When I first moved to Germany, my knowledge of the German language didn’t go past kindergarten and gesundheit. While it has—thankfully!—dramatically improved, I still struggle with the language. The best part, though, is that I’m perpetually amazed at the new words I learn every day. While I won’t ever really know all the German words, there’s a certain charm to discovering new words, idioms and phrases—especially since many of them are surprisingly fun.
Whatever the feeling you’re trying to express or the thing you want to describe, more often than not, there’s a German word for it. And if not, you can pretty much make one up. But before you’re proficient enough to do so, here are some of my favorite German words I’ve learned so far.
15 German Words You Need To Know
To help come up with list of German words (some useful, some less-than-useful), I’ve collaborated with Berlin-based illustrator Clairikine and online language school Lingoda to help put it together.
Schafskälte is a meteorological phenomenon that happens around June 11 (or at least between June 4th and 20th), but not necessarily every year. When it does, temperatures drop suddenly by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. It affects Central Europe but Germany is the country where it can be felt the most—hence the reason why the German language has a name for it but English doesn’t. Speaking of that word, “Schaf” means “sheep” while “kälte” refers to cold temperatures. And this phenomenon got its name from the fact that the Schafskälte would kick in after the sheep had been sheared, thus making them most vulnerable to the cold!
The verb fremdschämen could be the German cousin of face palm. It’s used to describe being vicariously embarrassed by the behavior of someone else. Common situations where you might have to fremdschämen include our best friend being too drunk in public, seeing a stranger trip and fall on the street or hearing someone proudly say something completely irrelevant during a meeting. #oops
Hüft means hip while gold means, er, gold—see, German really is fairly easy! However, guessing the meaning of this poetic word might be a bit trickier. Any idea? Hüftgold, it turns out, describes something slightly less glamorous, namely the extra fat people put on around the hips. But come on! It’s so much sweeter to tell a friend they’ve put on a bit of hip gold than, you know, fat.
On a side note. Hüftgold is also the name of a pretty cute café in Berlin! Check it out if you are ever in town.
Kummerspeck is used to describe the excess fat gained by emotional eating, especially in times of stress or sadness. Kummer means grief and Speck means bacon, which does make Kummerspeck an interesting word, don’t you think? By the way, Speck does not refer to actual bacon here, it’s just that Germans call any excess fat “Speck.” So if you manage to avoid putting on Kummerspeck, beware of Winterspeck, which is the weight people put on in winter. And believe me, winters in Germany are so long that there is more than enough time to get a little bit chubbier!
Let me have another shot at showing you that German is, indeed, a beautiful and romantic language. Ever heard of Zweisamkeit? This word describes the self-imposed isolation of a couple in love. Their togetherness creates a kind of loneliness around the two of them. It derives from Einsamkeit, meaning loneliness, but Zweisamkeit is obviously much more appealing…Two is better than one!
Geil is a funny word that shows German people are perhaps a tad dirtier than you’d think. This adjective is often used to describe something cool, awesome or exciting, but geil’s true meaning is that is describes being “horny,” “salacious” or “randy.” Therefore, avoid saying “ich bin geil” thinking it means “I’m awesome” as whoever you are talking to might think you’re blatantly asking for sex. Or, use it. Your call.
Überflutung means flooding, or overflow, and Reiz is the German word for stimulus. Therefore, Reizüberflutung is the somewhat familiar term that was coined to describe what occurs when someone is being over-stimulated by their environment. This happens more often in our societies than it used to, especially because of urbanization, mass media, advertising, technology, Twitter, etc. It can cause irritability, over-excitement, tension, and more, so this evocative expression makes all the sense in the world.
Probably among the cutest German words, Kopfkino is composed of Kino, which means cinema, and Kopf, which is German for head. Can you guess what Kopfkino means? Let’s say you’re about to fall asleep and you start thinking about that interaction you had with your crush earlier. Your mind starts drifting while you imagine how you could’ve kept the conversation going a bit longer, maybe you could’ve even asked them out? Letting this scenario unfold in your head is Kopfkino! Or that moment where your thoughts are acting like the director of your own private movie.
Na is among the most puzzling words for German learners, especially if you’re living in a German-speaking country. It’s not rare to be greeted with a loud Naaaa? by your flatmate upon coming home, and it turns out the only correct answer to that perplexing, monosyllabic question is to ask it in return! Na? is, in a way, the German equivalent to our beloved “What’s up?” Now you know!
No, Picobello is not an Italian word, although it does sound like one. Turns out it might be derived from the old German word piekfein, where fein was somehow replaced by Italian word bello. When something is picobello, it means it’s flawless, as in super clean for example, or that it’s looking good.
Feierabend itself is a cool German word as it describes the few hours that come once you get off work. It doesn’t matter whether they actually happen during the evening (“Abend”) or not, and regardless of whether a party (“Feier”) is in order. Add beer to the mix and you get one of my favorite German institutions: the Feierabendbier, or the beer you have upon finishing work. Some Germans take it a bit too seriously though, or at least that’s what I can’t help but think upon seeing construction workers open a bottle of cheap Pils at 10 am on any given day!
Pipapo is a another German word that doesn’t sound quite German and has unclear origins. It’s usually preceded by mit allem (“with all the”). The phrase Mit allem Pipapo means the same as the English expression “bells and whistles,” but you’ll have to admit that Pipapo just sounds way cuter!
Vokuhila doesn’t sound very German either, does it? That’s because it’s a made-up word created by taking the first two letters of four words, namely vorne kurz, hinten lang, meaning “short in the front, long in the back” and, well, I guess you know which horrendous haircut this refers to… Now that’s one trend I wish the German language hadn’t encouraged!
Frucht translates to fruit and Fleisch means meat. Combine these two words and you get another fun German word: Fruchtfleisch, which is what you’d call pulp in English. Actually, this word always makes me smile because I’ve realized that, in German, even vegans have a bit of Fleisch in their lives.
Tatendrang, or literally “action urge” is, hmm, the opposite of how you probably feel on Sundays or on Monday mornings. Tatendrang is used to describe a strong urge to get things done, take up new projects and accomplish everything on your to-do list. Though I do feel the Tatendrang sometimes, believe me when I say that, as a freelancer, I definitely wish this was my default mode!
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If you’re interested in learning German, check out the Lingoda.com website which offers online language lessons with qualified native-speaking teachers in online classrooms. At the moment, they’ve got courses for English, German, French and Spanish. You can even take a German language trial class for just 0.99€.
Great post, Adam! I speak German to a degree – I can talk about myself and my family, go shopping, got travel vocabulary, I know my verbs, bladibla – and it’s always nice to acquire some less common and culture-related vocabulary. Thanks for that! :-)
If you allow me to suggest something, it’d be great to have the article with the nouns – that’s my Achilles heel with the language. Since I didn’t learn nouns with their articles, I mix up with the declinations. :-S
Thank you Pedro! Cool to know you’re already learning the language – cultural vocabulary is so essential to feeling like you really “understand” a new language (or culture!).
Oh, and articles are the bane of my existence in learning German, so I feel your pain here!
Hey Pedro, if it helps, as a rule of thumb when combining two nouns, the first noun acts like an adjective to the second, so the article is that of the (remaining) second noun.
For example it is “die Feier” and “der Abend” combining into “der Feierabend”. Then you combine “der Feierabend” and “das Bier” and they become “das Feierabendbier”. Makes sense since we are talking about the beer as the subject: the bier you drink at the end of your work day.
The rest you should be able to thus figure out easily enough:
“das Schaf” + “die Kälte” = die Schafskälte
“die Hüfte” + “das Gold” =
“Der Kummer” + “der Speck” =
“der Winter” + “der Speck” =
“zwei” + “die Einsamkeit” =
“der Reiz” + “die Überflutung” =
“der Kopf” + “das Kino” =
“die Frucht” + “das Fleish” =
“die Taten” (plural of die Tat) + “der Drang” =
Hey Stavros :) Thanks for putting together that quiz on the articles – so useful!
I love finding these types of posts. Here in the U.S., finding materials to learn German are quite easy, but are still “text book” like. These types of posts allow for a more rounded and natural use of the language. Thanks for the great posts, Scott Baker, California.
Thanks Scott! You’re right – there’s a big difference between learning a language in a textbook versus learning it on the ground. Hopefully you can plan a trip to Germany soon to get a chance to use your new language skills!
With the amount of regional variations and specificity in words (like the word “Brötchen”, for example), I can’t help but wonder what variations these 15 words have in other parts of Germany, if any.
Yeah, I’m already starting to think of a post about regional words to know! The German language is a lot of fun and the regional dialects really do make it interesting…
Love this. Definitely a few in here I didn’t know. German is so weird sometimes :) Also, Vokuhila is the name of a hair salon in Prenzlauerberg…named for the irony I assume.
hahahah I didn’t know about that hair salon but that’s a pretty good name!
And yep, German is weird…I think that’s why I actually enjoy it sometimes ;-)
Nice text… thanks
‘Hüftgold’, by the way, can also refer to those tempting things that make it a lot easier to acquire that extra fat around your waist – chocolates, ice cream, Christmas dinner, you name it..
Exactly. I have never heard Hüftgold being used to refer to the love handles. “Hüftgold” is the good stuff that you eat that will become love handles. Especially chocolates wrapped in shiny golden wrapping — that would be the classic “Hüftgold”. And yes, I am a native speaker of German.
When I lived there 40 years ago zey always vanted to tell me vot ze longest wort was and without fail it was “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaen”
It always raised a chortle. Aber im Ernst ich liebe die deutsche Sprache. Ich habe so viel Spass damit gehabt.
A very nice selection, indeed.
My favourite for a very peculiar person:
My dads’ favourite is
OMG…. I think the word “Fliegenarschgucker” is the best of all. I think that is now my most favorite German word. ?
Woops Auto correction, i wanted to write
Really cool words! And supercool drawings!!
Hi there. I just wanted to add that Kopfkino also means your imagination running wild when you hear about something you just don’t wanna see/know. But your Kopfkino gives you a pretty good idea anyway. Like someone tells you something that just gives you the heebie-jeebies, just with all the extra pictures that cannot be unseen.
The English equivalent for Tatendrang is ‘drive’ :-)
The English equivalent for Tatendrang is ‘drive’ :-)
so hüftgold is the german equivalent of lovehandles?
Nope, Hüftgold is something to eat which almost instantaniously increases your love handles ;-)
ToK is right. Hüftgold is the treat, that will increase your weight. Like, when you get your Tiramisu (which is the Hüftgold) make you shrug and say:”a second on your lips, forever on your hips”
Nope, “lovehandles” are the equivalent… nothing to eat
The term ‘fremdschämen’ is also used very often to describe that someone is about to watch a certain TV show where the entertaining factor is based on other people’s embarrassment (either by showing their private lives in documentaries or theimselves struggling with weight or how their children’s education / behaviour or casting shows… ) most of these tv shows (mainly those low budget / scripted reality productions) are also called “Hartz 4 TV” (referring to long term unemployed who seem to be the only ones who can watch this) … So don’t worry when you find both words in one sentence
Sorry for my typing errors (it’s pretty late already) – here’s something that made my day as an IT Analyst this morning when a German colleague said “thank you for the tip” – he was trying to say thank you for a hint to solve my problems (hint in German is “tip”) :-) :-)
… by the way, it is “pikobello” with a “k”, not “c”
“Doch” is missing! Amazingly it is contradiction and assertion rolled into one word. Example: Q: You’re not hungry, are you?, A: Doch! (But yes I am), or: Er ist doch ziemlich groß ( He is ‘doch’ quite = He is tall after all even though people say he isn’t )
These must be Nothern German words. My Bavarian family and I have never heard most of these ?
of course. ? Bavaria is not Germans ?
Erhem! Bavarians are a nation of their own and proud of it ?
Nice compilation, it’s fun to see this from the “other side” as I try to improve my English skills I come across funny words and expressions too. To discover what “everything but the kitchens sink” means took me a while…
Cheers from Germany
Correction: “.. open a bottle of cheap Pils at 10 am on any given day!” is not a Feierabendbier, it’s a Frühschoppen! :)
Because one can’t trust the water. Thank you Reinheitsgebot!
Lived here for 45 years and never heard Vokuhila.
So here’s one you’ve never heard:
Politenesses (Höflichkeiten) exchanged in a cemetery (Friedhof).
literally ‘first-time-ness’: the feeling (never to be repeated) of experiencing something for the first time
Vokuhila seems to correspond to the mullet, defined by Chambers Dictionary as ‘a hairstyle, short at the front and long at the back, and ridiculous all round’.
Hi, if you have a Feierabendbier, you also should know a “Gehbier” – a beer to go. Usually a bottle of beer, drunken on the way home.
Hope you understand.
Reizüberflutung! The English language really needs a word like that, I’m over-stimulated just doesn’t sound right lol Thank you for this awesome post. Love it!
This is really entertaining to read as a german :D
You should add “also” which means “well”.
“Also ich hab darüber nachgedacht…”
“Well, i thought about it…”
This was great! Makes me miss living in Germany even more!
Do you know the word “fensterln” (“windowing”). It is used in the alpine area of Austria and South Germany and means climbing in through your sweetheart’s window.
The best german word is still missing: Mutterseelenallein
Thanks for this post!
I’ve been living in Deutschland since 2012, but I’m still confused by this “Naaa?”
Now I know what to do! :D
This would have been great if you have showed the pronunciation of these words also. I could only pronounce two or three at most,
‘Es tut ganz schön weh’ – it hurts totally nice. I does not meen that somebody likes the pain, it meens it hurts quite bad.
It would be nice to write a pronunciation also ;)
Very nice post. I’ve never been in Germany but now I know few words just in case :D
I tried to say something from your post but it’s very difficult! :D
I’m from Germany and I read your article. It was really cute and funny to see what you’re thinking about the German language. And I didn’t know the word Vokuhila myself and I’ve never heard anyone saying this before. So I learned something about my mothertongue too. And I was really a bit surprised because you said the German language is sweet und nice because I have never heard anyone saying this. I only heard people saying the Englisch language is really nice and better than the German.
I know my English is not the best but I hope you can understand what I wanted to say.
Thank you, I really like your article