Sometimes German Doesn’t Have a Word for That
I don’t know when the idea first entered the public consciousness of the English speaking world that the German language, partly through its ability to mash words together to make bigger words, has a word for everything that it would take a phrase or even an entire sentence to convey in English. Maybe it was in the late 80’s/early 90’s with VW’s Fahrvergnügen (pleasure of driving) add campaign, or maybe it dates back centuries. And everybody loves the concept of Schadenfreude (joy of the misfortune of others) and is probably still sick of people talking about the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times), since that was a totally zeitgeisty thing to do for a while.
People love examples like Wirklichkeitsverweigerung (denial of truth/reality), and Kastenstandhaltung (the raising of animals (i.e. pigs) in (inhumanely small) crates) instead of in Kuschelstroh (literally: cuddly straw, but obviously it means in more comfortable conditions).
But sometimes German doesn’t have a word for that. And, okay, maybe this isn’t a fair example, since it’s a French word we’ve absorbed into English, accent mark and all, but today I was wondering what the German word for crudités is. That’s raw vegetable sticks served with dip, in case you’re wondering, and that’s more or less how the first German-English dictionary I queried translated it into German: rohe Gemüsestäbchen mit Dip. The second German-English website did suggest just saying crudités would also work, but when I hit Spouse with that word last week, when I was preparing a plate of carrot sticks, he was just like, Was?
Speaking of Spouse, I was Skyping with my friend Don yesterday and he was relaying all his oldest memories, which, except for the time he hit his head on the back of the piano in his kindergarten (hah!) classroom and covered his whole shirt in blood consist of feeling incredibly loved by his parents. My oldest memories span a gamut from my first swimming lesson (at 9 or 10 months), to the first time we saw the house I ended up growing up in (at less than 2 years), to the day my brother was born (3 years), and my dad, really embarrassed, contributing to my potty training by trying to show me how to measure out the toilet paper by wrapping it around my hand (not really sure when that was), but are united by me generally simultaneously thinking that everyone around me was an idiot.
When I asked Spouse what his oldest memory was, he didn’t even let me finish the sentence before he blurted out, “Sunburned penis!”
“Oh you poor thing,” I told him. “That would be unforgettable, and not in a nice way.” But it wasn’t his.
It turns out his first memory, from when he was 2 or 3 or so, was of being on vacation with his parents in East Germany (because they lived in East Germany), who had been lucky enough to get one of their company’s few allotted spots at a certain remote, seaside facility coveted despite its lack of electricity and running water. East Germany being East Germany, beaches were “textile free” affairs and apparently the image of a man sunburned all over strolling by, lobster red member bouncing, seared itself into the psyche of one certain young, impressionable child. Perhaps it was even the first moment in his life where he realized that life could come with an unasked for side order of consequences.
Sadly, I did not think to ask him if German has a word for either of those two ideas (sunburned penis and life’s occasional unfortunate but also slightly humorous consequences). Unfortunately, he’s out working at getting his business off the ground right now. So let me get back to you on that.