For the first time since we moved to Berlin over five years ago, I am required to go (most days, at least) to an office with lots of German people. Up until a few months ago, I’d either worked from home or from a small co-working space. But now, from behind computer screens and over the kettle in the shared kitchen, I see Germans at work – a novel and culturally enlightening experience for many reasons, not least because of “Mahlzeit!”
Have you ever heard a German say “Mahlzeit” and wondered what it meant – sitting down to a meal perhaps or some time around the middle of the day? Why should they be reminding me it’s a mealtime, you might have thought, if you’d understood the word but not really grasped what they were getting at.
It comes from “gesegnete Mahlzeit“, meaning literally “blessed mealtime” and back in the days from whence it originated would have been used as a more devout alternative to the more ubiquitous “guten Appetit“. A few centuries on, a morphed version of “Mahlzeit” is still in frequent use. People say it as a salutation when they see a colleague going off to lunch. Or rush it out to each other when they briskly pass in the corridor around lunchtime – on the assumption perhaps that at least one of them must be heading in the direction of the canteen. You’ll also receive a few cheery “Mahlzeits” if you’re sitting eating your packed lunch in the kitchen and other people walk in to get a cup of tea. In this context it’s a cheery midday greeting, whether you’re sitting at the lunch table or not.
But the contemporary significance of “Mahlzeit” is more complex than that. You see, a few years ago young people would have disdainfully wrinkled up their noses at the thought of saying “Mahlzeit“; it belonged to their parents’ generation who worked in big office blocks or as civil servants. So how does it come to be that I routinely hear it working in a startup based in one of Berlin’s youngest and most vibrant areas?
In this milieu, in 2015, “Mahlzeit” is said only ironically. It’s throwback to a petit bourgeois past, from which these cool kids in their dark-framed glasses and with their hipster beards desperately want to distance themselves. By commandeering the term themselves they are simultaneously poking gentle fun at their parents whilst marking themselves out as terribly sophisticated. Such is the power and evolution of language.
Before sitting down to write this post, I asked my German husband if he could think of any other similar German salutations which really mean something else but have taken on a far extended use and meaning. He came up with “Gruss Gott” (a hello greeting in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and “Ahoi” (the signal word on ships which is sometimes ironically used by people to get someone’s attention in the street). “Moin” is another, but that’s just “Guten Morgen” in other words. “Mahlzeit” is my favourite by far – a greeting just for lunchtime has to be rather special.