German unwords and staircase jokes

1. Weltschmerz

“Feeling like you have the weight of the word upon your shoulders.” Twelve words in English; one word in German: Weltschmerz.

Literally: “world pain,” it describes the feeling of when everything is just too much to bear.

2. Schadenfreude

“Taking joy in the misfortune of others.” Not the most pleasant of emotions, but let’s face it, we’ve all experienced it.

3. Fremdscham

The rather more empathetic cousin of Schadenfreude – see above. It is less sadistic joy and more vicarious embarrassment. It’s one thing when a loved-one puts their foot in their mouth, and you feel their pain, but it represents another level when you cringe at the actions of a complete stranger. Literally “stranger shame” it describes the feeling when someone’s phone goes off at an inopportune moment, or they misjudge the height of the kerb and take a nose-dive onto the pavement.

4. Treppenwitz

“Being wise after the event” is close, but not quite there. It’s more that brilliant idea you have, when it’s too late, to make a witty riposte to something someone else has said. As learners of languages, this is a very common feeling, almost the default state, because by the time we have devised a sentence that we’re proud of – forget witty, we’d take simply more or less correct – the conversation has moved on.

Treppenwitz” translates literally as “staircase joke”; someone you pass on the stairs makes a witty quip and only when you get to the top do you think of that rib-cracking response that you could have made.

5. Mutterseelenallein

It occurs to me that these are all negative emotions so far, and this one is the saddest yet. It translates as “mother’s soul alone”, so it will need some explanation. It suggests a feeling of such deep loneliness that not even your own mother’s soul is with you. Sorry to bring the mood down!

6. Gemütlichkeit

So let’s cheer ourselves up with this one: It seems that many north European languages have a word that we English like to translate as “cosy”, but that does not quite cut it as a translation. Danish has hygge; gezellig is the Dutch close-cousin, and the Finns, I am reliably informed, have a word Kalsarikännit (literally: getting drunk in your underwear) which apparently does a similar job. Back to German: Gemütlichkeit goes beyond the feeling of physical cosiness; it captures the broader concept of cordiality and fellowship – emotional cosiness, if you will, whilst in a state of complete physical comfort, possibly clasping a cup of something hot, two-handed, while stretching your be-socked feet towards a well-stoked open fire…

7. Unwort

Germans have a long, proud history as expert linguists, so they know an un-word when they see one. Wait a moment, “un-word”? Is that proper English? Doesn’t look like it, but guess what, it does the job in German. Unwort, the word that has come to mean newly created words, which are often, as it happens, offensive. Headed by Germany’s counterpart of Susie Dent, there is a panel that selects which words make the list, and which is the year’s best new word.

You can read in much more detail here about this year’s contenders Unwort des Jahres 2021: Kandidaten, Unwörter - Bedeutung Online

Ignoring the English words on the lists - Fake news, Freedom day, Gamechanger – my personal favourite is “Impfdrängler”. Literally, ‘vaccine jostler’. Someone who finds their way to the front of the vaccine queue, even if they don’t belong to a priority group. A word that really capture the Zeitgeist. Oh! As if that was planned…

8. Zeitgeist

One of the few German words that has made it into English, if not mainstream everyday English, then at least journalese and academic parlance. It is therefore the one of the few words on this list that might need little explanation, so, briefly: it means the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place, “the spirit of the age”.

As in, “Her poems perfectly captured the zeitgeist of London in the 1970s.”

9. Sprachgefühl

According to Howard Gardner there are nine intelligences. He’s theories were fashionable for a time, until people realised it was stating the obvious that human intelligence cannot be measured by an Intelligence Quotient, boiled down to a single figure. Some people are good with numbers, others are not. Wayne Rooney might not score very highly on Countdown, but he will surely be in the top point-zero-zero-one percentile for footballing intelligence.

As a languages teacher it is common to hear the claim “I’m just no good at languages”. The good news, I tell people, is that motivation trumps natural ability. This is probably true for almost anything, but if you have a new love interest, or a real chance of getting a promotion, you are more likely to stick with a course of language lessons and make progress than if you simply have the knack, as some people seem to. That knack, that intangible “feeling for languages” is what the Germans are referring to by the single word “Sprachgefühl”.

10. Aufschnitte

The list would not be complete without some reference to food and/or drink. German cuisine is possibly the most underrated in Europe - one of the many pleasures of visiting this wonderful country. Of all the amazing dishes, simple is sometimes best, and what could be simpler than thinly sliced ham, salami and liver sausage, served with smoked cheeses and traditional bread, as dense or as soft as you want it. “Aufschnitte” is generally translated simply ‘cold cuts’, but it has taken on a broader meaning in German culture, referring to the whole meal rather than just the meat component.


You may have noticed that all of the words mentioned here are nouns, which always take capital letters when written in German.

Final note

German is a beautifully expressive language, as evinced by the words referred to above. It has the reputation of being difficult to learn, but the good news is that it is wonderfully logical. Granted, there are rules to learn, but once learnt, you know where you stand and can be sure of constructing sentences with a high degree of confidence.

More good news, this time about the relationship between spelling and pronunciation: German is almost entirely phonetic: to coin a catchphrase, you can ‘say what you see’. Unlike English!

And even more good news: Germans, Austrians and Swiss all tend to grow up speaking very good English. Whilst this can make us native English-speakers lazy, it means that we can relax a bit. The bits and pieces of German that you can remember will go down very well! People will listen sympathetically and be very impressed (or maybe suspicious) that you are learning their language, but I can guarantee, your experience in their country will be hugely enhanced with even just a basic grasp.

Andrew Wenger teaches German to all levels and abilities, and is starting up a new beginners’ group, online, Mondays 7pm, starting Monday 15th November. £12 per lesson. If you would like to reserve a place, please make contact here. For this style of learning, groups are kept deliberately small, so places are limited…

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