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Untranslatable German Words: Teil 1 Posted by on Jun 9, 2014 in Language

I am fascinated by words which exist in other languages, but which we do not have in English. I think my fascination stems from the question I ask myself when confronted with one of these words: Why does it exist in one language, but not in another? Sometimes, this is obviously for cultural reasons, but a lot of the time there seems to be no reason for it. Then I am often left wondering why we don’t have these wonderful words in the English language, too.

German is a prime example of a language full of words that do not exist in English. Perhaps the main reason for this is the way that German can combine nouns to create new words –thus using one word to explain something we would have to use an entire phrase for in English.

For example, in English we have to say “tomato soup” using two words. But in German, “tomato soup” is one word: Tomatensuppe. This goes for many other German words, too. Here are just a few examples, to give you an idea:

Apfelsaft (Apfel + Saft) – Apple juice
Sicherheitsdecke (Sicherheit(s) + Decke)– Safety blanket
Abfalleimer (Abfall + Eimer) – Rubbish bin
Wasserflasche (Wasser + Flasche) – Water bottle

However, the above examples are all fairly straightforward (and can be translated – as you can see). But there are many creative, interesting, and sometimes very funny words in the German language that we don’t have in English. So each week, I will discuss some of those ‘untranslatable’ German words with you here.

To kick things off this week, I’ll start with the word Drachenfutter.

Welcome the Dragon

Image by kennymatic on Flickr.com

What does this literally translate to?
The literal translation of Drachenfutter is ‘dragon fodder’.

What is the meaning of Drachenfutter?

It refers to a gift, either physical or in the form of a favour, which men give to their wives or girlfriends to say sorry for staying out late. For example, if a man has stayed out all night he might buy her chocolates to stop her from getting angry at him. So, in other words, he is feeding the dragon! However, I think this can refer to any situation where you buy a gift/do something for someone to stop them from being angry at you.

How would you use it in a sentence?
„Ich bringe Blumen mit mir als Drachenfutter, damit meine Frau nicht böse mit mir ist.“
“I’m bringing flowers with me as Drachenfutter, so that my wife doesn’t get angry at me.”

If you had to find one, what would be the English equivalent?
It’s not a noun, but the phrase that springs immediately to mind is “buttering up”. For example: “He was buttering her up to ask her to finish his work.” It’s not exactly the same, but it’s the closest thing I can think of, and the image it conjures up is similar to that of Drachenfutter (well, they both involve food…)

Do you have a better English translation? If so, please share it in the comments! And come back next week for more weird and wonderful, untranslatable German words! 🙂

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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


Comments:

  1. Kurt:

    The term “butter up” is quite good but would be specific to an action taken before a request or favour is needed. “Peace offering” might be a bit better because it denotes something that is given or an action made place after things have soured.

  2. Peter:

    English equivalent would be “peace offering.”

  3. Mike Marschall:

    Very interesting article! To give a little more context for the Drachenfutter: In German, a girlfriend/wife you expect to be angry with you is often referred to as a Hausdrache (home dragon), which will literally explode when you return home.

  4. Erin:

    Although it’s not one word, I’ve heard “doghouse key”. In English, when a man is in trouble with his wife or girlfriend there is the expression that he’s “in the doghouse”. So, buying a bouquet of flowers or something to apologize is the key to get him out of the doghouse.

    • Constanze:

      @Erin I’ve heard of being “in the doghouse”, but never of a “doghouse key”! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. And thanks for your comment. 🙂

  5. Denise:

    To “currying favour” might be another way of saying it. In other words mixing something together that will please the other half.

  6. Eamonn:

    Great article. Closest I can think of is “to smooth things over”, but I love the aforementioned “doghouse key”!

    • Constanze:

      @Eamonn Thanks Eamonn, I’m glad you liked it! And thanks for your suggestion. 🙂

  7. Jim:

    In New Orleans LA, a full-loaf fried oyster & shrimp po-boy (dressed, of course, with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, with hot sauce maybe) fills the Drachenfutter role and is referred to as a Peacemaker.

  8. Sammy Jo:

    A translation could be “placation”

  9. Bob:

    “Peace offering” is a decent translation. Using it as a verb also can be fun. “You call roses Drachenfutter? I’ve been drachenfuttered before and roses aren’t. Head back out and look for a jewelry store open this obscene hour of the night and don’t come back with anything less than 18 karat Drachenfutter.”

  10. Bob:

    Great site. I used to go to Hoechst AG in Frankfurt on business and the main building at the huge complex they had a Paternoster. It scared the hell out of me. It’s an elevator, but what an elevator and what a name. When asked if I spoke German I used to respond that I spoke Paternoster Deutsch, which is kind of enough German to understand what the Germans were saying about the Americans they assumed only spoke English.
    Great word.


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