We’re hugely dependent on language
to help us express what we really think and feel but some languages are better than others
at crisply naming important feelings. Germans have been geniuses at inventing
long or what get called “compound words” that elegantly put a finger
on sensations that we all know, but that other languages require
whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express. So, here is a small selection of the best
of Germany’s extraordinary range of compound words. “Erklärungsnot” Literally, a distress at not having an explanation, the perfect way to define what a partner might feel
when they’re caught watching porn or spotted in a restaurant
with the hands they shouldn’t be holding. More grandly, “Erklärungsnot”
is something we feel when we realize we don’t have any explanations
for the big questions of life. It’s a word that defines
existential angst, as much as shame. “Futterneid” The feeling when you’re eating with other people and realize that they’ve ordered something better
of the menu that you’d be dying to eat yourself. Perhaps you were trying to be abstemious.
Now, you’re just starving. The word recognizes that we spend
much of our lives feeling we’ve ordered the wrong thing,
and not just in restaurants. “Luftschloss” Literally, a castle in the air, a dream that’s unnattainable A word suggesting that German culture
is deeply indulgent about big dreams, but also gently realistic about
how hard it can be to bring them off. “Backpfeifengesicht” A face that’s begging to be slapped Generosity towards others is key but German
is bracing and frank enough to acknowledge that there are also moments
when it’s simply more honest to realize we may have come face to face with a dickhead. “Ruinenlust” This word shows German
at its most delightfully fetishistic and particular meaning the delight one can feel at seeing ruins. Collapsed palaces and the rubble of temples put anxieties about the present into perspective and induce a pleasing melancholy
at the passage of all things. “Kummerspeck” Literally, “sorrow fat”. A word that frankly recognizes
how often, when one is deeply sad, there is simply nothing more consoling
to do than to head for the kitchen and eat. “Fremdschämen” A word full of empathy that captures
the agony one can feel at somebody else’s embarassing, misfortune, or failing. A capacity to feel Fremdschämen
is a high moral achievement and is at the root of kindness. “Weltschmerz” Literally, “world sadness”. A word that acknowledges that we are sometimes sad, not about this or that thing, but about the whole basis of existence. The presence of the word indicates a culture
that isn’t forcely cheerful, but takes tragedy as a given. It is immensely reassuring to be able to tell a friend that one is presently lined under the duvet,
suffering from Weltschmerz. “Schadenfreude” We’re meant to be sad when others fail, but German will wisely accept that we often feel happiness, “Freude” at the misfortunes, the “Schaden”, of others. That isn’t because we’re mean,
we just feel deeply reassured when we see confirmation that life is as hard
for other people as it is for us. We can thank German for having so many
of the right words to bring dignity to our troubles and hopes. Learning languages, ultimately,
has little to do with discovering the world per se It’s about acquiring tools to help us get
a clearer grasp on the elusive parts of ourselves.