“Kokeln” and “herumgurken”: German Verbs with no English Translation

You may know German as the language with really long words. Well, that part is true, but what I have noticed over the years is that German also seems to have many words that are simply not literally translatable into English without having to use loads of words to describe exactly what’s going on. A lot of these are nouns and you can find websites everywhere explaining them, so I thought I’d go in a different direction with verbs (that is, ‘doing words’).

In fact, back in 2017 I wrote a similar blog post consisting mainly of German nouns (with the odd exception of ‘verschlimmbessern’ which I would have otherwise put into this post).

Anyway, here are some German verbs that you, more or less, cannot directly translate into English. Enjoy!


entfristen

to extend something for an indefinite period of time

What a mouthful that is in English! This verb is used when, for example, you have a contract with your employer for a 2-year period. The employer then extends said contract without any limit. There aren’t many situations in which you can use this verb, but, if one does arise, the Germans are ready.


schunkeln

to sway to and fro to the music

The Germans aren’t all about serious stuff like extending contracts with no limit! I imagine this word is used a lot at Oktoberfest – when people are sitting at a table, can’t really move much because it’s so crammed, so they link arms and start swaying to the music. N’awwh!


kokeln

to (carelessly) play with fire

This was one of those Baader-Meinhof phenomena* where I learnt the word online and that evening went for drinks and somebody used it straight away. Weird! Anyway, this word is used when, well, you kind of carelessly play with fire, such as when you play with a candle at a table in a restaurant by burning small bits of paper or something.

438088986_6c3d70401c_b
You have to admit though, playing with candles is so much fun! Image credit: — benmillet (https://www.flickr.com/photos/benmillett/) – Subject to CC 2.0 License.

*The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, as quoted by Wikitionary, is “a cognitive bias by which a recently learned word, concept, etc. suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency.”

Also, interesting fact, the verb “koken” which I accidentally typed incorrectly into Duden just now means “to make cocaine”. Who’da thunk it!


(herum)gurken

to drive (around) slowly

I love this word because the literal translation in English would be “to cucumber around”. I guess cucumbers don’t exactly travel at high speed! This word is apparently used a lot of cars. So if someone is driving around slowly when you really want them to speed up, they should damn well stop cucumbering around!


einen fahren lassen

Bonus round here. Though it might not exactly fit into the scheme of “not translatable in English”, this caused an embarrassing moment when I said the word “Fahrlässigkeit” (carelessness) incorrectly and it sounded like the above phrase. My friends laughed, and after a minute of awkward laughing and people around us hearing, I was told that “einen fahren lassen” (literally: to let one drive) means to fart. And I had said something sounding a lot like that in the middle of the café at university. Whoops!

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