Nine Wunderbar German Compound Words


I studied German for four years. Today that only means I can utter a few outdated expressions that make my German friends laugh drily and/or correct me. But it's still an evocative language, and much of its charm comes from its wonderfully literal compound words. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Selbstmord. An old German word for suicide, this one literally translates as "self-murder". Unfortunately, younger German speakers have been replacing some of their ancestors' rusty old sayings with sleeker, more international terms, and the word Suizid is more commonly used today. A pity, as I'd like to think the grim, unromantic Selbstmord might have saved some lives.
  2. Brustwarze. Who says Germans aren't sexy? Brustwarze, their word for nipple, is directly translated as "breast wart".
  3. Sauerstoff. Now this one I don't quite get. English speakers could pronounce this word phonetically and guess that it means "sour stuff" - and they'd be right, in a literal sense. But it's actually German for oxygen!
  4. Handschuh. If Schuh is German for shoe, then what do they call a glove? That's right, a Handschuh: a shoe for your hand.
  5. Nacktschnecke. This is a mouthful of a word. Nackt is German for naked. Schnecke is German for snail. Therefore, a Nacktschnecke is a "naked snail". In other words, a slug.
  6. Durchfall. Here's a tip: Never do a Google image search for Durchfall. Because it's German for diarrhea. But the word itself is weirdly poetic, as durch means through, and fallen means to fall. So in short, Durchfall suggests that your food is literally falling through your body.
  7. Büstenhalter. This sounds like a phony German term that an American comedian might make up, but a Büstenhalter really is a "bust holder" - a brassiere. I should note that most Germans call it by its more modest abbreviation BH. And by the way, "BH" does make for a hilarious (if not work-safe) Google image search, as it intersperses photos of bra-clad women with random shots of leering men.
  8. Krankenschwester. This "sickie's sister" is a German nurse. ("Sister" here is derived from nuns, not from siblings. A male nurse is a Krankenpfleger, which more or less translates as "sickie's guardian".) And where does a Krankenschwester work? Why, at the Krankenhaus - or "sickie's house". That's German for hospital. And she might get there in a Krankenwagen - "sickie's wagon" - or what we call an ambulance.
  9. Staubsauger. Before I close, I'd like to pay tribute to the many German compound words that we English speakers have adopted, such as Kindergarten ("children's garden"), Zeitgeist ("time spirit", or more aptly "spirit of the time"), and of course  Schadenfreude ("shame joy", or "joy in others' shame"). And there are many other non-imported words worth mentioning, like Baumwolle ("tree wool") for cotton, Tiergarten ("animal garden") for zoo, Glühbirne ("glow pear") for light bulb, and Wortschatz ("word treasure") for vocabulary. But my favorite is probably Staubsauger, or "dust sucker". This is, of course, a vacuum cleaner.