("apehorny") and the ultimate, supercharged turbogeil. Obviously, there's an age factor involved. The big mystery, of course, is why the Anglo equivalent of these terms has yet to be taken up in the United States, the nation that gave the world billboard underwear ads.
tierisch: "Bestial" in direct translation but, in reality, "extremely" or "incredibly." If something hurts a lot then: Es tut tierisch weh. Might have to do with the next entry.
die Sau: Literally "the sow," a mythical and popular beast. When "let out" from her restraining pen she is capable of amazing feats, many of them involving alcohol and loud music. She is the emblem of all barnyard tendencies. Why she should embody the baser instincts while her neighbor, das Schwein, should bring luck remains a lexical puzzle. You may poke fun, but do it from a distance.
Spanferkel: "Suckling pig" and in German it sounds as cute as it looks.
baaa: A noise, not a word. Not the bleating of a sheep, but a resonating vocal explosion located about half-way between a slug in the gut and the yogi's "om." In childhood, this is how you reacted when the fat water balloon you launched squarely hit your target's head. In adulthood, it's for when your favorite mutual fund doubles in value.
Schnickschnack: A case where German frolics a bit, as it should, since here we have a word for life's bells and whistles, the little extras that make a pleasing difference: the chochkas on the breakfront, the cool gadget in the new car.
Dauer-: A helpful prefix to connote neverendingness. A Dauerauftrag is the standing order that empowers your bank to pay out funds from your account at regular intervals. Dauerstress is a hassle that will not die The song "Our Love Is Here to Stay" is an ode to Dauerliebe. Technically, those interminable waits for residence permits and the like should be a Dauerdauer , but the German language refuses to go there.
Ausweis, bitte: This request for identification papers is the de facto national motto. Picking up packages at the post office or being frisked by the cops — everybody wants picture proof that you are who you say you are.
Vorsicht, bissiger Hund: The welcome mat of the German garden. The nation's dogs seem to be exceedingly well-trained in public, so why does every home fencepost insist that Fido the Terrible is lurking just around the corner? If there were as many ill-tempered canines about as there are bissiger Hund signs, only superheros could walk the streets. Along with those little lawn dwarfs, it seems to be a form of local humor.
einstellen: A verb that shows no matter how well you think you know a language...To begin with we have "to hire" as in employment, "to fine tune" as in fuzzy radio reception and "to get used to" as in unpleasant circumstances — starting or maintaining, is the gist of it. Ich bin auf Liebe eingestellt, Marlene Dietrich famously sang, warning the world of her addiction to love. And then, just when you're getting the hang of it, einstellen, in a linguistic about face, shuts down and connotes "closing," "cancelation" or "stopping" as in payment of funds, work or proceedings. Does German have its irrational side? Aber hallo, du.
Un-: This is a prefix that also shifts the German language massively into reverse. Unglück is not just the opposite of Glück, or luck, it's a tragic accident. Unwetter is not simply bad weather, it's the storm that takes the roof off your house. Unwort, in turn, is the word that dares not speak its own name.
konsequent: The dictionary says "consistent, persistent, thorough-going." Sort of. What we are talking about here is the quality of remaining true to a principle toward a better and sometimes even bitter end. Ecological concern is a good example. Anyone who claims to care about the environment but doesn't sort her trash is blatantly not konsequent. And anyone who does sort her trash, but buys milk in plastic cartons instead of returnable bottles is also falling short. It's an endless progression. Konsequent is the desire to follow through to the ultimate conclusion, a renunciation of half or even three-quarter measures. In the country of Dichter und Denker, poets and intellectuals, thinking is predicated on logic and when logic weakens, inconsistency worms its way in. Du bist nicht konsequent borders on moral judgement. "You're not consistent" is a weak tweak in comparison.
Fachidiot: A scholar who has so immersed himself in his specialty that he hasn't a clue about the real world around him — a case of konsequent gone wrong. This is the guy in the train who can bend your ear for hours on the beauty of cutting-edge physics but needs help opening his lunch box.
selbstverständlich: "May I have a napkin?" you inquire in a restaurant. Selbstverständlich, replies the waiter. The banal English "of course" hardly does justice as a translation. Perhaps mais oui! more hits the mark, with its note of jostled surprise. But the surprise in selbstverständich is not that the question was asked politely, rather that it was asked at all — since the answer is self-evident, self-understood, self-apparent. Of course you may have a napkin — what a silly question. It's selbstverständlich.
unverschämt: If the waiter goes too far and presents the napkin with an insolent air, then he has crossed the Rubicon and become unverschämt. "Cheeky," the British might say — it was only a simple question after all. But unverschämt is not only descriptive, it also serves nicely as an outraged rejoinder to impudence. He cut in line. Unverschämt! She ignored me completely. Unverschämt! Here, English in its American variation falls pitifully short. "Of all the nerve!" sounds like a stilted society drama, as does "How rude!" "Jerk" is too jejune. The New Yorkish "Now that's moxie!" admires a bit even as it kvetches. Unverschämt is a Wagnerian trident struck firmly into the ground, a clear repudiation of bad manners.
eine Unverschämtheit: German is a veritable erector-set of a language. While word parts get dismantled, shunted about and appended in most linguistic systems, German seems to do it better, farther, longer. What was it: an impudent act, gesture, expression, maneuver? English insists on a concrete manifestation. Eine Unverschämtheit transcends species and genre. Taxi-driver brusqueness or bureaucratic imbecility — if scornful enough, anything can be eine Unverschämtheit.
Torschlusspanik: Forget Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist, this is German at its evocative best. Immigrant-fed America might render the phrase incompletely as "to miss the boat," a chance that has passed irretrievably by. Germany has a longer history to draw upon and this word, which could translate literally as "the panic before the closing of the gates," immediately calls up an entire etymological film: a medieval castle, a moat, a drawbridge, a day's outing beyond the protection of the fortress walls. Then: an accident, twisted ankle perhaps, a tumble down the ravine, a wrong path taken in the enchanted forest. The race back to the burg before the massive grate comes down and the bridge goes up. Rising fear as night starts falling. Clothing caught in briars. Approaching noise. Panic.
What in English requires a full sentence can be done elegantly in German without a space or full stop. And the historical applies forthwith to the contemporary: a banal rushing to the store or, less mundanely, the longing to mother a child juxtaposed against the merciless ticking of the biological clock. Torschlusspanik means arriving safely home before the door is locked for the night — or forever.