Those German words mean more than you think they do

Here’s a secret Germans won’t tell you: Sometimes even they get tired of those big long words. Sure, they’ll post jokes about the never-ending nouns on their Facebooks and like all those joke memes on Twitter – especially that one about why Germans don’t play scrabble. But while they’re in on the joke of infinite infinitives, they too get tired of using them all day.

So they often shorten them but don’t tell the outside world.

They excel in what I’ve discovered are called syllabic abbreviations. Germans are syllabic abbreviation pros. A syllabic abbreviation is when you take the first syllable from each word in a series of words to form an abbreviation, which can then seem like an acronym.

Oh the taxonomy!

Syllabic abbreviations are such an integral part of German culture that they’ve leaked into other cultures too. All the way over the Atlantic, even!

Germans love syllabic abbreviations and I can prove it to you.

You know Haribo? That maker of spongy gummi bears? Syllabic abbreviation. It’s based on the company’s founder – Johann Riegel, who went by Hans. They took the first syllables of his first and last names and, because they apparently needed a third syllable, the first syllable of Bonn, where the company was based.

This created Haribo, or Hans Riegel Bonn. Cool, eh?

Szllabic abbreviations haribo
Photo thanks TuiFLY.

Syllabic abbreviations. I had no idea there was a term for it! I thought Germans were just making this up.

It gets worse – or better, depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of human.

The Dassler brothers in pre-war Germany started a shoe factory in the sleepy village of Herzogenaurach, which is within running distance of Nuremberg. The brothers were named Rudi and Adi which, yes, is short for that German name no one wants to be called anymore. But Rudi and Adi didn’t get along and they divided the shoe company into two in 1948.

Rudi would end up calling his half of the company Puma – because how lame does Ruda sound? – but Adi called his – wait for it – Adidas (Germans pronounce it Ah-Dee-Dass, if you ever wondered). Adi Dassler! Adidas! Mind. Blown.

syllabic abbreviations adidas

These are pretty common schoolyard truths in Germany. Just ask a German, they’ll tell you everything I just told you, but there’s one many Germans don’t even know: Milka.

Milka is Germany’s Hershey’s or Cadbury, if the chocolate actually tasted like chocolate and the packaging was always purple.

Even Milka’s cows are purple.

Full disclosure: I love Hershey’s because it tastes like Halloween and childhood and, come on, Hershey’s kisses y’all! But the first time I tried European chocolate it scared me. I was in third grade and snuck pieces of Toblerone at the Koernig’s house and it freaked me out – partially because I thought Mrs. Koernig was going to catch me and partially because it tasted amazing.

So amazing it scared me.

So Milka: It’s short for Milch Kakao (milk chocolate). Milka! I only learned this a week ago myself.

syllabic abbreviations milka

Oh there are more. Lots more. Hanuta is this great hazelnutty chocolate snack that’s a kind of cookie/candy bar thing that’s known as a Tafel in German. Hazelnut is Haselnuss in German so even you might be able to do that math: HaselNussTafel. Hanuta! They taste a million times better than they sound.

syllabic abbreviations hanuta

How about Aldi? No I’m not kidding. It’s owned by the Albrechts and the stores are considered discount – or Diskont – stores. Go on. Get some scratch paper and work it out. They’re taking over the world now so you’ll be able to use that one in the checkout line soon.

But these are just commercial examples. The German culture is filthy with other syllabic abbreviations. And by filthy I just mean they’re all over the place. Parents drop their kids off at a Kindertagesstätte (nursery) every morning, for example, but they call it a Kita. Some of those parents might work for – or be investigated by – the Kripo, or the Kriminal Polizei.

Oh! One of my faves when I first moved to Berlin was Vokuhila. Sounds exotic, right? It’s not. It’s German for mullet, that haircut favored by ‘70s soccer stars and the guy the changes the oil on my Chevy Tahoe. It’s short for: vorne kurz, hinten lang (short in the front, long in the back).

I liked that syllabic abbreviation so much I used to get my hair did at a salon called Vokuhila on Kastanienallee.

syllabic abbreviations vokuhila

So there you go. German syllabic abbreviations are a secret no longer!

TschüLe (Tschüss Leute or good-bye y’all! Except that’s not a real syllabic abbreviation. I just made it up).

 

 

 

Secret to the people who read this far: Here’s one more that I cut from the blogpost but is kind of cool. So consider it a linguistic present from me to you. Because I really like you.

 

Edeka is a Berlin grocery chain that varies slightly from the basic scheme of syllabic abbreviation and that has a name with a bit of uncomfortable history (but not that history). Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler im Halleschen Torbezirk zu Berlin is what it stands for – the purchasing collective of the colonial goods dealers in the Halleschen suburbs of Berlin.

German, amirite?

Anyway, You get the “E” from Einkaufs…. The “de” from Der, the “k” from Kolonial and the “A” from thin air because apparently Edeko wasn’t what they wanted (but I think it sounds kinda cool).

 

 

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German Cafes Do Coffee and Cake Right

I was watching Tagesschau (German news) the other night and saw a report about an exhibition in Dusseldorf on (West?) German café culture and it reminded me of yet another corner of Germany I found magical – the café.

The first time I encountered one was when I was an exchange student and we had just completed one of my guest family’s weekly shopping excursions to Mönchengladbach. We had just gathered everything we needed from the shops in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street) when my guestmother announced that we’d be making one final stop.

“Can’t we just go home?” I thought. I wanted to go back to reading Asterix and Obelix in my room rather than sweat through more small talk in my emerging German.

Inside, the café was as busy and crowded as the shopping street outside. A glass counter full of cakes and pastries ran the length of its lower level and was backed by middle-aged women in what looked like maid’s outfits. They seemed harried. But what cakes!

“Pick out any piece and I’ll find a seat,” my guestmother said. I started to sweat. I’d been in-country about two months, my German wasn’t even at immigrant cab driver level and I had no idea how a German café worked.

I had no idea how to pick out a piece of cake.

My guestmother sensed my confusion and said as she walked away, “Tell the woman what piece you want and bring me the piece of paper.”

A piece of paper. Right. I thought I was supposed to get cake.

One of the maids behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I pointed at a piece. She then handed me a slip of paper about the size of a price tag. It was yellow with a printed number in black. And she had scribbled something in red on hers. Maybe a number. Maybe code. Maybe a plea for help.

The piece I ordered probably had chocolate pieces on chocolate icing spread on top of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate filling. I know my teen-age self. And knowing my guestmother, she probably had something with fruit.

Guestmothers always get something with fruit.

After ordering, I found my guestmother upstairs perched at a two-top against a window. We could watch the chaos outside while suffering from the chaos inside. There were people everywhere, inside and out.

German Cafes

I wondered how my cake would make it from downstairs to upstairs. How it would make it through all those people. I figured it probably wouldn’t but I masked my disappointment and smiled in agreement when my guestmother offered to order me a hot chocolate.

At least I’d get some chocolate.

Kännchen oder Tasse (pot or cup)?” my guestmother wanted to know. At the time, I had no idea what she was asking so I just stared back. She waved me off.

Our waitress arrived, also wearing a maid outfit, and my guestmother ordered our drinks and handed her our pieces of paper. I had no idea what was going on but I was confident I wouldn’t be eating cake.

Would our new maid try to describe us to the maid downstairs to get our cake order? How would that work? What if their descriptions didn’t match up and we ended up with cookies or, worse, no cake?

I had no time to make small talk with my guestmother, I was busy mourning the loss of my cake.

Then, a few minutes later, our waitress reappeared with our drinks. Our drinks! I didn’t just get a hot chocolate. I got a kännchen – my own little pot of hot chocolate! What? Magic!

Also, the waitress had our cakes. The right cakes.

I know, right? More magic!

Kaffee und Kuchen

The system made no sense to me so my guestmother explained it to me – the first woman-in-a-maid’s-outfit behind the counter put a piece of paper identical to my piece of paper on a plate with my cake order and our waitress just matched up the pieces of paper.

It still seemed miraculous to me, as if my cake had floated out of the display case, through all the people and up the stairs to me. In Mönchengladbach.

“It still seems magical to me,” my wife said last night when I recounted this story. We used to go to Café Richter in Charlottenburg in Berlin because they sometimes had the tiny pieces of paper. The Tagesspiegel last summer did a story on what it dubbed Schnipsel-cafés (scrap of paper cafés) in Berlin, after the pieces of paper used to record the cake orders.

The magic of that Schnipsel-café in Mönchengladbach stayed with me for over a decade until I returned to Germany as a reporter in Frankfurt. I made my co-workers go with me to Café Liebfrauenberg because I knew they’d do the German trick with the kuchen (cake) and paper there.

My co-workers weren’t impressed by the ordering system but they loved the cakes. And they thought the Kännchen were pretty impressive too.

 

How Germans Puke: Das Speibecken

It was supposed to be a harmless bit of day drinking. Me, my cousin-in-law and a vanilla small-town pub in central Germany. My wife had supported the decision because it got me out of her hair as she wrangled our kids and her parents – my in-laws – over coffee and cake at grandma’s. I was out of her mind, I figured, and could concentrate on the beer, and she figured I was safe with her cousin.

Nobody would have suspected something unsettling was about to unfold.

It happened when I had to pee after the second beer, or maybe the third, depending on how much juice I’d had with breakfast. As I came into the pub’s bathroom everything seemed normal. I noted a sink on my left and floor-to-ceiling tiles in that light-brown tint that’s so popular in public restrooms in western regions of Germany.

Speibecken
Thanks for the pic, Basti!

“What is Germany trying to tell me with that color in a bathroom?” I always think. I’ve never gotten an answer because I’ve never asked the question out loud – the Teutonic propensity for shelf toilets and public discussions of bathroom visits has me fearful of the answer.

As I stood there doing my business, I noticed a second sink off to my left. It was shaped differently and seemed to have supports on one side.

“Must be a utility sink for mops,” I thought. When I was done, I took a closer look. It was a weird sink with a wide drain, like on American sinks with garbage disposals, and a water switch. Something told me this wasn’t a utility sink but I had no idea what it was for, the same feeling I get every time I’m confronted with a salad bar.

I went back out to the bar and asked my cousin-in-law Basti what the weird sink was.

Das Speibecken?” he asked, as if that would settle it. As if hearing that word would clear up the confusion.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s it for?”

Because ‘Speibecken’ sounded like German for “Weird sink” but I still didn’t know what it was.

Speibecken

Basti started to laugh and announced to the bar what a funny foreigner I was – I’d never heard of a Speibecken! The bar (one other drinker and a bartender) laughed with him.

We all had a good laugh.

I still had no idea what a Speibecken was.

“It’s for when you drink too much and you have to puke,” he announced, as if every bar in the world had a Speibecken. The entire bar looked at me with great sympathy, wondering with their eyes if this was the first bar I’d ever been in.

This must happen to every ex-pat every now and then – you stumble into something the natives think is part of the human condition but isn’t. It’s that weird moment where Germany doesn’t know it’s doing something strange and you have to be the one to break the bad news.

“Puke?” I wondered.

With that, Basti leaped off his stool and he, I, and the other drinker headed into the bathroom for a round of simulated puking. I don’t want to say that Basti seemed to have experience, but he seemed to have experience.

Das Speibecken

I took a picture and showed it around the office on Monday.

“Oh yeah,” my German co-worker said. “They’re also called a Pabst (Pope) and when you use it you’re papsten (poping).” Which is taking the colloquial saying, ‚Praying to the porcelain god‘, to the next level.

My co-worker said Speibecken are especially popular in German fraternity houses, something Wikipedia backs up. As a journalist, I’m skeptical of Wikipedia but I’m not sure who to call to double-check the info on a puke sink.

As it turns out, my German wife is more of a puke sink expert than I would have thought. “You have to mention how there’s standards that call for a specific diameter of drain to accommodate the half-digested food,” she said as I wrote this blog. “That’s important.”

Important to who?

She didn’t know much about the terminology.

The word Speibecken actually means ‘spittoon’ and is also used for that little sink at the dentist’s you spit into – or in the saloon, presumably.

And the term Pabst apparently has less to do with that grown man in the Vatican who wears pajamas all day than the Latin for puking – because we all know the Romans invented leisure puking.

The Germans just seem to have perfected it.