German Language Blog

Don’t take things so literally! … Unless you’re speaking German. Posted by on Aug 13, 2014 in Culture, Language

You can learn a lot about Germany from its language.


Lebensmittel. Photo by sludgeulper on under CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many nouns in the German language that have very literal meanings to them. Their pattern is that they are made up of two or more separate words put together to form a new word. These are called compound nouns. Some examples are:

Das Abendrot: Sunset (more specifically: the red sky just after sunset). Literal translation: The evening red.

Die Gehirnerschütterung: Concussion. Literal translation: The head tremor.

These literal words are useful when learning German because, although you might not know what the actual word for concussion is in German, you might recognise the words Gehirn (head) and Erschütterung (shake/tremor) in some form, so if you saw or heard the word Gehirnerschütterung, you might be able to guess that this ‘head tremor’ they’re on about is, in fact, concussion. Pretty clever, huh?

There are also words which go a step further, such as:

Die Lebensmittel: Food.
Literal translation: The means of life.
Just in case you don’t know what Lebensmittel is, the word itself tells you: It’s that stuff you need to prevent you from dying. You almost want to thank the German language for the clarification.

Der Nachwuchs: Offspring.
Literal translation: The after-growth.
I don’t really like this word. I come across it all the time for one of my translation jobs, and each time I see it, it bothers me. Although a common German word for a child, I think it is quite ‘cold’ in that it refers to a child as being nothing more than something that grew out of you – it might as well be referring to a tumour (then again, the English word offspring is not exactly affectionate, but perhaps I am desensitised to it)! A similar word is Der Nachkommeliterally, ‘the one that came afterwards’. Other, much more normal words you can use are Das Baby (the baby) and Das Kind (the child).

Then there are some German compound nouns which might have you raising questions about German history or culture:

Der Freitod: Suicide.
Literal translation: The free death.
There is also another word for suicide in German, namely der Selbstmord, which literally translates to self-murder. Notice that the word Freitod uses the word Tod (death) as opposed to Selbstmord, which uses the word Mord (murder). What could this mean? Well, it could be argued that Freitod has a sense of liberating freedom to it, as if the suicide in question is a positive thing, and that Selbstmord or self-murder has a more sinister, negative tone to it. But these words ultimately mean the same thing: Suicide. So why the distinction?
The word Selbstmord has its roots in Christianity, and the belief that suicide is a sin, and that only God can choose when you should die. In contrast, Freitod is a secular word coined in 1906 by Austrian philosopher Fritz Mauthner.
The word Selbstmord is religious in origin, whereas the word Freitod is secular, hence the difference between the two.

The fact that the German language uses two distinct words to describe the act of suicide hints at what an advanced language it is. It also leads into questions about religion and secularism in Germany, which might be something you’d want to follow up on if you were interested. So from just one word, you could end up learning about a whole section of German culture!

And finally, when you don’t know what a German word means, you can try to figure it out by its extremely literal nature. So next time you see a very long, confusing-looking German word, don’t panic! Just break it down into its separate nouns, and see if you can figure out what the word means from the combination of those.

Here’s an extremely long German noun. Do you recognise any words in it? Can you figure out what it means by breaking it down into smaller words? Or does it just look like a jumbled mess to you?


To finish, two small German words: Bis später! (’till next time!)

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Maegen Fariss:

    I think “Selbstmord” is the better word because it tells it like it is.
    And I can recognize a handful of nouns in your long jumbled mess of a word 😛

  2. Baccalaureus:

    I’d literally translate die Gehirnerschütterung as “the brainquake”. Which is wxactly what it is.

  3. M:

    Very enlightening – “the means of life” – I love it!

  4. Nassos:

    I agree with Maegen Fariss about the word “Selbstmord”, which in english is translated “killing yourself”than “Freitod” that has a poetic meaning.About the last word,it has 63 letters ,very difficult to memorize it.

  5. soundray:

    In the medical and legal contexts, neither Freitod nor Selbstmord are used much any more, since the latter has recently been considered judgemental and the former glorifying. If a noun is required, Suizid is used.

    A widespread phrasing that is respectful without expressing approval is “X hat sich das Leben genommen”.

    • Constanze:

      @soundray Honestly, I understand why neither of them are used in medical and legal contexts. They’re both pretty loaded with meaning. We also say “He took his own life” in English. Thanks for the comment, soundray.

  6. Andrew J. Koors:

    For the last 30 years, on the first day of teaching my German I classes, I have demonstrated the logical complexity of the German language with the word
    der Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajutenschlüsselbund.

  7. Jim:

    Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz =
    Beef labeling monitoring delegation law