8 perfectly untranslatable German words every expat should know

8 perfectly untranslatable German words every expat should know

You know that feeling when you’re trying to describe a specific situation, fumbling around for the perfect word, but you can’t quite find it? Chances are, there’s a word for it in German. A lifelong love affair with compound nouns has given the German language a whole pantheon of unique, ultra-specific, and sometimes very long words that can’t easily be translated into English. Here are eight of our favourites, that all expats learning German should know.

1. Der Kabelsalat

Here’s a question: what on earth happens to our cables while they’re sitting behind the TV - or when we put our headphones in our pocket, even if just for a second - to make them tangle themselves into a knot so vicious it would take a whole village a week to unravel them? Yes, we know there’s a mathematical formula, but the Germans have a much simpler word for the result: Kabelsalat. Literally meaning, “cable salad”, Kabelsalat is a jumble of tangled wires that is sometimes viewed as a sign of a worrying lack of organisation. 

2. Der Weltschmerz

A very appropriate word given current circumstances, Weltschmerz describes a feeling of sentimental sadness or pessimism about the state of the world, the feeling that the world is going to let you down, no matter what. Literally “world pain” or “world weariness”, Weltschmerz was coined by Jean Paul in 1827, born out of the melancholy and overwhelmingly pessimistic Romantic literary movement, to describe Lord Byron’s loathing for the world. Cheery stuff! 

3. Der Aufschnitt and das Abendbrot

This word translates to “cold cuts” in English, but it doesn’t just describe a few limp pieces of ham, it’s a whole aspect of German cuisineAufschnitt are a crucial addition to the selection of fresh bread, cheeses and meats (and maybe even a boiled egg or two) that make up Abendbrot - it’s a quick and easy family meal when nobody feels much like cooking. “Shall we get a takeaway?” “No, let’s just have Abendbrot.”

4. Die Geborgenheit

This was once voted one of the most beautiful words in the German language, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Literally translated as “safety” or “security”, Geborgenheit is the perfect mix of safe, cosy, warm and content. While some people associate it with the feeling of security and love in a romantic relationship, for others it’s about familiarity and warmth - such as the feeling of returning to your childhood home. It’s intensely emotional. Imagine sitting with your loved one, reunited after a long time apart, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. That’s Geborgenheit, right there. 

5. Sturmfrei 

It’s the weekend, and your parents or housemates are going away for a few days. You finally get to have the place all to yourself, and that is pure, unadulterated bliss. In German, you would say you have sturmfrei (literally, “storm free”). It means you get to stretch out on the sofa to watch TV, sing to yourself loudly in the shower, or walk around completely naked (we’re not judging!). If you’re of the younger generation, it might also be the perfect opportunity to get your friends over and dip into your parents' cocktail cabinet. “What are we doing this weekend?” “Come over to mine, ich hab' sturmfrei.” 

6. Das Fingerspitzengefühl

Some people just have a natural instinct on how to expertly navigate through every single situation they find themselves in. In German, they would say this person has Fingerspitzengefühl, a “fingertips feeling” that helps them respond diplomatically and tactfully in tricky social situations - for instance, a good manager who successfully mediates workplace conflicts. Someone lacking in Fingerspitzengefühl regularly sticks their foot in it by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It can also be used in a more literal sense to describe someone who has a particular knack for a hobby or job that requires nimble and delicate work with the hands. 

7. Die Schnapsidee

We’ve all been there. You were out on the toot last night and you probably drank one too many German beers or - if we’re going to be literal about it - one too many Schlückchen of Schnapps. You bumped into an old acquaintance (who you can’t stand) but somehow ended up inviting them out for dinner next week. What a Schnapsidee. A “booze idea” is a ridiculous plan one hatches when drunk - or a plan so stupid the person who thought it up can only have been drunk. “Let’s start a business importing cheese from Mongolia.” “What a Schnapsidee.”

8. Verschlimmbessern

This is another terribly relatable one. The more you try to fix something, the worse you actually make it. Perhaps you tried to cut your own fringe, but it comes out a bit wonky. You try to even it up and - well, you know the rest… Or, alternatively, you might have said something really stupid and are trying to talk your way out of it, only to find that you’re digging a deeper and deeper hole. “What I meant to say was, you’re looking much better than the last time I saw you!” When you verschlimmbessern something, you make it worse in the very act of trying to improve it. 



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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EmilGramenz2 17:08 | 8 August 2020

What about "Fernweh" though? That's kind of the normal example

surbhinahta2 11:26 | 13 July 2021

Well, The information which you posted here is very helpful & it is very useful for the needy like me.., Thank you so much for helping me out to find the best