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Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Whether they relate to a love of beer or bureaucracy, these uniquely German words give an insight into the idiosyncrasies of life in Germany. Here are a few of our favourites.

Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany
One of Germany's most famous staircases, at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Schutt

Das Sitzfleisch – You may be familiar with this term if you have ever had to apply for Anmeldung (city registration) in Germany. Sitzfleisch, literally meaning ‘sit meat’ is the ability to sit still, particularly through long and tedious events. 

Although we all know the stereotype that Germans love efficiency, the country’s love affair with bureaucracy suggests the opposite might be true, and it means Germans and expats alike often have to be quite patient when sorting out anything to do with rent, tax or education. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about dealing with German bureaucracy online

Der Aufschnitt – At first, you might be wondering what is so special about this German word, which we would translate to ‘cold cuts’ in English. In Germany, however, this is not just a snack but a whole cuisine.

Some of the staples of traditional German cuisine are meat, cheese, and most importantly bread. To have a meal of Aufschnitt means to sit down to an array of these things, and is a particularly popular meal for most Germans to prepare when no-one feels like cooking. 

Eine Extrawurst bekommen – In a land famous for its sausages, you should not be surprised that Würste appear in so many common German sayings. One of the most common of these is eine Extrawurst, which means special treatment. If a person immer eine Extrawurst bekommt (always gets an extra sausage), it means they are being given an unfair advantage. 

There is often an expectation of fairness and equity in many parts of German life, and Germans will not hesitate in pointing out when something is amiss. The idea of a teacher’s pet is much less likely to go unchallenged here than in other cultures. 

Das Weichei – This term may confuse you at first, and you might expect to see it on a breakfast menu rather than hurled as an insult. The term Weichei literally means ‘soft egg’ but it is used to refer to someone who is a bit of a wimp, or a sheep. 

Germans can often be quite forthcoming with their opinions, and look down on those who merely follow the crowd, or who are easily influenced. 

READ ALSO: Nerdy flowers to alcoholic birds: The 12 most colourful German insults

Das Luftschloss – Germans are often fairly realistic when it comes to their hopes and expectations, but there are of course still some dreamers about. These people would be guilty of having Luftschlösser, or pipe dreams. The word translates to ‘air castle’ in English, referring to unreachable fantasies. 

Die Schnapsidee – In English, we’ve borrowed the word Schnapps, which we tend to use to mean a fruity alcoholic beverage, from the German Schnaps, which refers to any kind of alcoholic spirit. A Schnapsidee is an outlandish or crazy concept, perhaps one that you would have to be drunk to come up with.

It is fairly well known that Germans like to drink, though beer is usually their beverage of choice. It is therefore apt that the word for a foolish idea has something to do with drunkenness. This term is fairly common, and is also used in cases when there is no alcohol in sight. 

Der Treppenwitz – Germans aren’t famed for their humour, and this concept suggests their comedic timing could be the problem. A Treppenwitz (staircase joke) is a quip that you think of after the opportunity to tell it has passed.

 If you have ever been left speechless by a conversation, only to think of the perfect witty response on your way out of the situation, this would be your Treppenwitz.

READ ALSO: A laughing matter: Looking beyond the stereotype of the serious German

Das ist nicht mein Bier – Beer is part of the fabric of life in Germany, so it is not surprising to find it in this common idiom. In English, we might say something is ‘not our bag’ if it is not quite our cup of tea. In German, however, if a food, activity or style is not for you, you would say it is not your beer.

The phrase in itself is not overly negative, and more an insight into a culture that is fairly accepting of individual opinions and preferences, even those having to do with more important matters than beer. 

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For members


German word of the day: Grenze

From national borders to personal limitations, this German word is a great one to add to your active vocabulary.

German word of the day: Grenze

Why do I need to know Grenze?

Because Grenze is one of those nifty words that has multiple uses beyond its most literal meaning, and which can also be used in verb form.

As with many German nouns, it also functions well as a compound noun (i.e. paired with other nouns to create a new word) so learning this word could add several new words to your vocabulary at once. 

What does it mean? 

Die Grenze (pronounced like this) can be best translated as border in English, but can also mean limit or boundary, depending on the context.

When you hear the word in a geographical sense, it’s usually used to discuss national borders, such as Germany’s borders with nine other countries.

Of course, borders don’t have to be national: a Stadtgrenze would refer to the city limits, while Bundeslandgrenzen are the borders between Germany’s federal states. Want to know where the border crossing is? In that case, you’ll need to locate the Grenzübergang (also a feminine noun). 

An Abgrenzung, meanwhile, is any kind of demarcation. 

In the list of useful compound nouns that can be made using Grenze, one particularly interesting one is Phantomgrenze. This word is used to describe borders that don’t physically exist but that take the form of cultural, political or economic divides – a prime example being the East/West divide that still exists in Germany more than three decades after reunification.

READ ALSO: How does Germany’s ‘phantom border’ still divide the country?

Less literally, you can use Grenzen to discuss physical or emotional limitations, or to talk about being pushed to the limit (an die Grenzen gestoßen sein). In a similar sense, there may be political boundaries (politische Grenzen), or scientific ones (wissenschaftliche Grenzen) that haven’t yet been crossed. 

You may have recently learned to set boundaries in your personal life, which can be described in German as “Grenzen setzen”. In that case, you may also want people to respect those boundaries (Grenzen respektieren). 

In fact, almost any well-known English phrase that refers to limits, borders or boundaries can usually be translated using Grenzen. For example, “Meine Leidenschaft kennt keine Grenzen” means “My passion knows no bounds.” 

Of course, this being German, there are countless other ways you can adapt Grenze not just into compound nouns but also into verbs or adjectives. 

Grenzen, of course, means “to border” while angrenzen means “to border on” and begrenzen means “to limit”. Speaking of which, if you’re hoping to snap up a discounted deal, you may well be warned: “Das Angebot ist stark begrenzt.” That tells you that the offer is limited, so you’d better hurry while stocks last!

Where does it come from?

Interestingly enough, the word Grenze has Slavic roots and stems from the Polish word granica, which also means border.

Geography buffs may well observe that Germany shares a fairly long border with Poland (along with eight other countries), so the etymology of the German word seems incredibly fitting. 

READ ALSO: Five German words that come from Polish

Use it like this: 

Es ist wichtig, die Grenzen anderer Menschen zu respektieren.

It’s important to respect other people’s boundaries. 

Wie viele Länder grenzen an Deutschland? 

How many countries border Germany?