For members


German phrase of the day: Es kommt mir Spanisch vor

Why is something incomprehensible all Greek to you in English, but suddenly Spanish when speaking German? Here's what this odd phrase means and the history behind it.

Es kommt mir Spanisch vor

Why do I need to know this phrase?

If you’re completely baffled by something – be it because you literally don’t understand the words or because it’s simply a strange concept – this is a helpful phrase to know.

What does it mean?

Literally, this long-standing expression translates to “It seems Spanish to me,” similar to the English equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me”. And in the Spanish language itself, something is foreign when it appears Chinese to you (“Me suena a chino”). 

Everything is relative, as Italians say “It’s like German to me” (“Mi sembra tedesco”) when they’re perplexed. Hey, we totally understand that sentiment! 

The phrase “Es kommt mir Spanisch vor” is just about as frequently used as its idiomatic twin “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” (I only understand train station).

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

What’s the history behind this phrase?

In Germany’s increasingly multicultural society, something Spanish isn’t actually so foreign, with many people from the southern European country residing in Germany, and Spanish being a popular second language in schools here. Spain is also a top holiday destination for Germans, with the island of Mallorca often jokingly referred to as “Germany’s 17th state”.

READ ALSO: ‘I really needed a break’: Pandemic-weary Germans find ‘freedom’ on Mallorca

So how did the idea of the culture being so foreign that it’s absolutely incomprehensible originate?

The roots can be traced back to when the Spanish language and customs were, indeed, quite foreign.

When Emperor Maximilian I died in January 1519, it was unclear who would be his successor in the then-Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. 

Three candidates sought the crown: In addition to Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, the late emperor’s grandson, Spain’s King Carlos I, later Charles V, also laid claim to the throne.

In the end, Charles V was appointed, first as king and ultimately as emperor. While Charles V had a rudimentary command of the German language, his court, which he brought with him from Spain, did not.

In addition to the language, German royalty also found the customs and manners of the new elite to be strange. Charles himself is also said to have been less than polite. 

The royal family were unfamiliar with all the new traditions and Charles’ way of being – they seemed, well, Spanish to them.

Here’s how to use it:

Verstehst du diese neue Programmiersprache? Es kommt mir Spanisch vor.

Do you understand this new programming language? It’s all Greek to me.

Meine Freunde unterhielten sich über das letzte Fußballspiel, aber es kam mir Spanisch vor.

My friends were talking about the latest football game, but I didn’t understand them at all.

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For members


German word of the day: Krisenmodus

If you want to talk about the past 12 months in Germany, you'll definitely need to know this word. In fact, it's recently been crowned the "word of the year" for 2023.

German word of the day: Krisenmodus

Why is Krisenmodus the word of the year – and what does it mean?

Der Krisenmodus, as you might be able to guess, translates as “crisis mode”. It denotes an all-hands-on-deck period where things feel like they are teetering on the brink of disaster and only careful planning and good crisis management can steady the ship.

If you look back at the past year – or even the past three years – it would be fair say that crisis mode has become the new state of normality.

Whether it’s the shock of the Covid pandemic to the outbreak of war in Ukraine and the Middle East, spiralling energy prices or impending budget doom, Germany’s government has lurched from one crisis to another – and much of the time has been tackling several at once.

That’s why, when it came to selecting the word of the year for 2023, there was only one that the German Language Society (GfDS) could pick.

According to GfDS CEO Andrea Ewels, German society has been in “crisis mode” since 2020, hurtling through the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a domestic education crisis, and Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel.

“The state of emergency has become a permanent state,” she said. “This triggers fear, insecurity and powerlessness in people. These feelings dominate everyday life and you don’t know what’s to come.”

So if you, like many, are ending the year on a slightly pessimistic note, it’s fair to say you’re not the only one. 

What’s the “word of the year” all about?

Selected by a panel of linguists and media experts, the word of the year has been an institution in Germany since the early 1970s, capturing the Zeitgeist of different eras in German history with just a handful of popular idioms. 

Every year, the GfDS judges sift through hundreds or even thousands of entries to pick out the words that seem to reflect the spirit of the year in question or hold a deeper significance. This is much more an important than how often a word is used in a certain year – though the popularity of a word does play a role.

READ ALSO: What do Germany’s top 10 words of the year say about 2022?

A woman consults the Duden German dictionary

A woman consults the Duden German dictionary. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

This year, there were 1,800 entries to choose from.

The first ever word of the year way back in 1971 was “aufmüpfig” – a word that doesn’t appear to have stood the test of time, possibly because the more anglicised “rebellisch” (or rebellious) has taken its place.

Other words of the year that have cropped up over time include Besserwessi in 1991 – a term referring to seemingly snobbish and know-it-all West Germans after reunification – and GroKo in 2013, an abbreviation for the Grand Coalition of the CDU and SPD. 

What were the runners up? 

As you might expect, the two runners up were also highly topical. 

The first, “Antisemitismus”, refers to a rise in anti-Semitism in the wake of the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip. 

The second, “leseunfähig” (unable to read), refers to the dire scores that German pupils achieved in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which ranks 15-year-olds around the world in maths, literacy and science. 

In a damning indictment of German schools and academic attainment, the most recent PISA rankings saw the performance of pupils in Germany decline dramatically since 2019, with German media describing the results as a “PISA-Schock.” 

In reading, pupils dropped a massive 18 points from 498 to 480 – so it may come as no surprise that “leseunfähig” was a prominent idiom in this endless crisis year. 

READ ALSO: German school pupils plummet to ‘lowest score ever’ in international rankings

How to use Krisenmodus

Dieses Jahr hat mich so müde gemacht. Wann wird der endlose Krisenmodus endlich vorbei sein?

This year has made me so tired. When will the endless crisis mode finally be over?

Krisenmodus soll das Wort des Jahres sein. Keine große Überraschung, oder? 

Crisis mode is apparently the word of the year. No big surprise there, right?