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My Favorite German Words / Meine deutschen Lieblingswörter

My two-year stint in Germany is almost over and I have learned a ton of new German words in that time. Some I can’t ever get quite right (what is the past perfect of verstehen?!), and some I learned in the first semester of German class then promptly forgot when I needed them because of stage fright (the word for “postage stamp” is Briefmarke). Some I trip over every time I try to say them (“Muss ich” always ends up sounding like “mush ish” or–worse because it sounds like a vulgar word–“mushee”).

Here are my favorite German words, all of which, with one exception (Kartoffeln), I learned in the last two years.

Sounds Funny

  • Ausfahrt. It means: exit ramp. Why I like it: It sounds like “ows-fart.” Farts are funny, especially aus-farts.
  • nördlich. It means: north, northern, northerly. Why I like it: It sounds almost like “nerd-ly.”
  • Schnarchen. It means: snore. Why I like it: It sounds like a snore!
  • Schmachtenhagen. It means: It’s the name of a town in the state of Brandenburg. Why I like it: Say it! My mother-in-law also says it “Schma-en-ha-en” to shorten it, and that’s funny too.
  • Bälle. It means: balls. Why I like it: “Ball” sounds pretty  much the same as the English word, but “balls” in German sounds like “Bell-uh.” And that tickles my funny bone. :)
  • Kartoffeln. It means: potatoes. Why I like it: I really can’t explain why I like this word, but I always have, since I learned it from Jackie in German class in high school.


  • Glühbirne. It means: light bulb. Why I like it: German has so many logical words, and this is only one of them. Literally, it means “glowing pear.” This is a little backwards, but if you saw a pear hangin from a tree and it was glowing, what would you say it looked like? A light bulb. Logisch.

There are so many logical words in German: Krankenhaus “sick house.” A house where sick people live. What does the word “hospital” mean? Who knows. Regenschirm “rain shield.” What shields you from the rain? Where the heck does “umbrella” come from?!

What other logical German words do you know? Share them in the comments!

Entire English Phrases in One German Word

  • Absacke. It means: last drink of the night before the bar closes. Why I like it: I like the way it sounds and I love German words that mean an entire phrase or sentence in English.
  • gondolieren. It means: to ride a gondola. Why I like it: In German, I can say “We gondola-d for on the night of our anniversary.” In English, I have to say “We took a gondola ride on the night of our anniversary.” Efficient, no?
  • übernachten. It means: to stay overnight. Why I like it: In German, “We overnighted in Frankfurt.” In English, “We stayed overnight in Frankfurt.” Here, the English translation isn’t too many more words, but I just like having one word for this very frequent situation.
  • Verschlimmbesserung. It means: an improvement that actually makes things worse (slang). Why I like it: This is another one of those words that means an entire sentence in English. It’s so efficient!
  • mutterseelenallein. It means: Dictionaries will tell you that it means “all alone,” but when you know what the words themselves mean, you see the deeper meaning. “Mutter” means “mother.” “Seele” is “soul,” and “allein” is “alone.” Taken all together, it really means, as one of my students explains in her This I Believe essay*, “being left alone by everyone, even by the one thing you were always confident of: your mother’s soul.” Why I like it: Wow, do we even have words like that in English?


* Listen to “The Very Basic Rule of Energy” by Masja Raab.

8 thoughts on “My Favorite German Words / Meine deutschen Lieblingswörter

  1. Khenan

    05 Jan on 2010 at 20:09

    Do we all realize that English comes from German (many mistake English to be from Latin since there are quite numerous amounts of Latin BORROWED words). This is why German words are easier for us English speakers to say. We even umlaut, but do not use the two dots to show this. Instead, oo like in ”Good” is an umlaut, “Foot” even. Those are the umlauted o words that English has. Mad, glad, hat, fat, and such have a sound nearly identical to umlauted a.

    • xgravity23

      06 Jan on 2010 at 15:35

      @Khenan: I don’t know how many of my readers know that, but I did know that. The umlaut that I have the most trouble with is “ü” followed by “r,” as in “Geschäftsführung” or “für.” I can say it fine in words like “Müller.”

  2. Lorraine

    09 Sep on 2009 at 19:34

    Love it! I really like Höchstgeschwindigkeitsbegrenzungen (speed limits)…just because it is ridiculously long. I also love most anything with an ü or ö, especially Düsseldorf (a city), Löffel (spoon), and knödel (dumpling). :D

    • xgravity23

      06 Jan on 2010 at 15:38

      @Lorraine: Ah, yes, speed limits! That’s a great one! I should add to favorite city names “Dudeldorf.” We happened to drive through it the first time I visited Germany in 1997 and so it has been a long-standing family joke. :) I also like “Knödel.” And I like eating them as well! :D

  3. Andreas G.

    09 Sep on 2009 at 17:49

    Wow, I didn’t know Absacke. I just know Absacker. That’s the shot of alcohol you can drink after a meal that is supposed to help your stomack digest :) Maybe there’s regional difference.
    There’s one “e” too much in your “übernachten” :)
    Verschlimmbesserung… I didn’t know this word at all. Do people really use it?
    “Mutterseelenallein” is indeed cool. I think it originates from the times, when sons (and husbands) had to go to war.
    Another logical word would be “Kühlschrank” where you have refrigerator. A cooling closet :D

    • xgravity23

      06 Jan on 2010 at 15:40

      @Andreas: I learned Absacke from a German who… grew up in America and Canada but has lived in Gießen for a while now. I think both “Mutterseelenallein” and “Verschlimmbesserung” both came from student essays. The etymology of “Mutterseelenallein” is very interesting!

  4. Fips

    09 Sep on 2009 at 16:22

    I must admit, the logical side of German certainly appeals to me, at least as far as having to make up words on the spot. Once in town meeting up with some friends, I remember trying to describe where we were to another person on the phone, and as none of us knew the word for ‘fountain’ just had a stab at ‘Wasserspiel’, which turned out to be right. Just say what you see, as Roy Walker might’ve said!

    Of course, for every one of those moments there are probably a hundred which go horribly astray, but I don’t envy people having to try to invent English words on the spot. And these days it’s often more tempting just to make up new Anglizismen to add to the millions that are already floating around the German language, rather than struggle to come up with the real words.

    Finally, damn that spam protection! It asks for a sum in words but wants the answer in numbers. Apparently I’m just as dumb as a bot. ;-) Cute list though!

    • xgravity23

      06 Jan on 2010 at 15:42

      @Fips: Ha ha, what a great story! That happened to me so many times… I’d ask my husband what the word was, offer the compound I thought up, and often it’d be right! I love it. (I’m get less spam, so now that you’ve figured it out, hopefully you won’t have any more trouble. :) )