Slang can be very regional, and of course “Jugendsprache”, or teenage slang, changes every minute or so. But here are a few words to help you understand native Germans and speak German easily and fluently.
Learning to Have a Conversation in German
The first German lesson for beginners often starts with a simple conversation between two people meeting. It usually goes something like this: “Guten Tag. Mein Name ist Sonia. Wie geht es dir?” What it doesn’t sound like, but probably should, is this (let's call our protagonists Angela and Peter):
PETER: “Na? Was geht ab?” (Well? What’s new?)
ANGELA: “Naja, wie immer.” (Well/okay, the usual.)
PETER: “Hast du Bock auf Kino?” (Do you feel like going to the movies?)
ANGELA:“Auf jeden Fall!” (Definitely!)
PETER: “Und danach zum Macki?” (And then to Macdonald’s?)
ANGELA: “Naja, wenn’s sein muß.” (Well, if we must.)
PETER: “Magst du keine Fritten?” (”Don’t you like chips?”)
ANGELA: “Jein. Wenn’s paßt.” (Sort of - “jein” is a contraction of “ja” and “nein”. When it suits.)
PETER: “Also bis dann!” (All right, till then!)
ANGELA: “Mach’s gut!” (be well, take care.)
And yet normal, everyday German does sound like this. Keep an ear out for common phrases such as “Mach’s gut” or “ich habe kein Bock” (I don’t feel like….). Keep them out of your written German, but definitely use them with your friends! Perfect your German spelling with our post here.
Confusing the Tourists: Local Names for Places in Germany
Ever been to the Ku’damm in Berlin? Or the Stachus in Munich? Or to the Reeperbahn in Hamburg? These places are local names for the Kurfürstendamm, a well-known street, a square actually called Karlsplatz, and a whole neighbourhood (of which Reeperbahn is one street) that comprises Hamburg’s famous red light district.
Many cities have local designations for places. The more touristy ones will probably be pointed out in guidebooks, but don’t hesitate to ask “Hat es einen anderen Namen?” (does it have another name?) if you can’t find it on the map.
Perhaps the most famous of these is in Munich, and seasonal. Are you asking “Fußgänger” where the “Oktoberfest” is? No better way to out yourself as a tourist! Munich residents don’t go “zum Oktoberfest” - they “geh auf die Wies’n”.
“Wies’n” is the Bavarian form of “Wiese”, a field, and is a reference to the open area where the Oktoberfest takes place, the Theresienwiese, which was still a stretch of open country before the city walls when the first Oktoberfest was celebrated in 1810.
The festival’s official designation is “Oktoberfest” and there is even a special “Oktoberfestbier”, but people still go “auf die Wiesn.”
Learn German Slang Words for “Great!”
Most languages go through phases in expressing approbation, and the Guerman language is no exception.
While we no longer say “gee whiz”, “toll”, though perhaps a little understated for the modern generation, remains in fashion. “Wahnsinnig”, crazy, remains in use but is no longer the 'It' thing with the young crowd.
- “Cool” remains cool, (or “ku-ahl” as it is sometimes pronounced) for any item.
- “Geil” (literally, sexually aroused) is no longer the number-one hit, but remains in fashion. It can, like most others, also be used as an adjective (”geiles Smarphone”, “geile Schnecke” - not an amorous snail, but a hot woman, though you really shouldn’t say that about a woman unless you like being slapped.)
- “Fett”, is another sign of approbation (a ”Fettes Auto” is probably low-riding with aluminum hubcaps and a loud motor; “das ist voll fett” can be said of any hip or rad piece you encounter.)
- That sort of thing can also be “Krass”, “der Hammer”, “der Burner”, or, to take things to the extreme (at least in the 90s): Oberhammeraffentittengeil (over-hammer-ape-tits-aroused - but let he who never said "totally wicked" cast the first stone).
- “Voll” is the accepted progression, amounting to “totally” - “voll fett”, “voll krass”, “voll der Burner”.
I am not a hip youngster, and by the time this post is online there will probably be a new term out there - so you will have to figure out the newest adjective for admiration yourself.
Learn how to master German compound nouns here.
Learning German Derogatory Slang
Germans disapprove of a lot of things, “meckern”, or “complaining”, is a national pastime.
One who partakes in it might be called a “Meckerfritz” (complaining Fritz) or a “Miesepeter” if he ruins everyone’s day with his pessimism.
An idiot will be called an “Idiot” or a “Penner” (a homeless person). He can be a “Pfeife” or a "Vollpfosten", "Dünnbrettbohrer" (someone who makes holes in a thin board), "Depp", "Dummkopf".
Calling someone an “Asi” (short for “Asozial”) implies he is anti-social not only by refusing to come down for tea, but at worst wrecking cars with a bat and sporting right-wing tattoos, and at best living off the dole and taking advantage of the system.
A "Halbstarke" (half-strong) is someone whose balls hang down to their knees, but with no substance behind it - a pseudo-macho, a young bantams who puffs out his chests to show how cool and hardcore he is, usually (but not always) without the gumption to act on it.
In Hamburg slang, a “Pfeffersack” (pepper sack) was originally an East Indian merchant - Hamburg was part of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of port or merchant towns dating back to the 12th century and dealing, among other things, in spices such as pepper. Now it designates a rich person obsessed with money and power with no regard for the lower classes.
A pinchpenny would be called a “Geizhals”. Originally another German slang word for an avaricious, Scrooge-like person, an “Erbsenzähler” or pea-counter, is now someone who dots all his I’s and crosses his t’s and minds his p’s and q’s and makes sure you sign ON the dotted line and not above it.
On the other hand, a Kasperkopf (Punch-head, from the Punch and Judy shows, called “Kaspertheater” in German) is a silly goose, someone who likes to joke around.
Cute German Words for Children
Children are often accused of being a “Kasperkopf”, and there are few creatures with as many different designations in the German language. When you learn German, you might learn “Kind”, “Junge”, “Mädchen” or maybe even “Bube” (or “Bub”) if, like me, you read “Das Heideröslein” by Goethe. But there are many words for children, small and large, in German slang:
Babies are sometimes called “Würmchen”, or little worms, a reference to their rosy countenance and squirming. This isn’t derogative, though not all parents appreciate it.
Toddlers can be called a “Dreikäsehoch” (three-cheeses-tall) or a “laufender Meter” (running metre). “Knirps” is often reserved for boys, “Püppchen” or “Püppi” (doll) for girls.
Children of all ages - though usually younger ones - can be called a “Lütt” or “Lütte” in Northern Germany; Bavarians are more likely to call a boy a “Bub” rather than a “Junge” and a girl a “Mädel”. “Maus” is a frequent term of endearment for a child.
A brat can be a “Bengel”, "Balg", “Lausebengel” or “Lausbub”; a “Satansbraten” (roast of Satan), “Gör”, or “Frechdachs” (cheeky Devil).
“Süßkeks” or “Honighäschen”? German Lessons in Terms of Endearment
You won’t hear a German man call his wife “sweetie-pie” or “honey bunny”.
You will hear
- “Liebling” (darling)
- “Süße/Süßer” (sweetie)
- “Hasi” or “Häschen” (bunny)
- “Schatz” or “Schatzi” (treasure)
- “Mausebär” (mouse bear, usually reserved for men)
- or its variation “Schmusebär” (cuddle-bear)
- “Schmusebacke” (cuddle cheek) or;
Here are a few even more “abgefahren” (unusual) terms of endearment to try out on your loved ones.
Learn Common German Expressions
Though not exactly German slang, there are many expressions in German that have no exact, word-for-word equivalent in English. Just as English has “raining cats and dogs” and “sleeping like a log”, German has unusual expression that may baffle beginners and are rarely covered in German online courses or textbooks. Find German learning apps for taking German lessons on your own in this blog.
For example, you might fall out of all the clouds - “aus allen Wolken fallen” - or be astounded to find that your next-door neighbour has organised all his books by colour.
Whenever you go over, it really gets on your biscuit (”es geht mir auf dem Keks”), or annoys you.
You might say "er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank" (he doesn’t have all his cups in his cupboard, he has a screw loose, has lost his marbles).
Trying to explain to him that this is silly is “wie/zum Mäuse melken” (like milking mice - lots of squeak but little milk, a lot of effort for no return.) You could also call it a “Sisyphusarbeit”.
Or maybe he’s henpecked, or a “Pantoffelheld” (a slipper hero, a hero in house slippers) or needs to overcome his inner pig-dog (”seinen inneren Schweinehund überwinden”, overcome his laziness).
But telling him so will mean you will “ins Fettnäpchen treten” (put your foot in - specifically, in the bowl of fat). He might tell you you are making an elephant out of a mosquito (”aus einer Mücke einen Elephant machen”) or blowing things out of proportion.
And when he starts cursing at you in his native Swabian dialect, you “verstehe nur Bahnhof” (only understand train station, meaning it’s all Greek to you).
If you only understand train station, German lessons can help!
So: “Schuster, bleib bei deinem Leisten” (shoemaker, stay with your last) and mind your own business or your neighbour will give you a basket when you ask him out - that is, “er wird dir einen Korb geben”, or turn you down.
Learning German slang is never easy, but it is always entertaining. On this note, ich wünsche euch einen voll fetten Tag, ihr Miesepeter, Püppchen und Lausbuben, und vergisst nicht, euren inneren Schweinehund zu überwinden. Also, macht’s gut!
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