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Untranslatable German Words: Verschlimmbesserung Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in Language

Guten Tag, and welcome to another ‘untranslatable words’ post! This is a series where we look at words unique to the German language, and try to find an equivalent English translation for them. So without further ado, today’s word is: die Verschlimmbesserung.

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Verschlimmbesserung: To make something worse while trying to make it better. Foto: howardlake on flickr.com under a CC license (CC by 2.0)

What does die Verschlimmbesserung mean?

Die Verschlimmbesserung describes an action that is supposed to improve something, but ends up making it worse, instead. An example of a Verschlimmbesserung would be a dodgy DIY job – an attempt to make something better, which only causes more damage!

What does die Verschlimmbesserung literally translate to?

It is a bit of a linguistical mish-mash. The verb verschlimmern means ‘to worsen’, while the verb verbessern means ‘to improve’. This word mixes the prefix of these verbs with the suffix -ung to create a noun. Or, to look at it another way, the word schlimm in the middle means bad. If you remove the word schlimm, you are left with die Verbesserung (die Verschlimmbesserung) which is the German word for improvement/upgrade. So its direct translation is something along the lines of ‘a bad improvement’. 

How would you use die Verschlimmbesserung in a sentence?

Quite simply you’d say that something ‘is’ a Verschlimmbesserung – Es ist keine Verbesserung, sondern eine Verschlimmbesserung! (‘It’s not an improvement; it’s a Verschlimmbesserung!’) I am under the impression that it is more colloquial than anything else, and I’m not entirely clear on how frequent its use is in German, so if anybody wants to comment and let us know, I’d be very interested to hear about it!

What is the nearest English equivalent to die Verschlimmbesserung?

I came across the word disimprovement – ‘a reduction from a better to a worse state’ – which seems close, but not quite right. I was wondering why English speakers like the word Verschlimmbesserung so much when there is an English word with practically the same meaning, but I think the English word lacks the humour that Verschlimmbesserung has. The German word is also much more cleverly constructed, as German compound nouns often are. It seems that this is something that’s just expressed a lot better in German! 🙂

I hope you have enjoyed this post! This word is relevant to today’s German Word Of The Day: besser, the German word for better. Check out the German Word Of The Day feature on the right-hand side of this blog and learn one German word per day! If you’d like to read more in the untranslatable words series, click here. And make sure to sign up to the Transparent Language newsletter below for even more language learning tips and info!

Bis bald

Constanze

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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. Allan Mahnke:

    Thanks! One of my favorite words….and favorite activities!

    • Constanze:

      @Allan Mahnke Thank you for your comment, Allan. Your comments are always a joy to read. 🙂

  2. James:

    Hi Constanze, You really need to stick with German instead of giving personal opinions, the statement, “was wondering why English speakers like the word Verschlimmbesserung so much when there is an English word with practically the same meaning, but I think the English word lacks the humour that Verschlimmbesserung has, this is complete rubbish. English speakers would have no clue as to what you are talking about. The simple English phrase is, “from bad to worse”. Really not sure where you are going with your recent posts other than blowing your German trumpet, English humour. Lol

    • Constanze:

      @James Thank you for your comment, James. Please do not take anything I write about English/German personally. I struggled with understanding why Verschlimmbesserung had been somewhat adopted by English speakers when we have a word (‘disimprovement’) which appears to have the same meaning. The general consensus from the people who got involved with the discussion was that ‘disimprovement’ did not have the humour that Verschlimmbesserung has (some even said ‘disimprovement’ was not a real English word!). So that is what I concluded from it. Sometimes it is very tricky to accurately put your finger on why a word is not translatable. But I do my best. I like to encourage discussion and I like to think language learners enjoy picking up where I left off. So thank you for your suggestion ‘from bad to worse’. All the best. Constanze.

  3. Denise Leigh:

    Here in the USA, the colloquial term for eine Verschlimmbesserung (certainly in terms of home improvement or garment alteration) would be “BOTCH JOB.” Example: I bought a new dress, but it was too long. I took it to a dressmaker for shortening, but she did an uneven job. SHE BOTCHED MY HEMLINE. Here’s another example: My door was not closing properly. I showed the problem to my father and uncle, who couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They removed the door, turned it upside down, and reversed the latch and hinges. When they were finished “fixing” the problem, my problem first began! THEY DID A BOTCHED repair.

    • Constanze:

      @Denise Leigh Very valid translation, Denise! We have that here in the UK, too – don’t know why I didn’t think of it. 🙂

  4. R:

    The thing is, disimprovement does not mean the same thing.
    verschlimmbesserung is specifically for when an attempt to make something better instead makes it worse.
    Disimprovement is for when you make something worse than it was before. It does not specifically have to be that you were trying to improve it, just that you made it worse.
    Me taking a sledge hammer to a computer’s monitor is a disimprovement, because I reduced it to a worse state than before, but it is no verschlimmbesserung because I wasn’t trying to improve it at all.

    Me breaking the motherboard of the computer the monitor is attached to while trying to install a better graphics card IS verschlimmbesserung AND a disimprovement, since I managed to make things worse while trying to make things better.

    Disimprovement doesn’t take into account the intent behind making something worse, whereas verschlimmbesserung is specifically if you intended to make things better.

    • Constanze:

      @R Thank you!!