Have you ever ordered leather cheese? Have you ever told your cab driver that your hotel is located on One-Way Street? Of course you haven’t. Not unless you are a foreigner living in Germany you haven’t, that is.
Mark Twain may have been right when he said “I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.” His frustration with German is certainly justified. I have lived here for many years myself and still regularly run up against a wall of misunderstanding and confusion. But I can live with misunderstanding and confusion. What I can’t bear are those unpredictable and terribly embarrassing German meltdowns that inevitably come your way when speaking the language.
It’s not so much the complicated German grammar that causes them. Sure, you may be up against a tag team of opponents who will show you no mercy when learning German, adversaries like the case problem, the gender issue, word order, Umlaute, prepositions, “Sie” and “du” and “haben” and “sein.” But there is more than just the grammar in play here. Let’s face it. Germans just talk funny. Think Yoda. He says stuff like “strong in you the force is” or “size matters not.” This is how people talk over here in Germany too. Only with different words, of course.
And that’s the real problem, the words. These awful German words are what lead to the meltdowns. German words are strange and confusing and often made up of other German words that are strange and confusing in their own right. And there are so many German words out there too. Like Steve Martin said once about French, “It’s like they’ve got a different word for everything.” So how can students of German not mix them up all the time? They can’t.
As the Germans say, “Jeder muss durch” (everyone has to go through it). There is no use in pretending that these meltdowns can be avoided. I have spoken with others who have experienced some of the meltdowns listed below. I have researched and found other examples of other meltdowns in the Internet. I have even made one or two of these myself (I won’t say which ones they are, however). And if you are an aspiring student of the German language, you too will have to go through a few of these awful mix-ups yourself, although they won’t necessarily be among the ones listed below. Not if you’re lucky, they won’t be.
So just sit back, swallow your pride and start speaking German like the rest of us (like real imbeciles). Mistakes can and do happen, and these did too.
A guy went into a mattress store to purchase a mattress one day and told the salesman that he would like to buy a sailor. Matraze is mattress, Matrose is sailor.
When driving around with Germans, don’t mistake the sign labeled Umleitung (detour) with a sign giving directions to a place that you actually think is called Umleitung.
Whenever ordering a dry Martini in Germany make sure that you don’t order drei (three) instead.
If it’s hot outside say “Mir ist heiss” not “Ich bin heiss.” Ich bin heiss means I’m horny.
One day a university student asked the lunch lady whether two slices of bread were included with his appetizer. Unfortunately he mispronounced the word slice. Scheibe is slice, Scheide is vagina.
If you want to tell someone that you have watered the flowers say “Ich habe die Blumen gegossen,” not “gegessen.” Gegessen means that you ate them.
It’s Blutwurst (blood sausage) not Blödwurst (dumb sausage).
Don’t mix up the words schwül and schwul. Schwül means humid and schwul means gay.
One girl wanted to tell her German friends that she would soon be moving to a new apartment and said “Ich werde mich bald ausziehen.” Ausziehen means to move out, mich ausziehen means to take my clothes off.
If you feel that there are too many tourists out on the street, don’t say “Da sind mir zu viele Terroristen.” That means there are too many terrorists here for me.
When in a restaurant remember that it’s Vorspeise (appetizer) not Vorspiel (foreplay).
If you are homesick say “Ich habe Heimweh” not “Ich habe Fernseh.” That means I have televison.
Präservativ means condom in German so be careful when trying to explain how American food is full of preservatives.
It’s die Jugend (the youth) not die Juden (the Jews).
When you tell your friends that you failed an exam, remember to use the verb durchfallen (fail) and not the noun Durchfall (diarrhea).
If you want to say that you are a young woman it’s “Ich bin eine junge Frau” not “Ich bin Jungfrau.” Jungfrau means virgin.
When buying your tickets in a movie theater don’t forget that the word is Vorführung (showing) not Verführung (seduction).
If you want to order chicken remember that it is pronounced Hühnchen not Hündchen. Hündchen means puppy dog.
It’s Leberkäse (liver loaf) not Lederkäse (leather cheese).
A popular chocolate here is called Kinderüberraschung (children’s surprise) not Kinderenttäuschung (children’s disappointment).
The sun shines here (scheint), it doesn’t snow (schneit).
If you love to prepare casserole (Auflauf) don’t ruin everybody’s appetite by announcing that you will be serving them Einlauf (enema).
When you visit a restaurant remember that it’s called Speisekarte (menu) not Spielkarte (playing card).
When bragging about having been brought up bilingually, use aufgezogen for brought up, not aufgebracht. Aufgebracht means that you were bilingually outraged.
Right before the movie starts you will be watching the Vorschau (trailer) not the Vorspiel (foreplay).
When you are invited to someone’s house for dinner don’t compliment the hostess on her big balcony. That also means that she has a big bosom.
If you want to order your food to go, use the verb mitnehmen, not ausnehmen. Ausnehmen means that you want your food gutted.
When you’re feeling down and someone asks you how you feel, don’t tell them that you’re blue. That means that you’re drunk.
If you really enjoyed your meal don’t say “das war lächerlich” when you actually meant to say “lecker.” Lecker means delicious, lächerlich means ridiculous.
When you want to tell someone that you fed your pet, use the verb füttern not futtern. Futtern means to eat.
If you have a pollen allergy don’t say that you have a Polenallergie. That means that you are allergic to Poles.
Sie isst eine Gans is not the same thing as Sie ist eine Gans. The first sentence means she is eating a goose, the second one means that she is a goose.
You don’t move up the career ladder in Germany by taking a Seitensprung, thinking this means taking a jump to the side. Seitensprung means you had an extra-marital affair.
Your hobby is shooting? Watch your pronunciation. Schießen means shooting. Scheißen means to crap.
Just because you’re a man who has nothing against women doctors you should avoid going to a Frauenarzt anyway. That’s a gynecologist.
When it’s where, don’t use wer: It’s not Wer bin ich? When you want to ask where you are. That means who am I?
If you ask for an eraser don’t ask for a Gummi. The proper term is Radiergummi. Gummi means rubber.
Notausgang does not mean no exit (not Ausgang). It means emergency exit.
It’s Arche Noah (Noah’s ark) not Arsche Noah (Noah’s ass).
Make sure that you don’t use the English word gift when you give a gift to your mother-in-law. Gift means poison.
It’s Schade (that’s too bad) and not Scheide (vagina).
If someone says Servus to you don’t reply with your first name and a handshake. His name is not Servus and he is not introducing himself. That’s how they say hello in Bavaria.
It’s Organismus (organism) not Orgasmus (orgasm).
It’s Prost! Not Trost! Prost means cheers, Trost means my sympathy or consolation.
The verb is wechseln not wichsen. Wechseln means to give change, wichsen means to masturbate.
It’s Tante (aunt) not Tunte (flamboyantly effeminate male homosexual).
When you ask the lady at the bakery to slice up your bread, say geschnitten (cut up), not beschnitten (circumcised).
Don’t use erregt for aufgeregt. Both mean excited but the first one also means sexually arroused.
When talking about birds make sure you say Vögel and not Vögeln. Vögeln means to fornicate.
It’s Gänsehaut (goose bumps) and not Hühnerfleisch (chicken skin).
If you’ve had enough, say ich gebe auf. Don’t give up by saying ich übergebe mich. That means I’m going to throw up.
Originally from California’s Central San Joaquin Valley and washed ashore on the coast of old West Berlin, Charles Larson is a freelance writer well versed in German and German culture. For more info, feel free to visit his website at EnglishPro & Co.