We’re mostly dependent on language to help us express what we really think and how we feel. But some languages are better than others at crisply naming important sensations.
Germans have been geniuses at inventing long or what get called ‘compound’ words that elegantly put a finger on emotions that we all know, but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express.
Here are 15 of the best of Germany’s extraordinary range of compound words:
1. Erklärungsnot [Explanation-Distress]
Actually, a distress at not having an clarification. The ideal way to define what a partner might feel when they’re caught watching something that thy shouldn’t or are spotted in a restaurant with a hand they shouldn’t be holding. More amazingly, Erklärungsnot is something we feel when we realize we don’t have any explanations for the big questions of life. It’s a word that defines existential angst as much as disgrace.
2. Futterneid [Food-Envy]
The feeling when you’re eating with other people and realize that they’ve ordered something better off the menu that you’d want to eat very badly. Maybe you were attempting to be temperate; now you’re just in agony. The word recognizes that we spend most of our lives feeling we’ve ordered the wrong thing. And not just in restaurants.
3. Backpfeifengesicht [Slapping-face]
A face that’s asking to be slapped. Generosity towards others is very important, but German is bracing and frank enough to acknowledge that there are also moments when it is simply more honest to realize we may have encountered a dickhead.
4. Fremdschämen [External-Shame]
A word full with sympathy that catches the agony one can feel at another person’s embarrassing misfortune or failure. A capacity to feel Fremdschamen is a high moral achievement and is at the root of kindness.
5. Luftschloss [Air-Castle]
Actually, a castle in the air; a dream that’s unattainable – a word suggesting that German culture is profoundly indulgent about big dreams but also delicately practical about how hard it can be to bring them off.
6. Ruinenlust [Ruin-Excitement]
This word indicates German at its most delightfully fetishistic and specific: meaning the delight one can feel at seeing ruins. Collapsed palaces and the rubble of temples put anxieties about the present into perspective and induces a satisfying melancholy at the passage of all things.
7. Kummerspeck [Sorrow-Fat]
A word that honestly perceives how regularly, when one is deeply sad, there is simply nothing more consoling to do than to head for the kitchen and eat.
8. Weltschmerz [World-Sadness]
A word that recognizes that we are sometimes sad not about this or that thing, but about the entire basis of existence. The presence of the word shows a culture that isn’t falsely cheerful but takes tragedy as a given. It is immensely reassuring to be able to tell a friend that one is presently lying under the duvet, suffering from Weltschmertz.
9. Schadenfreude [Harm-Happiness]
We’re meant to be sad when others fail, but German more wisely accepts that we often feel happiness (freude) at the Schaden or failures of others. That isn’t because we’re mean; we just feel profoundly reassured when we see confirmation that life is as hard for other individuals as it is for us.
10. Verschlimmbesserung [Worsening Improvement]
So many of our attempts to improve things bring unanticipated problems in their wake. The word modestly admits how seldom progress moves in a linear way.
11. Fernweh [Distance-pain]
The pain of always being in familiar surroundings – and the longing to go faraway, beyond the Alps, perhaps to the South, where no one knows your name, and the smells are different in the market place and one is woken up by the sounds of strange bells from the temples. An acknowledgement that we’ll generally suspect that life is a bit ‘somewhere else’.
12. Lebensmüde [Life-Tired]
We believe ourselves to be firmly attached to life, but a lot of our behavior attests to something more interesting and troubling; an occasional longing to give up our hold on existence. It is profoundly helpful to have this word to hand on gloomy days when it feels like nothing will ever work out.
13. Treppenwitz [Stair-Joke]
Our best lines always come to us, not in the heat of a witty discussion, but as we descend the stairs on our way home.
14. Sitzfleisch [Sitting-meat]
Describes a character attribute of continuance; actually an ability to sit and put up with what is boring, arduous or painful over long periods.
15. Schnappsidee [Schnapps-idea]
An idea you had while drunk. It sounded awesome at the time. It probably wasn’t…