German Words With No English Equivalent

Working in a translation agency has its benefits – you come across so many languages as translators mumble in multiple tongues. I’ve been at Locate Translate for many months now. During my tenure, I’d discuss languages with translators. And one of the pleasant surprises has been speaking to fellow workers and never knowing what language they might pull out from their bag of languages. Collectively, one gets the feeling of being surrounded by polyglots! I confess I’m no polyglot myself, though I’m bilingual! I tried my luck learning German words from German-speaking translators working with us but to no avail. My inability to pick up the language has to do with complex grammar and the lack of English equivalents for certain German words that I came across. I’m talking about German words that don’t exist in English but describe complex human emotions. Or that the English translation of these words fails to capture their depth in meaning. 

So without further ado, let’s discuss German words that don’t translate easily into English.

1. Ohrwurm

Literal Meaning – “Earworm.”

Explanation – This is where it gets strange. The literal translation of Ohrwurm says ‘ear worm’, but it isn’t! Ohrwurm depicts the emotion of loving a song so much that it gets stuck to your head. And by all standards, it’s contrary to ‘ear worm’ by miles! So the nearest descriptive equivalent I can think of Ohrwurm is keeping grooving and singing along to your favourite song over and again.

2. Sturmfrei

Literal Meaning – “When your parents are away, and you have the whole house to yourself.”

Explanation – Now, it won’t be wrong to say Sturmfrei is one of the German words for emotions. From its literal translation, one can conclude it’s an emotion of happiness and freedom and falls under the category of unique German words. Of course, there’s no precise translation of it in English, but we have our way of saying just the same: “party time”, “home alone,” or more descriptive, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

3. Backpfeifengesicht

Literal Meaning – “A face begging for a slap.”

Explanation – Simply put, Backpfeifengesicht means a “slappable face”. But the truth is, it has no equivalent in the English language. Backpfeifengesicht is a German word whose English translation falls short of conveying its true meaning. You can, however, use Backpfeifengesicht to label anyone as such that fits in the description.

4. Handschuhschneeballwerfer

Literal Meaning – “Glove snowball thrower.”

Explanation – Almost in every discussion we have with our native-speaking German linguists, Handschuhschneeballwerfer pops. They say they can think of no English equivalent of German word – Handschuhschneeballwerfer. So it’s someone not daring enough to throw snowball with bare hands, but due to their cowardice resorting to a glove to do so.

5. Erbsenzähler

Literal Meaning – “Someone who is obsessed with details and a bit of a control freak.”

Explanation – The literal meaning of Erbsenzähler is someone obsessed with or eye for the smallest of details. Like they can’t breathe without digging to the very bottom! Breaking  Erbsenzähler into its components – Erbsen and Zähler, we get the following meaning “peas” and “count,” respectively. 

6. Dreikäsehoch

Literal Meaning – “Three cheese high.”

Explanation – Again, one of the untranslatable German words, Dreikäsehoch, means the exact opposite of its literal meaning. Though the word has got nothing to do with cheese, it portrays the state of an undergrown child perfectly. So if the child hasn’t grown big enough as he should have been, Dreikäsehoch is the word to describe such a child. Its meaning comes to something like this: His height is akin to the three cheese rolls piled one upon another – meaning not enough tall or grown-up!

7. Sprachgefühl

Literal Meaning – “Language feeling.”

Explanation – Sprachgefühl, though a cool-sounding German word, finds no equivalent in English in terms of its meaning. However, that doesn’t mean it’s indescribable. On the contrary, it describes a person who’s a knack for learning languages and mastering their grammar, syntax, terminology, etc. Indeed, Sprachgefühl is a unique word, but so are the people who can learn a second language!

8. Gemütlich

Literal Meaning – “Heart, mind, temper, feeling.”

Explanation – What’s unique about Gemütlich is that it’s an encapsulating adjective. That’s to say, it contains within it many adjectives and feelings, such as cosiness and comfort one finds at home. 

9. Schadenfreude

Literal Meaning – “Damage joy.”

Explanation – Schadenfreude is something you won’t want to associate yourself with as it means gaining joy out of other persons’ distress. Schadenfreude is an interesting German word exemplifying the ugly satisfaction one draws when misfortune befalls someone else.

10. Fernweh

Literal Meaning – “Far sickness.”

Explanation – Far sickness truly represents an unsatiated longing for faraway places. As opposed to homesickness, Fernweh expresses a person’s want to travel. 

11. Verschlimmbessern

Literal Meaning – “To make something worse by trying to improve it.”

Explanation – Obsession with perfection can be counterproductive sometimes. The experience of trying to do something with utter perfection but ending up doing it wrong is nothing new to many of us! We’ve all messed up things doing so! And you’ve had this experience recently Verschlimmbessern is the word for you! 

12. Innerer Schweinehund

Literal Meaning – “Inner pig dog.”

Explanation – Sometimes, you’re all pumped up to sweat it out in the gym, but then suddenly a mysterious voice lulls your inner spirit into inactivity. The culprit is your Innerer Schweinehund which makes staying home more attractive than going to the gym to work out.

inforgraphic showing german words with no english equivalent

13. Erklärungsnot

Literal Meaning – “Having to explain yourself quickly.”

Explanation – This is just wonderful how this little word captures the excitement and immediacy of the situation wherein you have to explain rather quickly after being caught doing something. When you’ve to be swift with explaining yourself lest people take your words as an excuse, the word is Erklärungsnot.

14. Torschlusspanik

Literal Meaning – “As one gets older, the feat that time is running out and important opportunities are slipping away.”

Explanation – If you’ve ever been under pressure to do something with your life and feel the time is fast slipping away and have nothing achieved yet, know that it’s Torschlusspanik ticking louder. You get this feeling when your friend gets married, job, etc.

15. Weltschmerz

Literal Meaning – “Mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.”

Explanation – Weltschmerz describes a sorry state of melancholy caused by the horrors of the real world. The world’s real state of affairs frustrate idealists who fancy it to be all rosy, but it isn’t. As a result, when they come face to face with reality, sadness grips idealists. And it’s this crisis that this German word captures.

16. Kummerspeck

Literal Meaning – “Excess weight gained from emotional overeating.”

Explanation – While it’s natural to respond emotionally to instances of loss, whether that be of job, loved one, failure of any kind, too much emotional overeating can be counterproductive and lead to excessive weight gain as you turn to foods like pizza, ice cream, to forget the pain.

17. Zugzwang

Literal Meaning – “To be forced to make a decision.”

Explanation – Originally intended for chess players who have to make quick moves, Zugzwang has entered active German vocabulary and is used to describe feelings of stress under which you have to make a strategic move.

18. Pantoffelheld

Literal Meaning – “A man who may act tough in front of his friends but can’t stand up for himself against his wife.”

Explanation – This is an interesting German word that describes the mundane household situation where the wife reigns supremely and the husband has to follow orders. Even though, outdoors the opposite is true! Shortest to say, a lion becomes a cat once before his wife.

19. Kuddelmuddel

Literal Meaning – “A chaotic situation.”

Explanation – Have you ever been caught up in a situation that did not make any sense as everything looked so messed up. This word describes feelings when confronted with a frustrating and chaotic situation.

20. Treppenwitz

Literal Meaning – “A staircase joke.”

Explanation – I think this word will sound familiar and relatable to you once its meaning is made clear. When you’re left speechless in response to a comment or joke or witty statement made by someone and fail to make the on-spot fitting response. What happens is the next moment once you’ve moved on, suddenly a perfect response flashes before your mind.

Other Untranslatable German Words With Their Meanings

German Word Literal Meaning
Kindergarten Children’s garden
Geborgenheit Secureness, security
Sturmfrei Storm free
Wanderlust Hiking lust/hiking desire
Fingerspitzengefühl Fingertip-feeling
Fremdschämen Be ashamed for a stranger
Erklärungsnot Explanation misery
Weltschmerz World-pain
Schwarmerei Enthusiastic activity or feeling
Doppelgänger Double-goer
Poltern Knock or rattle
Flak Sudden criticism
Fliegerabwehr Defense against air attack
Kuchen Cake
Luftschloss Unrealistic dreams
Zweisamkeit Harmonic togetherness of two people
Einsamkeit Loneliness
Kopfkino Head cinema
Gedankenkarussell Thought carousel
Betthupferl Bed hopper
cool german words

Here are More German Words with No English Equivalent

German Word Meaning
Sauregurkenzeit Pickle time
Müdigkeit Tiredness
Frühjahrsmüdigkeit Springtime lethargy
Honigkuchenpferd Horse-shaped honey cake
Gesicht Face
Geborgenheit State of comfort, security
Verschlimm To make things worse
Verbessern To improve
Luftschloss Delusions of grandeur
Koddeln Dirty linen

I hope you liked our collection of German words that fail to lend themselves so easily to translation into English. These 50 words that we’ve compiled here aren’t translatable nor do they find any equivalent term in English, so they’re very special and in a sense unique to the German language. 

If you know any other German word(s) and want to share with us, please note it down in the comments section, we’d happily include it in our post. Also, don’t forget to share the post on your social media profiles.

About Locate Translate – Locate Translate is a specialized translation agency providing interpreting, transcription, and translation to and from German to our clients tailored for market research, legal, marketing, and medical industries. You can contact us at hello@locatetranslate.co.uk or call us directly on +44 208 609 4852.

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