German wordcraziness rules

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[This is a guest post by Martin Woesler in response to this post:  "German lexicographic richness" (10/11/21)]

Let me share the language feeling of a German with you. As you may have assumed, if a German explains feelings, he does it with a set of rules:

German wordcraziness rule # 1: Yes, there is a German word for everything. Simply because if there was none before, there is one the very moment you think of it or say it. And no, it does not mean that it is the same as listing many words one after the other in English. You can still list words one after the other in German and it has a different effect than creating a new longish word.

Instead the ability of the German language to create word compositions means that you can express much more detailed concepts of mind with these neologisms. Take Zeitgeist for example, Filterblase (filter bubble), Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods), Hüftgold (hip gold, meaning gaining weight), Fracksausen (tailcoat buzzing, meaning Angst), Pustekuchen (blow cake, meaning No way!) or the adverb sternhagelvoll (rolling drunk). The German mainstream media just recently invented 'Putinversteher' (a person understanding Putin) to disparage russiologists. To have a contentful and thought-provoking evening with friends, wine and cheese, invite a German intellectual, drag two German words for him from the lottery drum and let him explain the concept behind the adhoc composition. He might not stop talking for an hour and if it gets boring, just let him talk about the composition of the two words the other way round. (If you prefer a funny evening, do the same but just leave the German guy out.)

So, neologisms are the rule in German. Germany's word of the year 2022 is Zeitenwende (epochal turning point), describing the political turn from engaging Russia economically to today's sanctions and diversification of economical dependencies.

There is also a difference between lining up words one after the other with spaces and putting words together without spaces. The former being possible in German and in other languages, the latter only in German, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, etc. Some Ancient Greek long words even have been directly taken over into German, like Aristphanes' Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkygia, cloud cuckkoo land) which is commonly used as Wolkenkuckucksheim in German, meaning a utopian world as the birds built it in Aristophanes' comedy "Birds".

German wordcraziness rule #2: As soon as you put the words together, the last word in the new Langwort carries the main meaning and the foregoing words become attributes. The fun thing is that the words added earlier keep their relation, so as soon as you add a word, the previous word(s) become the attribute(s) of the new word(s) and keep their attributive relation to the words added earlier even in the final Bandwurmwort (never-ending word, literally a tape worm word) or Wordungetuem (word monster).

German wordcraziness rule #3: The biggest effect you reach by adding words at the end, because they change the whole earlier concept. If you add one in the middle, you only specify an aspect of the concept. So when German children play the Bandwurmwort game, they only add words at the end to have the most extreme change of mind with each new word. The kids call it a Katzundmausspiel (cat and mouse game), like Diebfängermörderrächerverteidiger (thief-catcher-killer-avenger-advocat).

German wordcraziness rule #4: There are certain grammatical rules which regeltreue (rule-obeying) Germans of course obey when they juggle with words: Some word combinations require to omit ending sounds like "e" (as in Hüfte + Gold = Hüftgold) others to add a fugue sound in between, when you put them together. Whether a fugue sound (mostly an "s" as in Arbeitszeit or an "n" like in Seitenzahl) must be included, or not, and which sound it should be, is subject to thousands of rules unknown to the average speaker. The Germans do it at will, often influenced by speakability and regional traditions.

German wordcraziness rule #5: Never play scrabble with Germans.

By the way, to describe the cartoon, no German would ever use the word Zirkusclownsbananenausrutschergeldschrankschlagkatastrophe. Of course the correct word is Zirkusclownsbananenausrutschergeldschrankschlagunfall. Come on, it is not a catastrophe, it is an accident. And Schadenfreude is not the right feeling when you see such a Seltenalleinkommendesunglück (misfortune, which never comes singly), I pity the clown. Fortunately, this cartoon is only a fictional illustration that the Germans have a word for everything, even for the weirdest and the most unlikely situations. And these words are not artificially made-up, they are an integral and natural part of German language. So. Feierabend.


Selected reading


  1. Bloix said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 10:31 am

    Isn't this as a much consequence of punctuation rules as it as of a tolerance for new words?

    Twelve years ago the TV newscasters were all thrown into a tizzy by the name of an Icelandic volcano: Eyjafjallajökull. The name, it turned out, was three words written with no spaces: Eyja fjalla jökull. It means Eyjafjalla Glacier. And Eyjafjalla means Island Mountains. An English equivalent would be Mount Isle Glacier. But in English, when we make compound nouns, we often preserve the spaces. Right now I'm sitting at the dining room table. Why isn't it the diningroomtable? If we'd been brought up with words like that they'd be easy to read.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 11:48 am

    Is "wordcraziness" a direct translation from the German, or a neologism coined by Martin to demonstrate (in English) the German phenomenon that he is describing ? "Word-craziness" I could accept as valid English, but "wordcraziness" makes no appearance in the OED whatsoever.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 12:02 pm

    Isn't this as a much consequence of punctuation rules as it as of a tolerance for new words?

    If you count spaces as punctuation, jein… English noun piles are generally the same thing as German compounds, but many German nouns have to be changed into a special form before they're incorporated into a compound in non-final position, usually by adding -s or -(e)n. (I'd say they're converted to prefixes.) This started with actual genitives in the late Middle Ages and got way out of hand. It's also still developing – there's a lot of regional and individual variation and uncertainty in which words take -s and which don't.

    At the same time, however, all recognizable components remain separate phonological words. In English that's not always the case – -man and -land in particular often get their vowel reduced; not so in German.

    a neologism coined by Martin to demonstrate (in English) the German phenomenon that he is describing


  4. Daniel Saeger said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 12:30 pm

    Literally all of the words listed have exact English translations. If you wanna have a language that’s actually extraordinary at creating compound words, talk about Navajo, or Mohawk, or Lushootseed…

    As pointed out by another user, this is merely a consequence of German not using spaces or hyphens to preserve the spaces between words: arbitrary "compoundnounspellingconventions".

  5. Chester Draws said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 2:07 pm

    Isn't it also the German's acceptance of long words?

    In English, common long words and compound nouns often get shortened over time. Refrigerators become fridges. Motorcars become cars. Pickup trucks become pickups or trucks (or where I am from utes, short for utility trucks). This adds ambiguity often, as there are plenty of cars that aren't motorcars, but English doesn't care: brevity wins over explicitness.

    Germans seem unusual, among the languages I am knowledge of, in being unwilling to shorten.

  6. David Morris said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 2:36 pm

    First, motorised carriages become motor cars. And there's also taximeter cabriolets …

  7. GeorgeW said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    Are these "words" in terms of movement, inflection, phonology, etc?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 5:46 pm

    Germans seem unusual, among the languages I am knowledge of, in being unwilling to shorten.

    Plenty of abbreviations in German, both spoken and written. Despite its stress on the last syllable, Automobil became Auto long ago, for example.

    As pointed out by another user, this is merely a consequence of German not using spaces or hyphens to preserve the spaces between words: arbitrary "compoundnounspellingconventions".

    As pointed out by me almost half an hour before, it's not always that simple. Take the old joke about the Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenschlüsselbund: if Fahrt "journey on wheel, by ship, to hell or up into heaven" is a non-final compound member, it becomes Fahrts, and if the noun-forming suffix -schaft "-ship" appears in a non-final compound member, it becomes -schafts. Both of these are feminine, so they lack any case/number forms with -s; this -s- appears only in compounds.

    See also: Sonnenschein "sunshine", Sternenstaub "stardust".

    Are these "words" in terms of movement, inflection, phonology, etc?

    Movement and inflection, yes. Phonology – each component retains its own stress and its own reduced vs. non-reduced vowels; but the compound as a whole gets one primary stress, which is the stress of the first component. For example, Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenschlüsselbund is stressed on the first syllable because the first member, Donau "Danube", is stressed on its first syllable.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 5:50 pm

    …I didn't comment on the third bolded -s-: the genitive of Kapitän "captain", masculine, is in fact Kapitäns, so there you can see where the "interstitial s" originally came from.

    The whole thing means "Danube Steamshipping Society captain's quarter keychain"; there are longer versions, and making ever longer ones is a long-running game.

  10. ulr said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 6:21 pm

    My intuition about the stress in Donau… is to put it on "dampf". Stress on "Donau" seems unnatural to me.

    And regarding the "interstitial -s-": there is a letter by Goethe where he spells "Meeres Stille" (treating "Meeres" as a sort of genitive), and, just a few words later, in the same sentence, "Meeresstille".

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 8:22 pm

    From an Austrian friend:

    Kurzparkzone, Milchschokoladenglasur, Hüftgold, Miesepeter – you name it:-)

  12. /df said,

    December 18, 2022 @ 8:53 pm

    Danube Steamship[ping] Company, no?

    "Company" has the same span of meaning from a group of companions or fellows to a business corporation as -gesellschaft-, though today its use in the context of a club or society is antiquated. But "society", like "fellowship" (as in "The Fellowship of the Ring" rather the award of a fellowship), and unlike société in French, isn't used for business corporations like the DDSG.

    The -fahrt- component should probably be omitted in translation, letting it be understood from "Steamship". Using "Line" for -gesellschaft- would distinguish a travel company from a shipyard, but would (a) be anachronistic (b) not convey that at least initially DDSG both built and operated the ships.

  13. ~flow said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 2:57 am

    > And regarding the "interstitial -s-": there is a letter by Goethe where he spells "Meeres Stille" (treating "Meeres" as a sort of genitive), and, just a few words later, in the same sentence, "Meeresstille".

    But what is the phrasal context? You sometimes do see compound words being spelled separately; in my experience, that most often occurs on food labels (so Sonnenblumenmaragarine (sun flower margarine) may become Sonnenblumen-Margarine or Sonnenblumen Margarine, or even Sonnen Blumen Margarine; no doubt in an effort to help people parse an overly long word).

    As for Meeresrauschen, Meeresstille and so on—in context it's "die Meeresstille", but "des Meeres Stille", so although the Fugen-S may have originated as a marker of the genitive case, it's now a distinct thing. The latter is literally "the sea's still(ness)" (cf. still of the night; quiet(ness)) and the article belongs to 'sea', but the former is "the sea-still" (if you pardon me), with the article belonging to 'still' (as in "the still of the night" = "the night's still").

  14. David Marjanović said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 5:05 am

    My intuition about the stress in Donau… is to put it on "dampf". Stress on "Donau" seems unnatural to me.

    Ah, you're from far enough north to have a limit on how far from the end of a word – compounds included – the stress can be. For me that's only an option if you spell it Donau-Dampfschifffahrt with a hyphen, and even then it's not unambiguous.

    Danube Steamship[ping] Company, no?

    Oh! Yes – it was too late at night.

    or Sonnenblumen Margarine, or even Sonnen Blumen Margarine

    These are officially wrong; they might be deliberate misspellings because those can be trademarked more easily, or they might come from layouting considerations. For example, hyphens used to be (and maybe still are) avoided on the title pages of books. The abridged edition of Oswald Spengler's 1918 book on the coming decline & fall of the Occident, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, is rendered on the front cover as
    in letters so big they simply don't leave space for the two hyphens.

    There are also legacy phenomena. Austria's biggest and worst newspaper is the Kronen Zeitung simply because it hasn't changed its name since preorthographic times (when it cost one Austro-Hungarian crown).

  15. Phillip Helbig said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 5:32 am

    ”There is also a difference between lining up words one after the other with spaces and putting words together without spaces. The former being possible in German and in other languages, the latter only in German, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, etc.”

    False unless “etc.” includes Dutch and the Scandinavian languages and probably some more Germanic languages.

  16. Phillip Helbig said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 5:36 am

    I’ve long said that the longest “real” world I’d seen in the wild was “Staatsangehörigkeitsangelegenheiten” meaning “matters related to citizenship” (one of the offices in a government building). 12 syllables. Someone from my Dutch course recently showed me one with 18 from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is a serious “quality” newspaper, one of the leading ones in Germany. I can look it up if anyone is interested.

  17. ulr said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 6:03 am

    The context (letter from Goethe to Carl August, May 27th/29th 1787): "Die Sirenenfelsen aber hinter Capri haben uns den unvergeßlichsten Eindruck gelaßen, an denen wir beynahe, auf die seltsamste Art, bey völlig heitrem Himmel, und vollkommner Meeres Stille, eben durch diese Meeresstille zu Grunde gegangen wären" (quoted after the Reclam original spelling edition "Gedichte", from the commentary on the famous poem "Meeresstille").

  18. R. Fenwick said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 9:52 am

    @David Morris:

    First, motorised carriages become motor cars

    Though the two are ultimately related, car is not an English abbreviation of carriage. Car has great antiquity in English, dating at least to the 14th century in text, and in origin a loan from Old French carre "wheeled vehicle". (Old French cariage, which eventually provided English carriage, is a nominalisation of carier "to carry, transport", itself a verb derived from carre.) The modern English sense of "automobile" was probably co-opted not as an abbreviation of "carriage" per se, but from the 19th-century use of the word car for mechanically powered rail vehicles, as "railway car", "streetcar", "boxcar".

    Tangentially, the etymology of Norman French carre is itself fascinating – it comes via Latin from Gaulish, thence Proto-Celtic *karros "cart, wagon, chariot" (compare Old Irish carr), and ultimately from the same PIE *ḱr̥sós that yielded Latin currus "cart, wagon, chariot" and also eventually English horse! The PIE noun is a derivative of *ḱers– "to run, hurry", preserved in Latin currō "I run" and also Germanic terms akin to English hurry.

    (I'd make a joke here about putting the cart before the horse, but despite its first three letters, oddly enough cart is unrelated and is rather one of a constellation of variously metathesised and palatalised forms (e.g. Old English crat, ċeart, ċert, cræt) that's also supplied English crate, eventually arising from Proto-Germanic *kradô "wicker basket" (compare also English cradle) and ultimately from PIE *grethₓ– "to tie, bind", with a verbal cognate in Sanskrit grathnā́ti "I tie, bind".)

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 10:46 am

    From a colleague in Germany:

    In our family, Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, a 1999 law regulating the labeling of beef according to EU quality and safety standards, is a favorite. It has spawned many whimsical queries whether there is a Lammfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz or a Schweinfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. Presumably so, but I can't find any immediate evidence of them online. I also make the occasional joke about researching Napoleon's 1803 Reichsdeputationshauptschluss or a transportation history focused on the noble figure of the Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän for my next project.

  20. cameron said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 5:10 pm

    there was recently a little buzz about the NY Times having to run a correction because they stated that a pseudo-German coinage was an actual German word. here's some commentary on the issue:

  21. Bloix said,

    December 19, 2022 @ 7:01 pm

    Couple of thoughts:
    Before the railroad car, cars were poetic things that carried gods and goddesses across the sky. "Artemis, Lady of Maidenhood, Slayer of Tityus, golden were thine arms and golden thy belt, and a golden car didst thou yoke, and golden bridles, goddess, didst thou put on thy deer." From Callimachus of Cyrene, Hymns and Epigrams. Tr. Mair, A. W. & G. R., Loeb Classical Library Volume 129 (1921). Mortals who could afford vehicular travel rode around in carriages, not cars.

    2) When I was a kid the smart-alecks knew that the longest word was antidisestablishmentarianism. Some kid would say, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! and the smart-alecks would shout, that's not a real word! but they never could explain how, if antidisestablishmentarianism WAS a real word, what does it mean, huh? huh?

    Anyway, the point of this is that in English, really long words are not fashioned by stringing nouns together and leaving out the spaces, and not even by making minor changes to the spellings to hook them together better. What English does is to take a nice medium-long word like "establish" and then festoon it with prefixes and suffixes and prefixes and suffixes to the prefixes and suffixes until it's like a Christmas tree so covered with ornaments that you can barely see the branches.

  22. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 20, 2022 @ 5:27 am

    "Antidisestablishmentarianism" — a movement which set out to oppose the movement seeking to disestablish the Church of England (28 letters). "Floccinaucinihilipilification" — the act of estimating the value of something as worthless" (29 letters). Flocci wins.

    But given recent headlines such as "Calls grow to disestablish Church of England as Christians become minority", and the undoubted opposition of the Establishment to such a move, "antidisestablishmentarianism" may well make it as Oxford's "Word of the year" in the not-too-distant future …

  23. David Deden said,

    December 20, 2022 @ 7:16 am

    Re.Bloix comment on godly cars and christmas tree branches, coincidentally I just copied this link from Oldeuropeanculture blog for sci.lang so I'll drop it here too:

  24. tsts said,

    December 20, 2022 @ 9:02 pm

    @Phillip Helbig: I recently ran into Staatsbürgerschaftsbeibehaltigungsgenehmigung, which is what you need to get if you want to keep your German citizenship while also accepting another citizenship. I guess this one is particularly popular among German immigrants in the US.

    I also lay claim to having invented Russlandversteherversteher, someone who does not really try to understand (and empathize with) the Russia position, but has at least some understanding of the position of the Russlandversteher and where they are coming from.

  25. Duncan said,

    December 22, 2022 @ 8:53 pm

    Two (related) thoughts:

    1) My first question upon reading the above: Given the thrown-together no-space words, do the German rules keep ambiguous (mis)parsing to a minimum? An (in)famous English/Internet example being They have been selling custom *pens* since the commercial Internet was young — probably 25 years or longer now. (IIRC it must have been around '97 when I first read of them, no idea how much earlier they may have started.)

    (And since I just verified the site and checked its short FAQ again to post, hoping in vain that it'd say how long they'd been around, I couldn't resist quoting this question about their featured wooden pens, along with the initial sentence of their answer:

    Q: Can I provide my own wood?
    A: In most cases we can handle your wood.


    With the above domain being an example thereof, leads to…

    2) The no-space-no-hypen-all-crammed-together effect is exactly what many compound domain names are. Assuming the Internet Domain Name System remains intact and the Internet reasonably popular, I wonder if in fifty or 100 years linguists will be pointing to it as the trigger for English compounding generally losing its spaces and hyphenation a la German?

  26. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 23, 2022 @ 5:10 am

    All of the domains which I have created have hyphens where two or more significant elements are juxtaposed — for example, I found it interesting (but sad) that when someone else took over maintenance of a particular Chamber of Commerce domain, they created a new domain "" where I had deliberately created "".

  27. Hans Adler said,

    December 23, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    I feel the need to make a very German post, possibly because I don't understand the nuances of the reposting context of this piece. It is obviously (to me) trying to be funny for English speakers more than anything else, and it contains several explicit claims that are just wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Anyone who tries to get insight into German from this will be severely misled. I won't try to debunk everything, just some examples.

    (1) "You can still list words one after the other in German and it has a different effect than creating a new longish word." "There is also a difference between lining up words one after the other with spaces and putting words together without spaces."

    Not true. When English speakers talk about the supposed German word craziness, they are not referring to adding adjectives to nouns to create a noun phrase, or the like, but to compound nouns and occasionally also other compound words. And the rule for compound nouns in German, even ad hoc creations, is that they are normally spelled as single words. (For the analogue for verbs, things are more complicated, and I won't try to explain how.) If for some reason that is not appropriate (mostly because of parsing problems, but also when a compound noun incorporates multi-word expressions), you can use hyphens instead. Every space in a German compound noun is a spelling error, usually under the direct or indirect influence of English, although in street names we also have a home-grown version of this problem.

    – Spaces are never used when writing German compound nouns correctly. Except in the relatively frequent case when a misspelled name has been made official. This almost exclusively happens with street names (see next paragraph) and with marketing terms (intentional misspelling influenced by English).
    – Hyphens are only used when required for clarity. A hyphen binds less strongly than directly adjoining two components. The two most frequent reasons for hyphens are making the boundary between two component words obvious, and as a bracketing hint. (Applying German spelling rules to English, think of the ad hoc word "Commons-Hitshow" that might appear in an article praising the British parliament, and you will understand both points.)

    (If you name a street after Goethe using just the last name, you can write it Goethestraße or better, to make the man's name more distinguishable, Goethe-Straße. The people who decide on street names are often morons who don't know the rule how to write a multi-word expression as part of a compound noun, and so we often end up with abominations such as "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe-Straße" or even "Johann Wolfgang von Goethestraße", which looks like it should refer to a person whose last name happens to be derived from a street. The correct spelling is "Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe-Straße".)

    Apart from the problems I just described, German speakers don't normally misspell compound words by using spaces. And even when they do so, it doesn't have 'a different effect'. It's just a different spelling and affects German speakers no more than the spelling 'ink well', 'ink-well' or 'inkwell' affects how English speakers think about the object. Probably even less, because 'ink well' looks like an ad hoc creation (and 'inkwell' like something to be found in dictionaries), whereas a space in a German word doesn't look like an ad hoc creation but just wrong, and in German there is no assumption that single words written without hyphens can be found in a dictionary.

    (2) "Seltenalleinkommendesunglück". This is not a valid example of an ad hoc German compound noun. It is simply the noun phrase "selten allein kommendes Unglück". It translates as 'rarely-alone-coming misfortune' = 'misfortune that rarely comes alone'. This is an obvious allusion to the German proverb "Ein Unglück kommt selten allein" ("One misfortune rarely comes alone.", "It never rains but it pours.") No sane German speaker would write this as a single word. It's not formed like a compound word, and its component "kommendes" clearly needs declination in accordance with "Unglück". There is no such thing as declination of any component of a compound word than the last one. (This is the basis of a classical joke by Karl Valentin, who pretended to be unsure about the plural of the compound word Semmelknödel and came up with the double plural Semmelnknödeln. This was particularly funny because neither of the components Semmel and Knödel actually changes in the plural, except perhaps in Valentin's Bavarian dialect.)

  28. Adrian Bailey said,

    December 26, 2022 @ 4:48 am

    "Never play Scrabble with Germans" is the kind of lame joke a Brit or American would make. I have played (German) Scrabble with Germans and it is, of course, as interesting and fun as in any other language. The tournament wordlist only includes words that appear in the Duden dictionary (more or less) so you can't use your own invented words in the game. But that rule is no different from English Scrabble, is it. For more info see

  29. Christian Weisgerber said,

    December 27, 2022 @ 7:29 pm

    I'll briefly add that rule #2 is wrong. Not all German compounds are endocentric. Exocentric compounds and other types also exist. In fact, examples of exocentric compounds are listed under rule #1!

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