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SWISS GERMAN

Nine fun Swiss German words without an English translation

Some Swiss German words are so culturally specific, or just so strange, that it is impossible to translate them – at least not in a simple, elegant way. From dogs' funerals to egg bumping, some Swiss German words just don't make it across the translation divide.

A large herd of sheep stare directly at the camera.
Schafseckel? What did you call me? Be careful of the language that you use. It might get you in trouble. Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

Often summed up by a phrase which starts “the Germans actually have a word for…”, the extensive vocabulary of the German language is legendary. 

Much of this is due to the German phenomenon of composite nouns, which creates single words which would be multiple words in other languages such as English. 

Examples of this include Aufenthaltstitel (residency permit) and Unabhängigkeitserklärung (declaration of independence). The word ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ literally translates to ‘forest loneliness’, a specific feeling that in most languages would require several words. 

When you add Swiss German into the mix, you have a wide range of words which are either difficult or impossible to translate. 

Here are some of the best. Want more fun Swiss German words? Then check out the following. 

Bettmümpfeli

Did you wake up with crumbs in the bed this morning? Or was there a mysterious plate by the kitchen sink when you went to make coffee?

Chances are that someone in the house got an attack of the late-night munchies, or as it called in Swiss German, a Bettmümpfeli.

Translating literally to ‘bedtime treats’, Bettmümpfeli is a difficult word to say but a feeling we all understand. 

Hundsverlocheti

The Swiss German word ‘Hundsverlocheti’ literally means a ‘dog’s burial’ but it has nothing to do with canine expiration.

Instead, the term refers to an event no one in their right mind would want to go to.

For example, you might say to someone who goes out to every party or happening in town no matter how unexciting it is “Du gosch a jede Hundesverlochti”.

This means something along the lines of “You’ll find any old reason to go out (even a dog’s burial)”.

Feierabend

The Swiss work a lot: around 40 to 42 hours a week is average for a full-time job at a Swiss company. But the plus side is that, generally speaking, the Swiss don’t take their work home.

That magical moment when the working day is done and you are free to leave is known as ‘Feierabend’ (literally ‘celebration evening’) and is pronounced something like Fürabet – depending, of course, what part of Switzerland you are in.

You could, for example, ask someone: ‘Wenn hesch fürabet?’, which means “When do you get off (work)?”

The word is also commonly used in high German. 

READ MORE: Why every country should get on board with the German Feierabend

What’s the best way to celebrate Feierabend? With a Feierabendbier, of course. 

Eiertütsche

It’s safe to say that ‘Eiertütsche’ is not the most useful word on this list, but is popular at certain times of the year as it is seasonal.

Eiertütsche (or ‘Egg bumping) refers to a game in which animal products and sublimated warfare are combined in one brilliant package. The combat involves hard-boiled eggs being knocked against each other.

The owner of the egg with the harder shell (the one that doesn’t break) is the winner. Anyone familiar with the British game of conkers where chestnuts are smashed into each other will get the picture. Who knew Easter could be this much fun?

READ MORE: Five of the more peculiar Swiss Easter traditions

Schafseckel

No list of Swiss German words would be complete without one swear word containing a) a reference to an animal and b) a reference to an anatomical nether region.

In this case, the animal is a sheep (Schaf) and the part of the anatomy is the testicles (from ‘Seckel’ meaning something like sack or bag).

Although the word might sound cute, it is a strong insult akin to ‘wanker’ or ‘asshole’. You have been warned.

Chuchichäschtli

The word Chuchichäschtli came in on top of a poll of Local readers favourite Swiss German words in 2020. 

It means kitchen cupboard or little kitchen cupboard is almost impossible for foreigners – including High German speakers – to get their mouth around. 

On Facebook, Jackie Amey said the word was her “dad’s favourite”. “He was English and he learned how to say it”. 

READ MORE: Seven English words Swiss Germans get delightfully wrong 

Margaret Weber and Sharon Baur also selected the word as their fave. 

Blueschtfaehrtli

When spring finally comes around after Switzerland’s long, cold winter, it’s time to take the convertible out of the garage (preferably an ‘old timer’, as vintage cars are known in Switzerland) and go for a ‘Blueschtfaehrtli’.

A combination of the words for ‘blossom’ and ‘little drive’, this difficult-to-pronounce word refers to the Swiss tradition of going out to admire the technicolour blossoms on the fruit trees.

Little flowers in the Bern Rosengarten.

Have you gone for a little drive (or walk) to check out the flowers while you’ve been in Switzerland? Photo by Jonas Zürcher on Unsplash

Bürogummi

The Swiss equivalent of the seat-warming, pencil-pushing bureaucrat is the delightfully-named ‘Bürogummi’ or, which literally translates to ‘office eraser’ or ‘office rubber band’. 

Röstigraben

The Germans had the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) and Donald Trump wanted to build a wall with Mexico but in Switzerland, the cultural and linguistic divide between the French and German-speaking parts of the country is an invisible border known as the Röstigraben after the typically Swiss German potato dish rösti.

The direct translation: the potato dish ditch.

If you’re interested in the Röstigraben, or just want to find out which side of it you are on, then check out the following link. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

Honourable mentions

Cheib: Rascal, mean person

Güselchübel: Moving van, garbage can or good friend (yeah, this one confuses us too). 

Chrüsimüsi: Literally meaning ‘I need to be crucified’, this refers to a chaotic mess one can find oneself in. 

Trottel: Not unlike Löli (see above), this refers to a clumsy or dumb person. 

For members

GERMAN LANGUAGE

Why traditional German names are often used as insults

An interesting quirk of colloquial German is that many insults base themselves around names. Could this explain why some traditional names have gone out of fashion?

Why traditional German names are often used as insults

If you’ve been in Germany long enough you will probably have noticed how some names are used pejoratively to mean a variety of things that have generally negative associations. In some instances, the name simply means ‘idiot,’ in others it is a suffix or prefix to a negative word.

The mildest form of these examples are the ones given to young children. Often these are used endearingly.

If a child squirms around too much he is a ‘Zappelphilipp’. Or if he doesn’t look where he is going he is a ‘Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft’. 

These two descriptions have their roots in a collection of poems by the writer Heinrich Hoffmann in the mid-19th century.

Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft spent his life staring into the sky, leading to a collision with a dog and an inadvertent trip into the river. Wenn der Hanns zur Schule ging/ Stets sein Blick am Himmel hing/ Nach den Dächern, Wolken, Schwalben/ Schaut er aufwärts, allenthalben.” (When Hanns went to school/ he always looked into the sky/ to the roofs, clouds and swallows/ he looks up on all sides).

Zappelphilipp meanwhile was a fidgety boy who angered his father by being incapable of sitting still at the dinner table. In the poem, he fidgets and squirms so much that he ends up falling backwards from his chair. In the same moment he grabs the tablecloth and pulls the entire contents of the meal over himself.

Another variation of the name-as-suffix insult is a ‘Mecker-Fritze’. Meckern means to complain and this insult is used about someone who constantly moans.

There are actually a whole host of variations on using Fritz as a suffix. A ‘Werbefritze’ is some bigshot in the advertising business. An ‘Ökofritze’ is someone who’s just a bit too into their organic food.

Fritz appears to be used because it is such a generic German name. It is essentially a proxy for an everyman. The same is often done with the name Heini (short for Heinrich). For example, calling someone a ‘Prozinzheini’ is a way of saying they are a hick from the backend of nowhere.

And then there is the name Horst, which exists in a category of olf fashioned names that are used as direct insults. “Du Vollhorst!” means “you total idiot.” It’s quite a cruel way of telling someone they’re stupid – especially if their name actually happens to be Horst. The names Otto and Hans are often used in a similar way.

“These names are associated with the countryside and less educated classes by the urban people who use them,” Gabriela Rodriguez, an expert on names at Leipzig University, told Deutschlandfunk radio.

It is probably not a coincidence that many of these same names, which once were some of the most popular in the country, have now fallen out of fashion.

According to Knud Bielefeld, Germany’s foremost name researcher, Hanns was the most popular baby name up until the middle of the 20th century but has since crashed down to place 563 on the list.

Fritz, Heinrich and Horst suffered a similar collapse in popularity in the second half of the century. Phillip’s popularity lasted into the 21st century but its downfall over the past two decades has also been spectacular.

The good news, according to Rodriguez, is that “the name bearers have fewer problems with it than the people who find it offensive.”

SEE ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

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