Popular examples of German compound nouns
One of my students brought this book to one of our classes. It is called “Schottenfreude – German Words For The Human Condition” and is about very long compound German words. The entire book describes extremely long words with their English explanation. I like the book. It comes in a funny shape too. To show off the length of the words, the whole book is printed in landscape.
Maybe you have already come across one of those long compound nouns. Guess what? You can make up cool German words yourself, easily.
My American friend told me his favourite German word was Handschuhe meaning gloves or in its literal translation hand shoes. “Imagine how long Germans must have wandered around with cold hands till they finally found the solution. Let’s make something that is like shoes but for our hands! Handschuhe! How cool is that?!”
My friends next favourite word is die Brustwarze, which means nipple. The literal translation is, guess what, breast wart. “Yea, looks like kind of a wart and is situated in the middle of breasts. Absolutely die Brustwarze!”
Make up cool German nouns yourself
To help my friend understand how to form those fancy compound words, we came up with this situation:
What Germans do when naming items, situations or processes is pretty straightforward. You just take some known words and join them together to describe the main function. You simply take German words that are already in use and recycle them. Done!
Let’s have a look at how it works.
- der Kühlschrank – to cool + cupboard – cooling cupboard – fridge
- der Staubsauger – dust + to suck – dust sucker – vacuum cleaner
Der Kühlschrank, the fridge, keeps things cool, is pretty cool inside and looks like a cupboard. Guess what, let’s call it der Kühlschrank. The vacuum cleaner sucks up everything especially dust, well, it must be a dust sucker, der Staubsauger.
Are they real words?
Back to the book my student brought along. It was full of words like those:
die Schuldaufdeckungsangst – the fear that you will be found out
der Fingerspitzentanz – tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity
die Brillenbrillanz – the sudden innervating clarity afforded by new glasses
So are these all real words? Yes, they are real words. ALL of them are real words, but the key question is:
Are those words in use?
All those made up words are solid and real German words. They are proper German words because they are formed how German compound nouns are formed. Even if no one ever uses any of those words, they will be proper German nouns. And Germans will acknowledge them as such.
Step 1: Build a correct word combination
1. You need the main function
How does it work? How do you make up new German words yourself? Firstly you want to find out the main function and focus on that. Once you have found words to describe that function, you need to put them together in the right order.
2. Possible word combinations
You can put many different types of words together to form a new noun. You can also join other words to form new adjectives or verbs. Here we want to focus on compound nouns.
- noun + noun (das Fahrrad + der Sattel – der Fahrradsattel – bike seat)
- adjective + noun (weiß + der Wein – der Weißwein – white wine)
- numeral + noun (zwei + die Teilung – die Zweiteilung – division)
- verb + noun (gehen + der Stock – der Gehstock – walking stick)
- preposition + noun (über + der Flieger – der Überflieger – high flyer / grade-A student)
- adverb + noun (alles + der Wisser / das Wissen – der Alleswisser – know-it-all
3. The special ones
Sometimes when joining two nouns you need to link the words with an e, (e)s, (e)n or er.
- der Pferdezüchter – horse breeder
- die Kalbsleber – calf’s liver
- der Flaschenöffner – bottle opener
- der Kindergarten – kindergarten
I couldn’t find a rule to explain when to add something between the words you want to join. It seems to only be an issue with the noun + noun combination. As you may have noticed is Pferde the plural of das Pferd, Flaschen the plural of die Flasche, Kinder the plural of das Kind. Also, Kalbs is the genetive form of das Kalb (=carve). Here is what I would recommend.
If your compound word is supposed to be used for more than one thing each time or usually produces more than one thing or has to do with more than one thing in general, the first noun is to be put in the plural form.
- The horse breeder breeds usually more than only one horse – use the plural of das Pferd (der Pferdezüchter)
- The bottle opener is supposed to be used for more than one bottle (in one instance) – use the plural of die Flasche (der Flaschenöffner)
- The kindergarten usually takes care of more than one kid at a time – use the plural of das Kind (der Kindergarten)
This is not a problem for Stefan’s invention because singular and plural of der Fussel (=fluff) is the same: ein Fussel, zwei Fussel.
4. The last shall be the first
When you form your new word, be aware that the last part of the compound noun determines
- the meaning and
- the gender of your new noun.
The new noun can only be
- a type of the last noun.
Der Fahrradsattel (=bike seat) is a special type of a seat, the one you mount on a bike. Der Weißwein (=the white wine) is a special type of wine. Be also careful when forming an adjective + noun combination as their possibilities are quite restricted. Die große Stadt (=big city) is different to die Großstadt (=metropolis).
Let’s say Stefan’s invention is a special razor that has flexible blades to enable you to carefully shave off the hairs around the belly button. After shaving there won’t be any hairs left that can catch the rubbed off fibers of your clothes. The fluff will never end up in your belly button again.
Since the invention is a special type of razor, we need the German word for razor which is der Rasierer. Also, the fluff is found in a navel; navel + fluff translates to German as Nabel + der Fussel and ends up being der Nabelfussel in German.
As a special type of razor, our new word will have der Rasierer at the end.
- …. + ….. + Rasierer (der) – …. + …. + razor
Lets join der Rasierer with der Nabelfussel.
- Nabel + Fussel + Rasierer (der) – navel + fluff + razor
- der Nabelfusselrasierer
Yea, sounds good, but we don’t want to shave the fluff away or cut it smaller. Instead we want to stress there won’t be any more fluff in the belly button from now on. Since we will create a naked spot around the belly button we could add the word “free”.
- Nabel + Fussel + frei + Rasierer (der) – navel + fluff + free + razor
- der Nabelfusselfreirasierer
Not too bad so far. We could even do better. This one describes the main function the best.
- Kein + Nabel + Fussel + Mehr + Rasierer (der) – no more + navel + fluff + razor
- der Keinnabelfusselmehrrasierer
Ok, but we want to sell our innovative invention too. We could take a step back and make it more comprehensible aka shorter.
- Nabel + Fussel + weg + Rasierer (der) – (navel + fluff + gone + razor)
- der Nabelfusselwegrasierer
I think I like that one. It’s pretty straightforward and brings to bear the main function quite well while not being too long.
We could also make it sound more English if that was part of our marketing plan.
- Navel never fluff
- The fluff be gone
- No more navel fluff
As you can see, we just scratched off the last noun, the razor bit. Those words don’t really go together in a literal German translation. Since we are after a new and cool German word, let’s go back to our last composition:
Step 2: Conquer the German language
Now you have created a new word. Congratulations. But you are not done yet. To make it a word that is used by millions of German speaking people, it needs to spread.
For sure, it will need to be a solid word in use before it is cast in concrete, before it makes its way into the Duden, the godfather of the German language. To end up there, we need to ensure that our new word actually is in use.
How do you get it used? Here are some ideas.
- Your new word should sound different to what has been known before
- Best, if people are emotionally touched by your new word: “I have wondered all my life, what to do about it….”
- Use your new word whenever you get the chance to use it:
“I’m just back from the shops, I bought some apples for the kids, some flowers for you and this special kind of razor, you know, this Nabelfusselwegrasierer….”
- Create situations where you can use it:
“Have you heard of this German kid’s invention, I think it is called a Nabelfusselwegrasierer…?”
- Overuse it from time to time. Your friends need to recognise that there is a new and cool word about:
“And then I thought it might be nice to have a go with this Nabelfusselwegrasierer. I actually like the Nabelfusselwegrasierer, because the Nabelfusselwegrasierer gives me a good feeling, especially after using the Nabelfusselwegrasierer…”
- Use it on social media, in your posts and comments on Facebook, on Twitter or wherever you hang out:
“I found the best gadget ever today #dernabelfusselwegrasierer @dernabelfusselwegrasierer #bestever”
- Write a blog post about it:
“Make up cool German words yourself!”
- Set up a blog for it: www.dernabelfusselwegrasierer.de
- Write a fiction book about your new word:
“Will I miss what once was part of me?”
You will know when you have reached the summit. Your word will have climbed the ladder once it is was voted for the word of the year, das Wort des Jahres.
What is your favourite German compound noun? Let us know in the comments.