No word for "mess"

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We linguists know that the results of armchair reflection about one's own language are not always empirically reliable. In A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, Eric Abrahamson and David Freeman attribute to Hans Rindisbacher, professor of German at Pomona, an empirically dubious reason for the stereotypical neatness of Germans:

There may be another language-related reason why Germans can be less tolerant of mess than others: they don't really have a word for it. The closest is the word unordnung, which means "unorder," but that leaves Germans able to think of mess only in terms of what it is not, rather than having a concept for mess as a condition in its own right. It's like understanding coolness only as "unwarmth." It may be harder to appreciate something when the only way to conceive of it is as the absence of something else, especially when that something else is generally cherished. Many English words and phrases that refer to mess-related concepts and processes are utterly untranslatable into German in any meaningful way, adds Rindisbacher. Yard sale is an example. Relatively few Germans have yards or garages, he notes, and if they did, they wouldn't have hundreds of excess possessions with which to fill them, let alone expect others to buy them.

As the Hughie E. Mills Professor of Business Management at Columbia Business School, with Ph.D. and M.Ph. degrees from NYU, Eric Abrahamson speaks English, a language with a perfectly good word for dictionary; and if he had consulted an English-German dictionary rather than a Professor of German whose specialization is odor in literature, he would have learned that there are several other possible German words for mess, in the sense of "a disordered, untidy, offensive, or unpleasant state or condition".

According to the Leo dictionary, other options include das Durcheinander, die Ferkelei, der Kuddelmuddel, der Mansch, der Schlamassel, and die Schweinerei.  Additional options are suggested here, and no doubt readers will be able to come up with some others.

As for yard sale, this seems to be a distinctly American term, and perhaps an American cultural innovation as well, but the Leo dictionary offers der Garagenflohmarkt, and there is some evidence on the web that German speakers really use this term for a similar sort of event.

It's hard to know what to make of things like this, where a confident assertion about a well-documented language can be shown to be false in 15 seconds of web-mediated dictionary access. Apparently this lovely addition to our "'No Word for X' archive" was #notintendedtobeafactualstatement.

[Hat tip to Brian Hagerty.]


  1. Ø said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:49 am

    What does it say about the Germans that their only word for "either", entweder, really means "not neither".

    Or, omigosh, you could say that our only word for "weder" means "nicht entweder"? What does that say about us?

    Did you say this guy studies oder in literature?

    [(myl) No, odor. I am not making this up. Prof. Rindisbacher's publications include "Smells of Switzerland"; "The Stench of Power" (a chapter in The Smell Reader); The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature; "Putting Smells Into Words: Modeling Meaning in Patrick Süskind’s Novel Perfume"; "Peddling Eros: the Scents of Attraction"; "L'Odeur de Pfister: The Bittersweet Smell of Success in the German Realist Novel"; "Sweet Scents and Stench: Traces of Post/Modernism in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World"; etc.

    Not that there's anything wrong with specializing in the hermeneutics of literary smells.]

  2. Jethro said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:05 am

    On a slightly related note, the recently released game Portal 2 helps clear up the Eskimo-snow myth:

    "Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimo does not have 100 different words for snow. They do, however, have 234 different words for fudge."

    seen here (some possible spoilers if you listen too long)

  3. suz said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    That's why we have the "untranslatable" Übersichtlichkeit.

    Mess job.

    (PS, provides some additional hits for 'mess', which grasp the concept fairly accurately.)

  4. Carl said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:10 am

    In fairness, German is a pretty obscure language. It's not something like Mandarin or Eskimo where all the pundits know its lexicon.

  5. Michael said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:12 am

    I always liked Tohuwabohu, which isn't strictly speaking a German word but rather of biblical origin ( It is, however, frequently used. A kindergarten in my hometown is named Tohuwabohu.

  6. army1987 said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    Same in formal Italian, it's disordine. But colloquially we say casino, lit. ‘brothel’.

  7. magdalena said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:23 am

    To paraphrase army1987: Same in formal Czech, it's nepořádek. But colloquially we say bordel, lit. ‘brothel’. ;-)
    We are so similar, all of us humans :-)

  8. jaap said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:29 am

    Ironic that almost all the words in that definition of mess are negations:

    …mess, in the sense of "a disordered, untidy, offensive, or unpleasant state or condition".

    Also for those who don't know German well enough, Garagenflohmarkt, of course literally means garage flea-market.

  9. sister_ray said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    Instead of a Garagenflohmarkt you can have a Hoftrödel – a sign I saw in my neighbourhood the other day.

    And as to synonyms for Unordnung, there is of course Chaos.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:05 am

    Google Translate gives 'durcheinander' for mess.

    Since Germans are unable to think of 'mess' as a condition, I wonder how Abrahamson and Freeman account for fussy, neatnik English speakers who do have 'mess' in their lexicon and presumably can conceptualize it.

  11. Derry said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:12 am

    Thank you. If this post does nothing else it has introduced me to "Kuddelmuddel". Not the state of kuddelmuddel; I'm quite familiar with that.

  12. bulbul said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:13 am


    almost the same here in Central Europe*: "bordel".

    * I've heard it** in Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Austrian German. Another possible KundK-ism?
    ** Mostly in reference to my desk / apartment in general and politics.

  13. Merri said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    The argument is totally invalid. Esperanto uses umpteenty negative-based descriptions, aiming at using as few roots as possible, and this doesn't make those qualities any less palpable.

    Native esperantists know perfectly well what means being short (mal-longa, "not long"), dark (mal-hela, "not light") or bad (mal-bona, "not good"). Notice that, in each case, there is no other word for said quality.

    By the way, the esperanto word for "mess" would be "mal-ordeco" ("non-orderness").

    And about Inuktitut : this language has dozens of words for any onr thing that they ever saw ; that's in the very structure of this language ; be it snow or other.

  14. Goldbach said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    there are several words for mess in german,at least colloquial:
    "Saustall" pigsty
    "Durcheinander" "mixed-up"
    "Kraut und Rueben" (literally cabbage and beet/carrot)
    "Tohuwabohu","Schlamassel" (hebrew-yiddish)

    interestingly italian "casino" has this typical-romanic general unspecific sense,
    depending on the situation it can be brothel, mess, noise, rumpus, disaster
    where in german you can t use the same word for a
    messy room and a noisy group of people speaking all at once

    by the way, officers' mess is "Offizierskasino" in german,
    so officers are messy people, at least when they re eating :-)

  15. Scott said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:40 am

    There are other words for "mess" in Spanish (including, unsurprisingly, desorden), but in the colloquial variety from Argentina it's possible to use the word quilombo, also meaning "brothel"*. At least if I recall correctly – can anyone back me up?

    *Interestingly enough I've been led to believe that quilombo has the same origins as the identically written Brazilian Portuguese word, referring to a town in which escaped slaves lived and was probably taken into Rioplatense Spanish with a changed meaning from there. In BP it's apparently taken from a Bantu language, the qui- portion being identical to the Bantu ki- class prefix, as in Kiswahili. I say "apparently" because I no longer have any source for this and can't confirm it.

  16. John F said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    [Seinfeld]What's the deal with yard sales? You're not sellin' your yard![Seinfeld]

    I never knew that casino means brothel in Italy. So who would be more shocked? An Italian travelling abroad or a tourist looking to play roulette in Italy? ;)

  17. Goldbach said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    @John F said
    I m not sure, that it s the same word
    ital. casinò (from french) is where you play roulette
    (I think it s a french loanword of italian origin:-))
    ital. casino is diminutiv form (-ino) from casa, literally small house
    and when an Italian says "che casino!(what a mess!) he doesn t necessarily think of a brothel, the meaning "mess" is stronger than "brothel"

  18. adriano said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    @john f

    It's just a matter of accent:

    casino (stress on the "i") is properly a brothel, and by extension a mess, while casinò (stressed on the last syllable) is a gambling house.

  19. BC said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    Well the Italian for "casino" is "casinò", so I'm sure they're not too shocked.

  20. Theophylact said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    Well, the Casino de Venezia seems to be what a tourist looking to play roulette would want.

  21. Theophylact said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    Sorry; "di Venezia".

  22. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    As anyone who knows German can tell you the idea that there is a concept (ANY concept) for which German doesn't have at least 17 words is pulling your leg. Admittedly half of the words will be compounds/negations of other words and usually 1 will have something to do with pigs but that is the nature of the beast.

    Also of interest, if you check your OED 'mess' has only had the current meaning of disorder since the early 19th century (originally meaning food -> mixed up food -> anything mixed up ['mess hall']). Prior to that we got by with "untidy" (14th century), "disorder" (15th century), "disarray" (15th century). Or more metaphorical words like "wreck" (originally a legal term relating to goods cast ashore after a shipwreck).

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    I was told another of these recently by someone who speaks German. He said that there's no German equivalent of 'unlucky', when used as an interjection to mean, 'that was unlucky' or 'you were unlucky there'.

    The context was football (soccer) – saying 'unlucky!' (or 'bad luck!') when someone's shot or pass doesn't quite come off. My friend contended that the Germans' lack of this usage was indicative of their greater perfectionism and sense of responsibility on the field: if your attempt misses, even by a whisker, it's your fault and nothing to do with luck; and that this is one of the reasons they're so successful at the game.

    Being an LL reader, I had my doubts, but I don't speak the language. So, is there any truth to it?

  24. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    "Sie haben Unglück"
    Past "Sie haben Unglück gehabt"

    First gets 14,000,000 google hits.
    Past gets 176,000/

  25. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    "Das war ein Unglück" is also perfectly acceptable.

  26. Bob Ladd said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    While I wouldn't want to provide any ammunition for the kind thinking Mark is discussing here, it's definitely true, as Goldbach says, that there isn't a good German TRANSLATION for the English word mess – all the German items under discussion are really pretty specific, whereas Italian casino is a general informal word that corresponds to mess in a lot of contexts. A charitable interpretation would be that this is what Rindisbacher meant.

    Germans may not have garage sales, but they have the same problem of Too Much Stuff, and (at least when I lived in Germany 30 years ago) a somewhat different way of dealing with it. A few times a year in any given municipality there would be a rubbish collection designated for Sperrmüll (another hard-to-translate item, roughly 'bulky rubbish'), when you could put ANYTHING you wanted to get rid of outside next to the street and it would get taken away. The night before the official collection, lots of perfectly respectable people would go around scavenging other people's Sperrmüll for stuff that they might want. I have no idea if this is still done.

  27. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    Not to crowd up the comment box but I forgot about Pech.

    "Pech gehabt!"
    "Das ist Pech!"
    "Was für ein Pech!"

    All decent formulations for "that was unlucky"

  28. Sid Smith said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    Casino (It) – brothel, mess

    Shambles (BrE) – slaughterhouse, mess

  29. Goldbach said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:59 am


    "Glueck" or "Glück" is always good luck,
    "Pech" (lit tar pitch) is bad luck
    but there is "gluecklich sein" – to be happy
    (the condition of a person feeling happy/blissful)
    and "Glueck haben" (lit"to have good luck) – to be lucky
    (experiencing lucky circumstances)

    so there is the double meaning of "state of bliss/happiness"(of a person) and "the coincidence of good luck" using differenct grammatical constructions

    gluecklich sein – to be happy
    Glueck haben – to be lucky

    I m not sure what exactly you mean with your example,
    you can always differentiate with
    er hat Glueck gehabt,- he was lucky
    er war gluecklich – he was happy

  30. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    On the topic of garage sales, it is interesting to note that they are described in German as "garage flea-markets." Flea markets are entirely common in Germany (the "Flohmarkt" part of Garagenflohmarkt). So it isn't merely a case of translating the English literally but of taking a commonplace German term for "sale of random junk" and identifying where it typically takes place at.

    If anyone doubts that a German Flohmarkt is similar in content to American yard sales I direct you to the images on the German Wikipedia page.

    now that is what Germans would call a Dreckhaufen ("pile of s—).

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    Yes I don't think my friend was suggesting that German lacks an adjective corresponding to 'unlucky', so it's not properly a "no word for X" example. Rather, he was saying that they didn't have an interjection ascribing a failed attempt to bad luck by way of encouragement – and that this reflected a more self-reliant, aspirational mindset.

    Yiddish has one, I think: yiddisher mazl – "Jewish luck"!

  32. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Actually if you watch German sports coverage, whenever the Germans lose the commentator will chalk it up to "Pech."

  33. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    @ Bob Ladd:

    In my city in Canada, they have instituted for the past couple of years a "curb-side giveaway" weekend that takes place once each in the spring and the fall. I picked up a very nice 1960s Hammond organ last year!

    We also have a LOT of garage/yard sales that go on, even in some of the wealthier neighbourhoods.

  34. Goldbach said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    @Bob Ladd

    while it is certainly true that Germans don t have those individual
    garage sales we have "community garage sales" also called "Flohmarkt"
    flea markets where each city organizes large gatherings in public space
    mainly for citizens, not for traders
    I would think, it s the space limitations in the cities unlike in the american suburbs that prevents the garage sales (Do people in Britain have garage sales?)
    and yes, Sperrmuell or "community organized pickup of bulky rubbish for the whole quarter" and also scavenging still exist, but NO, you cannot put ANYTHING out, there are "Verordnungen" orders/edicts/regulations for what you are allowed to put out – hey, Germans are an orderly people !:-)

    and sometimes you can find your own old household appliances you put in the Sperrmuell at your next fleamarket visit at an turkish trader :-)

  35. Richard Sabey said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    @Abrahamson and Freeman
    " It's like understanding coolness only as "unwarmth." "



    We have car boot sales.

  36. Roger Lustig said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    Stop me if I've done this one before…

    German for "begrudge" is "nicht gönnen."

    English for "gönnen" is "not begrudge."

    OK, Whorf rats: let's hear the explanation!

  37. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    Couldn't "begrudge" also be German 'neiden' or 'beneiden' or 'missgönnen."

    Couldn't English for "gönnen" be "grant" or "allow" or "indulge."

    I am not certain what you are getting at.

  38. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    "It's like understanding coolness only as "unwarmth." It may be harder to appreciate something when the only way to conceive of it is as the absence of something else, especially when that something else is generally cherished."

    But don't we all know that coolness IS "unwarmth." I genuinely doubt that many people posit a coldness principle and a warmth principle in opposition to one another (the way for example the ancient Greeks did). Darkness IS "unlight," a mess IS "unorder." I think what is interesting is that we talk in a manner that suggests a concept of the world we know to be false.

  39. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:02 am


    This is a French word, originally meaning "little house", like Italian "casino" (the root bord- is also found in the name of the city of Bordeaux). It is true that it also means a "mess" of some kind, but not the kind you might make by spilling coffee on the tablecloth, for instance: "chaos" is a better translation. In the past few decades the adjective "bordélique" has been coined, for a characteristic of a situation or a person.

  40. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    @ Jason –

    Careful with those ISes. What we've discovered through physics doesn't necessarily correspond to our perceptions or innate cognitive models of the world. We don't perceive temperature absolutely, for instance.

    Thanks for your post re pech, looks like I was right to be sceptical.

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Abrahamson and Freeman made another mistake: A yard sale isn't a sale of the stuff in your yard, it's a sale in your yard of your stuff.

    *flag* Fifteen yards, piling on!

    @John F: I'd rather go to the German version of a yard sale, because I need to buy some meters.

  42. Jason said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    @ Pflaumbaum

    That is what I find so interesting. The intersection of our innate cognition and knowledge of physics. While we still talk about warmth and cold as two different states, it is pretty clear which of the two would be considered the marked/unmarked category. I am willing to bet which of the two options "unwarmth" "uncold," or "unmess" "unorder," or "undark" "unlight" people would be willing to accept more readily (note the author choose the example of "unwarmth" not "uncold"). Unwarmth, unorder, unlight will a bit awkward are far more palatable than the alternatives/ In all these instances marked/unmarkedness corresponds to physical reality.

  43. Jens Fiederer said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    @Jason: loved "As anyone who knows German can tell you…."

    In our list of messes here, actually TWO have something to do with pigs – "Schweinerei" for adult pigs and "Ferkelei" for piglets.

    I suspect Ferkel to be etymologically related to the "vark" in aardvark.

  44. Alexander said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    "Schlamperei" is another common German word for a state of untidiness or disorder (abstract or material), derived from "schlampig", meaning 'sloppy'. Doesn't have the moral overtones of "Schweinerei" though.

  45. Dan T. said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    How would you translate "Little House on the Prairie" into languages whose term for "small house" has connotations of ill repute?

  46. KevinM said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Re: German negation. Prof. Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach) used to translate "shoes" as "foot-hand-shoes."

  47. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    We should mention Thomas Mann's great novella "Unordnung und frühes Leid." Surely, the social life of the young girl who is the protagonist does not amount to a mess, IMHO, just slightly out of synch. If I remember correctly, this is a post WWI situ.

    @Pflaumbaum: Perhaps what you are looking for as an interjection is "Schade!" Exactly the same as French "Domage!"

    Of course, German Unordnung is exactly English disorder. Why would Rindisbacher translate it as unorder? Have not a clue.

  48. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    @Dan T: How would you translate "Little House on the Prairie" into languages whose term for "small house" has connotations of ill repute?

    I imagine with a two word phrase, just like in English.

    Though a check in the internet reveals it's translated simply as "house" in Italian.

    la casa nella prateria

  49. Greg said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    @Pflaumbaum, @Jason: I think this is more a discussion of pragmatics rather than semantics. While I have very little knowledge of German, and so cannot attest to the validity of Pflaumbaum's German friend's assertion, I can believe that it is true — well, the part about not having a standard interjection meaning "unlucky" for that particular situation. I don't believe that this makes German speakers better on the field, however! Maybe it's these pragmatic lack-of-correspondences between languages that lead to people misunderstanding that a certain language has "no word for X" (semantics). For example, I've heard people say that in English we have no word for Japanese なつかしい natsukashii (Google translate gives miss and my Casio Ex-word gives good old, though I might translate it as nostalgic, BTW). Really, though, it's just that we don't use a word with that exact same meaning in the exact same contexts a Japanese speaker would (e.g., we wouldn't say to ourselves, "Nostalgic…" when stumbling upon a long-forgotten piece of memorabilia).

  50. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    @ Jason –

    Uncluttered, though, seems as natural as disordered. I'm not sure mess fits as easily into your schema of polarities as the others, whatever the laws of thermodynamics have to say.

    The idea of blackness (though not darkness) as an absence is very counter-intuitive, I think, because many people perceive it as a strong colour.

  51. Dr. Decay said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    A little story about "Pech" to illustrate the German sense of humor (yes!). Told by my mother who was a German teenager in 1945. Nazi party members apparently had little pins or medaillions they could wear with the letters "PG" for "Partei Genosse" (Party member) on them. After May 1945, some wags read them as "Pech gehabt". A black sense of humor was perhaps beneficial in those days what with all the "Durcheinander".

  52. Ray Girvan said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    @ Dan T: How would you translate "Little House on the Prairie" into languages whose term for "small house" has connotations of ill repute?

    Or Welsh, in which "ty bach" ("little house") means toilet …

  53. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    @Dan T.

    "La Petite Maison dans la Prairie"

    "Maisonette" also lacks the connotation (but it would imply some sort of toy, or a really cute house). In modern French "bord" means "edge", so it's not like there in any problem.

  54. Chris Waters said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    Hmm, perhaps the reason this meme (no word for X) comes up over and over again is that English has no word for a language that has no word for X, so we English speakers have a hard time wrapping our heads around the concept. :)

  55. MM said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    I think there may be something in this, because I have a dreadful mess here and my German neighbours all have tidy flats. On the other hand, Rindisbacher is Swiss and I think they throw messy people out at the border.

  56. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    Since there's been some discussion of Spanish words for ‘mess’, I'll add the one my parents and I use (we speak Mexican Spanish): tiradero.

    @ Greg (on なつかしい natsukashii):

    "we wouldn't say to ourselves, 'Nostalgic…' when stumbling upon a long-forgotten piece of memorabilia"
    How's "Oh, the memories…"?

  57. TS said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    Jens Fiederer: "I suspect Ferkel to be etymologically related to the "vark" in aardvark."

    Yes, via Dutch. Aardvark is basically ein "Erdferkel".

  58. The Ridger said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    @ Dan T: How would you translate "Little House on the Prairie" into languages whose term for "small house" has connotations of ill repute?

    I imagine you'd either use a diminutive ending or a different adjective ("little" and "small" aren't the same in English, after all). Or possibly a different word (cabin?)

  59. chaot said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Kreatives Chaos is a topos in German (of course I'm not claiming it's specifically German). I haven't read the book but that's what it seems to be about.

    Ich sage euch: man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können. Nietzsche, Zarathustra

    Ordnung braucht nur der Dumme, das Genie beherrscht das Chaos. attributed to Einstein

  60. TS said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    "How would you translate "Little House on the Prairie" into languages whose term for "small house" has connotations of ill repute?"

    German: "Steppenbordell"? "Der Puff auf der Prairie"?

    I guess the name doesn't matter as long as there is a happy ending.

  61. JR said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    A common word in Mexico to describe a mess also involves a negation: "desmadre." Literally, "lacking a mother."

    As with many Mexican sayings involving "madre," probably best not to use it in polite company.

  62. JR said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Of course, while we deride the "no word for x" meme, this doesn't mean that, once you know the translation of the word, you can use it just like you use it in your own language.

    In the 80s, I spent a year abroad studying at a German university with other Americans. Back then, we commonly used the words "nerd" and "geek," and always in a negative way (nowadays one can be proud of being a geek). The German equivalent we came up with was "Streber." But Germans didn't go around calling people that the way we did. In short, if someone had asked me how to say "nerd" or "geek," the most helpful answer would have been: They don't have a word for that.

    Things may have changed since the 80, of course.

  63. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    JSG: In modern French "bord" means "edge"

    Or "side" (orig. of a boat). It does not refer to a sharp edge, as of a knife.

    This word, probably of Germanic origin, may not be related to the homophonous root of "bordel" (OF had "borde" as a word for 'house', and there were/are similar words in Occitan), and the meanings are so far apart that I had not even noticed the resemblance. The TLFI compares "bord" to Eng board (as in on board) and similar Germanic words, but does not give an etymology for "borde" and "bordel".

  64. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    Little House on the Prairie

    I would use "cabane" in this context.

    Children in France used to sing a little song called "Ma cabane au Canada" – probably referring to a log cabin.

  65. GeorgeW said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    To add one more entry to the 'mess' corpus, in Arabic it would be a negation: la tartiib (not orderly).

  66. adriano said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    @ Dan T

    I think "casetta" would do the job well, though to Italian ears it reminds more of fairy tales than of an old American tv series…
    Italian uses suffixes that way in order to add emphasis: casa, casetta, casona, casina, casaccia, casettina, and so on.

  67. Will said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    @Jason, I googled "Dreckhaufen", and the first hit was for a German-English dictionary. There were two English translations. One was "muck heap" (which is close enough to your supplied translation of "pile of s-"); the other translation was, in fact, simply "mess".

  68. Brett said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    When translating the title "Little House on the Prairie," one would probably not want to use a single word for "little house" in any case. While it makes no direct difference in how the title of the second book reads, the first book, "Little House in the Big Woods" has an explicit contrast that ought to be preserved. There is also the later book, titled "Little Town on the Prairie."

  69. Rubrick said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    Having spent some time in a Germany in a friend's messy apartment, I'm now forced into the conclusion that she was not really German.

    On the other hand, she spoke fairly good English, so perhaps she learned about messiness from that.

  70. notrequired said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    I don't know what's more ridiculous. The fact that a professor of German can't find an adequate translation for 'mess', or the fact that he thinks Germans don't have such a concept.

  71. dw said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:04 pm


    I don't know what's more ridiculous. The fact that a professor of German can't find an adequate translation for 'mess', or the fact that he thinks Germans don't have such a concept.

    The good professor has spent his career studying smells in literature. Perhaps he has devoted so much of his brain to words about smells that he has forgotten the remainder of the lexicon.

  72. army1987 said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    Both casino and bordello can mean both “mess” and “brothel”, though nowadays the former word is very seldom used for the latter meaning and it is somewhat more common than the latter word for the former meaning.

  73. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    A physicist might think of cold as simply the absence of heat, but apparently zoologists think humans and other mammals aren't constructed with laboratory-quality thermometers installed but rather have some parts of their anatomy that sense heat and other different parts of their anatomy that sense cold, or so the wikipedia article on "thermoception" tells me. It seems more plausible that the lexicon of a naturally-evolved human language would be driven by the human sensory apparatus than by what modern physics may assert about the external world that sensory apparatus is responding to. The specific false claim about German in the original quote was based on an analogy to a more plausible claim that it would be odd for a human language to have no word for cold other than one formed derivatively by negating a word for heat/warmth. Are there natural languages (i.e., Esperanto doesn't count) that actually do that, as opposed to having separate words for hot and cold that seem to treat both qualities as equally basic?

  74. Not My Leg said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    Question: Is Durcheinander a compound word in German (durch ein ander) meaning something like "by another."

    My German is very rusty so someone who knows German etymology would know better than I. But if that is correct, I like the way in which is conveys "mess" – a bunch of things by each other. (Is this even the right sense of "by"? I remember "durch" as "through" or "by" in the sense of "by means of".)

    Of course, it would also seem to be a combination of words lacking any negative connotation, so I guess that proves that Germans like messes, or at least feel neutrally towards them.

  75. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    I don't think it's yet been noted that in English we have words with "un-" where the meaning isn't not-something. Sort of related to the "mess" topic, unkempt comes to mind. And uncanny has ceased to be an opposite of canny. And while "unforgettable" could be defined as "not forgettable", memorable I think better gets at the idea behind the word.

  76. hector said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Anyone who thinks that any language wouldn't have a bunch of creative analogies for "mess" doesn't understand human beings. Disorder is a primary element of the human condition. It is frequently frustrating, but also a source of amusement, hence scornful words ("Schweinerei") and comical words ("Tohubohu," "Kuddelmuddel").

    @ Rubrick

    Several years of German-language courses at a Goethe Institute in the eighties forever disabused me of the stereotype that all Germans are mechanical whizzes. The instructors bumbled, fumbled, stumbled and grumbled whenever they had to get a VCR to work in coordination with a TV set.

  77. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    Saustall, Sauhaufen, Sauerei, böhmische Sauwirtschaft, Misthaufen, Dreckbude, Kuddelmuddel, Durcheinander, Chaos, (conceptual) Murks, G'wirx, G'schisti-G'schasti, Schas mit Quastln

  78. Pekka said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    There's no word in English for critical thinking?

  79. Chandra said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    @hector: "The instructors bumbled, fumbled, stumbled and grumbled"

    Why is it that so many -umble words seem to indicate some kind of ineptness, anyway? You could add "mumble", "jumble" and "tumble" to the list.

    (To get this back on topic… er…… "jumble" is another word for "mess", and I bet you can't translate that into Inuktitut! Sorry. *slinks away*)

  80. Bruce said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    Pflaumbaum mentioned the use of "Unlucky!" for, for example, a sport commentator noting a missed goal.

    Is this mainly BrE? I had never heard it in Ontario / British Columbia / New Jersey before coming to England in 2006.

  81. chris said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    Both casino and bordello can mean both “mess” and “brothel”

    So is "disorderly house" a calque, or another independent (?) manifestation of the idea that those are related concepts?

  82. marie-lucie said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    The original meaning of those terms is "little house", probably a euphemism from a time when prostitutes operated in individual cabins. Prostitution is usually linked to other less than respectable activities such as drinking, gambling, fights, etc which are considered "disorderly", another euphemism. Later, "bordel" and its equivalents acquired the meaning "disorder" – probably through a form of "countereuphemism", if there is such a term.

  83. Anna said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    @Dan T. Re. the TV series, I suppose in Italian little house became "casa" (instead of "casetta") because by Italian standards the house depicted on film didn't come across as being little at all.

  84. Anna said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    incidentally, in Italian casino (masc.) is mess or brothel, but casina (fem.) does not have any negative connotations, it simply means quaint little house (very common word in fairy tales and children books).

  85. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    What is it about the No word for X meme that so intrigues
    1. those who take it at face value;
    2. Mark Liberman, who takes it on with such regularity;
    3. the Language Log fans who comment on it with such delight?

    Really, there's a special mojo at work here.

  86. John Walden said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

    As has been said many times before, what's odd is the idea that: a language hasn't got a word for something = its speakers have trouble with the concept.

    As far as I know, which isn't very far, Spanish has no words for "commuter" "resort" or "dinner party" but its speakers have no problem commuting, throwing dinner parties or holidaying in resorts.

    Perhaps more interesting is that the language doesn't distinguish much between "girl-friend" and "bride" (novia) or their male equivalent (novio), although again Spanish speakers do seem to differentiate between the two easily. People say that of course it's because in the past you simply did marry the person you considered your bf/gf. Another interesting thing that verges on self-stereotyping is the absence of a word for "discuss"; Spanish people have told me that it's because they either talk about things (hablar de/sobre) do it in an organised way (debatir) or perforce have an argument (discutir). What's odd is that I see plenty of discussions without raised voices or arm-waving every day. Finally I've noticed that Spanish has the same word for "compromise" and "commitment" (compromiso) and my adult business students do have trouble grasping that one is a situation where concessions are made and the other where both parties bind themselves to do something together. But it's a language learning problem of false friends, not that the speakers can't see the difference.

    Now I confidently expect to be put right on everything I've said.

  87. GeorgeW said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    John Walton: " Finally I've noticed that Spanish has the same word for "compromise" and "commitment" (compromiso) . . ."

    English has the same word for a group of military people who take their meals together and a disorderly state of affairs or place (mess).

  88. David Green said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    In Dreigroschenoper: " … in dem Bordell, wo unser Haushalt war." Not "bordello", I think.

  89. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    What I find most amusing about these "no word for X" things is that often (though not in this case), the concept that they are saying some language has no word for, they express in English with a two word phrase. Kinda goes against the idea behind the meme that no word for X = no concept of X, when they demonstrate that English doesn't have a word for it either but does express the concept.

  90. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

    Thanks, J.W. Brewer for that. I was a (just a little bit) annoyed at the assumption that human perception is isomorphic to the physics.

  91. Joe Fineman said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    I was told once that in Russian, "kabak" (tavern) can mean a mess. I suspect that in most cultures that have both taverns & brothels there is some overlap between them, constituting a subset of inns. (What's the difference between a barmaid in the daytime & at night? In the daytime she's fair & buxom, etc.)

  92. Chris said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    "Durcheinander" is literally "through each other". This is pretty evocative of how messes come to be.

  93. David Fried said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    As veteran of the early-morning Boston commute along the Charles , I have always understood ""Unordnung und frühes Leid" to mean "Disorder on Early Storrow."

    But seriously, folks, I remember reading somewhere the criticism of Esperanto to which someone referred, that it forms far too many words by mere negation. The critic is supposed to have complained that, unlike English, Esperanto has no distinct word for "unhappy"!

  94. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    A better translation is "Unordnung and Early Heartache." The heroine is too young for sorrow, but not for a broken heart which no doubt will heal in due course when she forgets about her parents' charming guest with whom she falls in unrequited love as a pre-teen or early teen, if I do remember the story which I may have read as a Gymnasium assignment, or on my own at that age. — If you had read it you would not have tried a not-so-punny joke on of our great novelists.

  95. phspaelti said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    In response to TS above: the house of ill repute in German is das Puff not der Puff. Which reminds me that this is another perfectly acceptable word for mess in German, at least in dialect.

  96. albtraum said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:09 pm

    "-vark" and "ferk-" are the Germanic cousins of Latin "porc-", for you Indo-Europeans out there.

  97. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

    Compromiso / comprometer does not usually mean "compromise" in the sense of making mutual concessions and meeting in the middle. To express that concept you have to say "llegar a un acuerdo" or "transigir."

  98. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 12:55 am


    "Schlamassel" (hebrew-yiddish)

    According to Kluge from "schlimm masol," Nhebr masol= star, fate. Ger schlimm =bad, akin to Engl slim, which can mean bad as in slim chance. Google on "Hebr masol= star, fate" comes up with confirmation, variant spellings, Proverbs: משלי

  99. KK said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    German is not the exclusive property of Germans. Note that there's us Austrians as well. We are the messy little brothers and sisters. Thus something like

    G'wirx (which means much the same as Schlamassel)

    is probably incomprehensible to German speakers from most parts of Germany (Bavarians being an exception.)

  100. army1987 said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 4:27 am

    And Italian macello can mean both ‘slaughterhouse’ and ‘mess’, too.

  101. Mare Frisicum said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 5:15 am

    The quoted dictionary offerings for "mess" sound faintly old-fashioned, and also miss the target. Does the German language describe mess affectionately and encourage a tolerant attitude towards it? Definitely. We did a little brain storming today around a breakfast table in Germany and came up with plenty of words that can be used to describe a mess of possessions in a positive light:KrimskramsKrempelSammelsuriumFor a garden that is in a mess, one only needs to declare that it is naturbelassen. There's also a wealth of robust, humorous and colloquial phrases in defence of a mess on your desk: "Das ist kreatives Chaos" (very common, pace Chaot above; the witty, post-modern variant is "geordnetes Chaos")"Hier wird gearbeitet""Ich bin ein Messie" (this Anglicism is now very widespread and makes the sufferer sound loveable)The idiomatic wie bei Hempels unterm Sofa is perhaps not positive, but implies that one's mess is more a matter of cultural attitude than of failure. The hidden roomful or closet of mess is the Rumpelkammer, a fairly neutral word that is related to der Rümpel (junk), and this brings us to entrümpeln, a lovely German word for getting rid of junk. Look up the Yellow Pages under Entrümpelung and you'll find businesses that clear out homes where the tenants are too sick or too dead to do it themselves (much more efficient and sometimes more profitable than holding a Flohmarkt).

  102. John Walden said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    @GeorgeW; "I can can" means both "I do a risqué dance" and "I am able to put things in tins" but it takes a lot more than three seconds Googling to find a discussion about the difference between them:

    It's obviously something of an issue. Which does not mean that Spanish speakers can't see the difference.

  103. GeorgeW said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    John Walton: I intended my observation about mess to be a little facetious (since this is the focus of the post).

    Similar to your Spanish example, my wife, a native Arabic speaker often mixes up English 'review' and 'revision' because it can be the same word (maraaj'a) in Arabic. She will sometimes say, "I am going to have a revision for my students today, tomorrow is the final.' I respond with, "You might also considering having a review."

    (I can't can can but I know people who can can can.)

  104. Ø said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 9:37 am

    British students revise for an exam, I believe. Confusing to an American at first.

  105. Dw said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 9:55 am


    Your wife is almost speaking British English, so don't be too hard on her! (although one would "do" revision, rather than "have a" revision, and it perhaps applies more naturally to individual study outside the classroom)

  106. Mary Apodaca said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    Is it true French doesn't have a word for shallow? Only pas profond?

  107. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    @John Waldon, re "I can can".

    I believe the dance would be properly written can-can. And the two phrases (dancing versus canning) are distinctly different in speech.

  108. John Walden said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    It's surprising how when re-reading my own posts that they can now seem so severe, defensive and not a bit light-hearted. That certainly wasn't my intention; I was being facetious too. By which token, I'm also sure that Ellen K. does not mean to sound like someone with absolutely no sense of humour whatever. And I'm still kidding when I ask how difficult it is to spell my surname correctly.

  109. marie-lucie said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    Is it true French doesn't have a word for shallow? Only pas profond?

    It"s true. But "pas profond" is colloquial. The more formal phrase is "peu profond". (This applies to the literal meaning of shallow or deep, as with a river, for instance).

    Colloquial French uses a lot of similarly negative expressions even if there is a positive word: "pas mal" instead of "bien", "pas mauvais" instead of "bon", "pas drôle" instead of "triste" or "ennuyeux", etc.

  110. Atmir Ilias said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    Chantek, the orangutan who had been taught the symbol for "dirty" in regard to feces and urine, later on he started applying that symbol to the spilled food, soiled object, etc.
    Words like "waist, waste, shit" might get many other performances as one; the redirection of the meaning from its original one.

  111. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 12:08 pm


  112. GeorgeW said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    @Ø and Dw: Thanks, that is very interesting about 'revision' in BrE. Maybe she did acquire this from BrE as she did have some British school teachers as she was growing up (in a school called American College!).

  113. naddy said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    phspaelti said:

    the house of ill repute in German is das Puff not der Puff.

    It's der for me. There appears to be some disagreement. Wahrig says it's neuter, Duden prefers masculine, but allows neuter.

  114. Alain Turenne said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    @ J. Mayhew:

    "Superficiel" can't refer to a shallow body of water, but in the figurative sense, yes: To translate things like "ce type est très superficiel", "sa pensée est très superficielle", etc., "shallow" would seem appropriate to me.

  115. Mary said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    I agree with the reaction to Rindisbacher's assertion about German, but not to making fun of his research area (see comment #1 and Liberman's response). It's one thing to state what the guy works on in order to make clear that he's not a linguist, but I object to the "I am not making this up… Not that there's anything wrong with [that]" bit regarding the fact that he works on odor. This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that the right wing uses to denigrate research in areas like ethnic studies, women's studies, etc. to convince people that academics waste their time (and the taxpayers' money!) on frivolous pursuits. You can make anybody's research sound stupid by talking about it that way. I'd think that linguists would be particularly sensitive to this since linguistics is often considered to be less important than more 'practical' fields, and in lean economic times at many institutions is one of the first programs/departments considered for the chopping block. So I propose that we refrain from making fun of people's research and instead focus on the intellectual matter at hand (as the subsequent commenters have).

  116. marie-lucie said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

    I agree with AT.

  117. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    @Mary: Personally, I thought the response to the first comment was coming from a place of seeing odor in literature as an unusual, unexpected topic of study. And I emphasize in literature because you left that bit out, and it's quite relevant to being surprised that there's such an area of study.

  118. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    @ Ellen K.: I had the same reading on the first comment, it didn't come across as "making fun of" to me.

  119. David Fried said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    @ Hermann Burchard:

    Do you know how hard it is to find people who are familiar with both Storrow Drive traffic and Thomas Mann's novels? I've been saving up that joke for years now; I figured that a few folks on this site would get it and at least smile. How was it disrespectful to Thomas Mann?

    And you know what? Not everybody knows everything. You, for example, don't realize that the word is "mazal," not "masol," which is evidently a German phonetic spelling of the Ashkenazic pronunciation, inappropriate when you are writing in English; that it means "constellation," i.e., sign of the Zodiac, not star; and that it is not a variant of "mashal," which means proverb or example, and is derived from a different root. I know this because I speak Hebrew, which I did not learn in a German gymnasium, for reasons which will be self-evident.

  120. meg said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    @D Sky Onosson, Ellen K, & Mary: Sorry, I did read ML's addendum as mocking. The protestation "I am not making this up" usually gets attached to the ridiculous (or the perceived-as-ridiculous). I can't imagine that anyone with a passing familiarity with Proust would consider the study of smells in literature unusual or unexpected.

    À la recherche du pain perdu, anyone?

  121. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    @ David Fried: I want to thank you for your extended and careful reply.

    Me, never been to Boston, so had to look up Storrow Drive on the web (Wiki). My main point was that this is a bad pun for the Mann novella simply because the heroine's crush on the guest in her parents' house leads to heartache, not sorrow for which she is too young.
    How was it disrespectful to Thomas Mann? Matter of taste? My post was a reverend mention, which you seemed to mock, an implicit mock of the author. Now, your protestation indicates that I mistook you.

    masol, German phonetic spelling: I copied from Kluge, a German etymological dictionary, sorry my immigrant's English & rudimentary Hebrew, limited to looking up words and memorizing a phrase or sentence from the Hebrew Bible [e.g. from Joel as quoted in Greek by Saint Paul in Romans chpt 10], are insufficient for the subtleties of writing about Hebrew words in English. BTW, I had been wondering whether it was the same as proverb [mashal].

    We Germans of part Jewish descent with an interest in Hebrew from a NT point of view are a bit in the situation of a young Goethe who during his stay in Alsace, where he was a student at Straßburg University, decided to give up speaking French, because he would be interrupted and corrected frequently by his French interlocutors. As a happy result we have his corpus of writings in German.

  122. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    Schlam-massel persumably being the oposite of Massl, good luck.

    A furniture store near here by the name of Assl had the following slogan "A so a Glück, a so a Massl, wann'st a Möbel hast vom Assl"

  123. Hermann Burchard said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    @ Ben Hemmens, David Fried: Google translate did fairly well on translating your remarks to Hebrew and back to English, with some notable deviations. Even I can see that it translated Ben's "good luck" as mazel tov, w/o a dictionary:

    the word is "mazal," not "masol," which is evidently a German phonetic spelling of the Ashkenazic pronunciation, inappropriate when you are writing in English; that it means "constellation," i.e., sign of the Zodiac, not star

    המילה "מזל", לא "masol," אשר הוא כנראה איות פונטי הגרמני של ההגייה האשכנזית, שאינה הולמת כאשר אתה כותב באנגלית, כי זה אומר ", קבוצת" כלומר, סימן של גלגל המזלות, לא כוכב

    The word [is] "luck", not "masol," which is probably the German phonetic spelling of the Ashkenazi pronunciation, not appropriate when you write in English, because it means "group" that is, a sign of the zodiac, not a star

    Schlamassel presumably being the opposite of Massl, good luck.

    Schlamassel כנראה להיות ההפך Massl, מזל טוב.

    Schlamassel probably be[ing] the opposite [of] Massl, congratulations.

    @myl: Sorry for the waste of electrons.

  124. DG said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    @Joe Fineman: I've never heard "kabak" (tavern) used to mean a mess in Russian. A common word is "bardak" which is a colloquial form of "bordel", i.e. brothel, like in many the other languages discussed here.

  125. Marion Crane said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    Huh. Late to the party, but… by Rindisbacher's reasoning, the Dutch (who have garages, and yards, and useless junk, and even a word or two for mess) should have garage sales all over the place. Astonishingly, we don't!

    Instead we have 'vlooienmarkten' or flea markets, similar to the German concept that has been pointed out in the comments – and Queen's Day. On Queen's Day the entire country is turned into one big flea market, ugh.

    And I'm seriously doubtin this view that the majority of Germans don't have garages or yards. Where'd this guy get his German experience? Berlin? It's like people who visit Amsterdam and then meet someone from the rest of the country and are surprised not every city has a touristy red district with, ahem, coffee shops on every corner.

  126. Andrew F said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 7:14 am

    @Ø, GeorgeW:

    What do American students do before an exam, if not revision?

  127. Ellen K. said,

    April 26, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    @Andrew F.

    We review. Revision means changing something. Apparently, that meaning comes from looking over something with the intent to change.

    Maybe this comes from the urge to not have two words that mean the same thing, and thus differentiating revise and review. Despite coming from the same latin root, the two words do not overlap in American English (except that one might do both at the same time).

  128. John F said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:09 am

    regarding Durcheinander, I'm reminded of an Ulster-Scots word of which I'm fond: through-other*. Which can be amplified by adding 'wile' before it. Or general disorderliness can be signified by preceding it 'ah' (which I believe is a variant of 'all').

    He's a wile through-other boody.
    He's ah through-other.

    *Merriam-Webster has throughither

  129. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    Sperrmüll is still collected.

    I've heard it** in Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Austrian German. Another possible KundK-ism?

    What? I've never encountered it in Austrian German.

    It's extremely common in the original French, though.

    "Kraut und Rueben" (literally cabbage and beet/carrot)

    No, Rüben are turnips. (Cabbage and turnips being pretty much the only vegetables that are native north of the Alps.)

    In the 80s, I spent a year abroad studying at a German university with other Americans. Back then, we commonly used the words "nerd" and "geek," and always in a negative way (nowadays one can be proud of being a geek). The German equivalent we came up with was "Streber." But Germans didn't go around calling people that the way we did. In short, if someone had asked me how to say "nerd" or "geek," the most helpful answer would have been: They don't have a word for that.

    Things may have changed since the 80, of course.

    They haven't. Maybe kids today are importing "nerd", but "Streber" means brainer – someone who wants to have good marks, which is considered a sign of an utterly horrible character. May phenotypically appear like a nerd, but doesn't need to be interested in the stuff he learns – he does it to get better marks and maybe become the teacher's pet.

    The TLFI compares "bord" to Eng board (as in on board) and similar Germanic words

    …and I have long suspected that Bordeaux is a reanalysis bord d'eau of Burdigala, the name the city had in Antiquity.

    I don't think it's yet been noted that in English we have words with "un-" where the meaning isn't not-something. Sort of related to the "mess" topic, unkempt comes to mind.

    Later, "bordel" and its equivalents acquired the meaning "disorder" – probably through a form of "countereuphemism", if there is such a term.

    Dysphemism. That's the process that replaced the basic vocabulary of Latin in the Romance languages (like "head" by "bowl" – testa, tête, compare noggin or indeed German Kopf, cognate to cup and from Latin!).

    G'wirx (which means much the same as Schlamassel)

    It's also used in other contexts: following sonst kommen wir ins, it means "[otherwise we'll get in] trouble".

  130. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 6:47 pm


    I don't think it's yet been noted that in English we have words with "un-" where the meaning isn't not-something. Sort of related to the "mess" topic, unkempt comes to mind.

    No, it's just "uncombed" with Umlaut. And there is "well-kempt".

    German: Kammkämmengekämmt = "comb (noun) – comb (verb) – combed".

    But it does happen that a word only survives in negation and otherwise dies out. "Ruthless" is an example.

  131. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 11:28 pm

    Not sure this has anything to do with anything here or elsewhere on LL, but our name in Polish is derived from an adjective "niemy" meaning "stupid" as I was told long ago.

  132. dudeheit said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 5:32 am

    The first word that came to my mind thinking about a translation of "mess" was "Schweinestall/Saustall".
    "Mann, ist das ein Saustall" 'This place is really a mess'.

    A lot of the translations offered in online-dictionaries sound quite odd to me. Maybe that's because beeing a native speaker my judgment is based on my own native variety and especially my lack of knowledge concerning southern varieties of German (the famous Weisswurstäquator that divides the German-speaking countries). But it may also have to do with the famous discourse particles (doch, aber, eh, etc.) used in spoken German but hardly found in those translations.

    @Bob Ladd. Concerning Spermül": this is still very common across the country, the frequency depending on each place. As far as I am informed, in theory there are laws against taking away things from Sperrmüll, but especially in university towns nobody cares. In my town, Münster, we have Sperrmüll once a month and it is one of the most popular sources of furnishing one's flat.

    Talking about unlucky: another interjection not yet mentioned in this thread is "[das ist] dumm gelaufen". I am not sure if expresses exactly the same concept, but i think it comes close.

  133. Sven said,

    May 20, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    @Hermann Burchard

    Niemy means mute, not stupid. It's a common theory that the Germans (and centuries ago all other non-Slavic speakers as well) have been referred to as "Niemcy" because they were thought to be mute. The sounds they made with their tongues didn't make any sense to speakers of Slavic languages who among themselves understood at least a little.
    Another theory i once heard is that "Niemiec" is derived from "nie miec" = not having (a language) or "nie mowic" = not speaking. A similar concept is used in Polish to say baby or newborn child which is "niemowle" or "niemowlak". Maybe niemy has similar roots.

    To contribute something to the original thread i would add "polnische Wirtschaft" as a term for mess used in business or administration contexts (and actually not used very often any more, luckily)

  134. Tina said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:34 am


    … is a word for mess that is neither a negation nor a compound.

    Too bad that is only used in the regional dialect called "Solinger Platt" in and around the town of Solingen (near Cologne) and seems to be completely unknown anywhere else.

  135. Karsek said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    Very nice article about my mother language. I would like to say somethig about this sentence: "but that leaves Germans able to think of mess only in terms of what it is not, rather than having a concept for mess as a condition in its own right. It's like understanding coolness only as "unwarmth.""

    If I have a look into my 5 year old son's room and I say: "Was für eine Unordnung!" (What a mess!), I do not think about the order I would like to have here, I just see the mess. What I mean that the prefix "un-" does not automatically arouse the feeling of something that is not there. There are many words in German with "un-" that do not exist (any more) without it: unbeholfen, unentwegt, unglaublich, Ungetüm, Ungeziefer, unnahbar etc.

    Many words with "un-" have not the opposite meaning when you leave the "un-": unheimlich, Unfall, Unheil etc.

    The same phenomenon can be found e. g. in Russian where the words ненастье, ненавидеть, нездоровиться, недоумевать don't exist without "не-".

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