Untranslatable Words Which Make Us Love German

Throughout many languages there are untranslatable words which crop up often in conversations between linguists.  We tend to run down a list in Miriam Webster assuming there is a direct translation. There often isn’t. This can be massively frustating to translators in particular.

The best way to improve a language level, say from B1 to B2 or even up to the more advanced levels of C1 and C2, it’s essential to become assimilators of culture. We can only do this via understanding other cultures and immersing ourselves into them.  Secret linguists tend to understand others better; not only in terms of language or with clear communication but with the knowledge of the target language’s history and culture. 


German: the king of compound nouns

German is the master of long words and creating the longest German word does not require too much brainpower or vocabulary. Many people often say: “Oh, do you have a word for… in English?” and usually the answer is no, or it starts to get complex.  “Well, we would verbalise rather than nominalise”. This is true that Germans often have an entire noun for which you would need an entire verbal phrase in English. In linguistics, if an expression or word is created or is made up in English it would be described as lexical creation.


Untranslable words we need in English

  1. Backpfeifengesicht (n),(m)A face badly in need of a fist. Guess there must be some violent people out there (not me, I am a pacifist).

  2. Geschmacksverirrung (n),(f)To suffer from bad taste – someone who got an outfit, like, REALLY wrong. 

  3. Scheinheilig (adj)Someone may look cute but is sneaky. The idea of someone not being suspected of something because they are so cute.

  4. Muskelkater (n),(m) I often get asked to translate this but “muscle cat” doesn’t quite encapture its meaning, funnily enough! When your muscles ache or are sore the next day after doing weights.

  5. Schnapsidee (n),(f)A brilliant idea thought of whilst drunk –  everyone has these. Everyone decides to covert their life savings into Bitcoin and sell all their belongings to live in the jungle, right?

    Schnappsidee (drink in moderation :))

  6. Kummerspeck (n),(m)Describes extra fat, like lovehandles, which develop when you’d had too much comfort food, specifically. Literally, grief-bacon.

  7. Verschlimmbessern (v)To make something worse whilst trying to improve it. You know when you think you’ll cut your own fringe and then make it too short but somehow find the madness to keep going? Yes, that’s it.

  8. Torschlusspanik (n),(f)The feeling of panic to achieve life goals. Example: having the ‘anyone will do’ desperation when everyone around you is having babies, getting married. Standard millenial anxiety.

  9. Zugzwang (n),(m)’
    Feeling under pressure to make a strategic move when you’d rather do nada.

  10. Geborgenheit (n), (f)
    The idea of being cosy, safe, comfortable at the same time –  or more speficially relevant for use millenials – sitting binge-watching Netflix infront of a fire.

  11. Dornrösschenschlaf (n), (m)Showing little sign of action. Your application for German citizenship could be in Dornrösschenschlaf, for example.

  12. Treppenwitz (n),(m)The awesome comeback you only think of after exiting the conversation (could be on the way down the stairs). Literally means a ‘stair-joke’.

  13. Fremdschämen (v)To feel shamed for someone else –  a classic one that fits in well for the embarrassment one can feel for someone else.

  14. Kopfkino (n),(nt) The act of playing out an entire scene in your head. Literally, a head-cinema

  15. Schattenparker (n), (m)Someone who is a wimp. Literally, someone who parks in the shade.


Toschlusspanik. Source: wiki


n = noun
v = verb
adj = adjective
f = feminine noun
m = masculine noun

Obviously there are too many to name. There are, of course, more less-PG terms which I found on the internet but chose not to include, for obvious reasons. 

Do you know any untranslatable words? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Finnuala Quinn