Why Germans Can Say Things No One Else Can


We're hugely dependent on language to help us express what we really think and feel

but some languages are better than others at crisply naming important feelings.

Germans have been geniuses at inventing long or what get called "compound words"

that elegantly put a finger on sensations that we all know,

but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express.

So, here is a small selection of the best of Germany's extraordinary range of compound words.


Literally, a distress at not having an explanation,

the perfect way to define what a partner might feel when they're caught watching porn

or spotted in a restaurant with the hands they shouldn't be holding.

More grandly, "Erklärungsnot" is something we feel when we realize

we don't have any explanations for the big questions of life.

It's a word that defines existential angst, as much as shame.


The feeling when you're eating with other people

and realize that they've ordered something better of the menu that you'd be dying to eat yourself.

Perhaps you were trying to be abstemious. Now, you're just starving.

The word recognizes that we spend much of our lives feeling

we've ordered the wrong thing, and not just in restaurants.


Literally, a castle in the air, a dream that's unnattainable

A word suggesting that German culture is deeply indulgent about big dreams,

but also gently realistic about how hard it can be to bring them off.


A face that's begging to be slapped

Generosity towards others is key but German is bracing and frank enough to acknowledge

that there are also moments when it's simply more honest to realize

we may have come face to face with a dickhead.


This word shows German at its most delightfully fetishistic and particular

meaning the delight one can feel at seeing ruins.

Collapsed palaces and the rubble of temples put anxieties about the present into perspective

and induce a pleasing melancholy at the passage of all things.


Literally, "sorrow fat". A word that frankly recognizes how often, when one is deeply sad,

there is simply nothing more consoling to do than to head for the kitchen and eat.


A word full of empathy that captures the agony one can feel at somebody else's

embarassing, misfortune, or failing.

A capacity to feel Fremdschämen is a high moral achievement

and is at the root of kindness.


Literally, "world sadness". A word that acknowledges that we are sometimes sad, not about this or that thing,

but about the whole basis of existence.

The presence of the word indicates a culture that isn't forcely cheerful, but takes tragedy as a given.

It is immensely reassuring to be able to tell a friend

that one is presently lined under the duvet, suffering from Weltschmerz.


We're meant to be sad when others fail, but German will wisely accept that we often feel happiness, "Freude"

at the misfortunes, the "Schaden", of others.

That isn't because we're mean, we just feel deeply reassured

when we see confirmation that life is as hard for other people as it is for us.

We can thank German for having so many of the right words to bring dignity

to our troubles and hopes.

Learning languages, ultimately, has little to do with discovering the world per se

It's about acquiring tools to help us get a clearer grasp on the elusive parts of ourselves.

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