German might be known best for its compound words: words that are basically mash-ups of several words put together to create a new meaning. It’s actually not that unique: most languages put words together to create new meaning, though it’s not always in a single word as it is in German.
Mark Twain couldn’t get over compound phrases in German, thinking they were clumsy and awkward. As he wrote in A Tramp Abroad:
Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape — but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere — so it leaves this sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary, but in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one by one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples. “Freundschaftsbezeigungen” seems to be “Friendship demonstrations,” which is only a foolish and clumsy way of saying “demonstrations of friendship.” “Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen” seems to be “Independencedeclarations,” which is no improvement upon “Declarations of Independence,” so far as I can see. “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” seems to be “General-statesrepresentativesmeetings,” as nearly as I can get at it — a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for “meetings of the legislature,” I judge. We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature, but it has gone out now. We used to speak of a things as a “never-to-be-forgotten” circumstance, instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word “memorable” and then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened. In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.
But they can be fun, and are honestly a wonderful way at learning how to pick apart the German language. Let’s take a look at a few more of the weirdest (to our ears at least) German compound words:
This German word is famous for its sheer length – 63 letters – even if the contents aren’t that interesting. It means “law for beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision.”
You know that feeling that you get when spring is just around the corner and you start to get a little weary or fatigued, because it’s just a little bit too far away still? That’s Frühjahrsmüdigkeit, or literally, Spring (Frühjahr) Fatigue (Müdigkeit).
This word means to make something worse by trying to make it better. Sadly, incredibly useful on most days!
What are your favorite German compound words? Share them in our German forum!