German Language 2

The Umlaut and the ß – German Idiomatic Expressions

The German Umlaut (“diaeresis” in English)
The two dots sometimes placed over the German vowels a, o, and u are known as an Umlaut. The umlauted vowels ä, ö and ü (and their capitalized equivalents Ä, Ö, Ü) are actually a shortened form for ae, oe and ue respectively. At one time the e was placed above the vowel, but as time went by the e transformed into just two dots. In telegrams and in plain (ASCII) computer text the umlauted forms still appear as ae, oe and ue. A German computer keyboard (see photo below) includes separate keys for the three umlauted characters (plus the ß, the so-called “sharp s” character). The umlauted letters are distinct from plain a, o, or u, and they are pronounced differently.

QWERTZ Tastatur

A German QWERTZ keyboard (Tastatur) has special keys for the language’s special characters. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

When you see German words like “über” spelled “uber” in English (as in “uber-cool” instead of “über-cool” or the company named Uber), you’ll know the writer hasn’t a clue about the source language. And isn’t it cooler to use the umlaut anyway? (If you’re going to use German words, at least do it right!) Proper names and surnames, such as Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany are correctly spelled “Schroeder” in English, rather than “Schroder” – which would be wrong. (On the other hand, Goethe is spelled that way in German, not Göthe! Surnames like this can break the rule.)

The German ß Character
The Germans are very proud of having the unique letter ß. The letter is actually a ligature, a combination of two letters, in this case s+z, or in German das Eszett (the s-z). It is found only in German, and it is only used in the lower case, never capitalized. Some Germans still refuse to give it up, even though the new official spelling rules have eliminated it in many words. For example, the German word dass is no longer spelled daß. But some German-speakers stubbornly refuse to use the spelling that has been taught in German schools since 1996. They continue to write “ich muß” or “daß” when it should be “ich muss” and “dass.” But the German-speaking Swiss have managed to get along just fine without the ß for many years, since long before the 1996 spelling reforms. They don’t use it at all. In Swiss German there is no ß, and no ß-key on Swiss keyboards.

It’s a doozy!
The English expression “doozy” (also “doozie”) — as in “Man, that one was a real doozy!” — comes from the name of German-American car maker Frederick S. Duesenberg (1877-1932, born in Lippe, Germany) and his luxurious high-powered Duesenberg roadster. The American-built Duesenberg SJ could reach speeds of 130 mph (210 km/h). The Duesenberg Motor Company produced its streamlined, elegant motor cars from 1917 to 1937 to compete with similar expensive roadsters such as the Italian Bugatti.

On a related but different note, “Dear Doosie” by Werner Lansburgh (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag) is a humorous love story that plays off of the German Du / Sie problem – hence the title. Written in an interesting mix of English and German, the book can be read by anyone with at least an intermediate command of German and a good German-English dictionary. Written in the form of a series of letters, “Dear Doosie” has fun with the hazards of learning another language, in this case, a German learning English. But the book is also helpful for English-speaking learners of German – and an amusing read besides.
NOTE: This book may be available from

The Germans have a word for it
English may have more vocabulary than any other language, but that doesn’t mean it has a word for everything. Every language has words and expressions that are unique and very difficult or impossible to translate into another language. The Eskimos, contrary to popular legend, do NOT really have fifty words for snow, but German gemütlich takes several words to explain in English: cozy, comfortable, warm, inviting, and hospitable. Sometimes these words or expressions are adopted wholesale into another language: kindergarten and gesundheit (health), for example, from German into English. But more often the word is just unknown in other languages. German is a rich language that has words and turns of phrases that have no equal in English. (The reverse is just as true, of course.)

German makes certain distinctions that English does not. For English “to know” German has two words, each reflecting the difference between knowing something through understanding (wissen) and knowing something through recognition (kennen). A German can also understand immediately from the use of one of two distinct verbs whether an object has been “put” on a surface in a standing (stellen) or a lying (legen) position. When it comes to eating, animals and humans in German have two different words: fressen is used for non-humans, while people essen.

Some German expressions, such as Schadenfreude (a malicious pleasure or gloating over another’s misfortune), don’t really have an English equivalent. (“Crocodile tears” – Krokodiltränen – aren’t really the same thing.) The adjective überfragt (lit., “over-asked,” as in “Da bin ich überfragt.” “You’ve got me there. I don’t have the answer.”) has no one-word English equivalent either.

German slang and colorful expressions
One common mistake made by beginning language learners is to assume that expressions can be translated word-for-word from one language into another. They’ll take an expression such as “to bite the dust” and render it into something like “zu beissen den Staub.” Besides its word order problems (the phrase would go “den Staub beissen” in German), this literal translation makes absolutely no sense to a German-speaker. In the German language, when one “bites the dust,” one actually “bites into the grass” (ins Gras beissen), perhaps because Germany is much greener than the wild West associated with this expression in English, although the German expression goes all the way back to the 16th century.

Language-Learning Tip
Try not to think in English when you are speaking or writing German. Especially with slang, but also in many other situations, this is the one thing that leads to the most trouble. If you are translating in order to write or speak, then something is wrong. Translation is a linguistic crutch, to be used only when you are learning or can’t make it on your own in German. You don’t really “know” German until you can hear it in your head. (Even if it is limited to just certain phrases and expressions, the so-called “din in the head” is a sign that the new language is taking hold. Dreaming in German is one definite sign of this.) Leave the delicate art of translation to professionals.

German has many interesting and colorful turns of phrase, some of which are obvious in their meaning, and some of which are not. There are several other interesting “grass” expressions in German that relate to a variety of situations. “Das Gras wachsen hören” means to “hear the grass grow” or, in other words, to think you’re so clever that you can even hear the grass grow. Über etwas Gras wachsen lassen (to let grass grow over something) means to leave something in the past, to allow something to be forgotten.

When a German has had just a little bit too much to drink, “er hat zu tief ins Glas geguckt” (he looked too deeply into the glass). To fill up the glass again is “die Luft aus dem Glas ‘rauslassen,” to “let the air out of the glass.” Another Luft expression is “gesiebte Luft atmen,” which literally means to “breathe strained air,” and is a slang expression for being in jail (and breathing air filtered through the bars of your cell).

An innocent word like Pantoffel (slipper) can take on hidden meaning in German. A Pantoffelheld is literally a “slipper hero.” However, most “Pantoffel” expressions have to do with being “hen pecked” or a husband/man dominated by a wife/woman. A Pantoffelheld is a man under the foot of a woman, a hen-pecked husband. The Held or “hero” part of this word is meant ironically. But a Pantoffelkino (slipper cinema) is a TV set or watching movies at home. The expression goes back to the earliest days of silent films, when the local nickelodeon was close to home and didn’t require one to dress up.

Vogel (FOGEL), bird, is another dangerous word in German. To say that someone has a bird – “einen Vogel haben” – means they are crazy. (Many an American exchange student in Germany has innocently remarked to their host mom or dad that they have a bird back home, much to the amusement of their German listeners.) To show someone einen Vogel (a bird) in Germany is the same as showing someone the bird in America. A Vogelhaus (bird house) is also a prison.

While we’re on the topic of animals, the German word Schwein (swine, pig) is one to take care with, since it can be a very insulting term. But oddly enough, “Schwein haben” (lit., “to have pig”) is good. The expression is used to say someone was lucky or “came out smelling like a rose,” as in “Er hat Schwein gehabt.” (“He was in luck.” or “He was a lucky dog.”). The expression goes back to times when having a pig was a form of wealth.

A few short-but-meaningful expressions: ein Glückspilz (a lucky mushroom) is a person who experiences unexpected good fortune. Vitamin B (VEET-ah-meen BAY) is good connections (gute Beziehungen) to influential people, an expression that came out of World War II and food rationing. Vitamin B2 (BAY-tsvye) is even better connections. A fairly recent term is schickie mickies for “yuppies.” A Windel-Mercedes (Windel = diaper) is a fancy baby carriage.

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