Das Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. The previous strand of letters, that you skipped without even attempting to read, might seem like me simply bashing away at my keyboard, but in fact, this is a German word. Yes, a SINGLE German word. One of the longest German words. It means “beef labeling regulation and delegation of supervision law.” As you can see, the German word kind of unfolded into a number of English words that form a phrase, instead of a single English word.
Most languages, including English, mash up words together to create new ones. A boathouse is a house for boats, you get the idea. German do this too, except they take it to a whole other level. As Mark Twain famously said: “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.”
So with that in mind, can there even be such a thing as the longest German word? Well, no, because there will always be another complex phrase that Germans will try to condense into a single monstrously long word.
These extremely long words are very rarely ever used in real life, if at all. At this point, the idea of long German words has become more of a game. It’s more fun than actual useful German and the German language is simply the perfect medium to create these tongue twisters (or Zungenbrecher i.e. tongue breakers as they say in German). In fact, these words are so unuseful, you won’t even be able to use them to win scrabble, as the board can only take 15 letters!
But no matter how intimidating these words might seem to non-German speakers, you have to admire how simplistic they really are in nature. It’s like Lego (the European version of lincoln blocks), and short words are their building blocks. “Sticklebrick words” is how the writer Anna Funder described this concept in her book Stalisand: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall where she says “I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together. Things could be brought into being that had no name in English.”
Understanding that Sticklebrick concept is essential to be able to understand every long compound German word you come across. Always look for that central primary word that everything else is hanging on. For example if you look at the word Windschutzscheibenwischer and break it up into four parts, you’ll get Wind – wind, Schutz – protection, Wischer -wiper and Scheibe – window pane. So translating the entire word in English gives us wind-protetion-(glass)pane-wiper, which is a pretty accurate way of describing a windshield wiper. The pronunciation also works in the same way, just break down the word part and pronounce the parts one after the other. Beautiful, isn’t it?
As much as I’d like to have you believe that it will always be that simple, that’s sadly not always the case, as many of these long compound words can’t be translated literally. For example, Warteschlange is not a waiting snake, but rather a queue, which seen from above, pretty much looks like a snake, wouldn’t you agree? And Glühbirne is not a glowing pear, but a lightbulb. But you get the image, right? It admittedly takes a bit of Abstraktionsvermögen (i.e. the ability to abstract) to get the meaning of such words from merely translating their elemental words and then putting them together.
So just keep this in mind when the literal translation doesn’t make sense, and try to use context it was used in to guess the meaning of the word or go into free association and ask e.g. what does look like a pear and glows?
Now that you know why German words can get so long, and how the complexity is really just an illusion, let’s go through a list of 25 German words that are hilariously long and (almost) entirely useless.
Try to guess the meaning of each of them before reading the translation and tell me in the comments if you got any of them right!
One thing that you need to know before you start is that any compound noun in German has to be read from right to left as the last word in such a word combo always gives away what the word is all about. In the examples above that was Gesetz (a law) and Scheibe (a glass pane). With the given context, that often suffices to understand what is being said. Now here we go. Enjoy the beautfy of the German language:
Can you even pronounce that with one breath? Because I couldn’t. 79 letters. What kind of madman would even use this in real life? Right, no one. Even the translation is a doozy; association of subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services. Try saying that ten times (at your own risk). This insane 79 letter word is the name of a pre-war club in Vienna and it’s not actually as useful as it is a desperate attempt at making the second word on this list longer. Remember: it’s the last word that gives away the main information. Hence, this is about some sort of society (Gesellschaft).
In classic German, this is considered to be the longest word. It’s not really useful to anyone though, as it means “Danube steamship company captain”. This bad boy stands at a whopping 42 letters.
This 39 letter beauty is a word you actually have a chance at pronouncing easily if you take it one syllable at a time. This word means “legal protection insurance companies.” And it happens to be the longest German word in everyday use according to Guinness World Records. However, the next word on the list is the actual longest official word that’s not uncommonly used in everyday German.
Ah, we meet again. In case you didn’t notice (I won’t blame you, I wouldn’t have read it either), this is the same 63-letter word from the very start of the article. And as I mentioned earlier, it means “beef labeling regulation and delegation of supervision law.” In 1999, this word was German Word of the Year. It also won a special award for being the longest German word of the year. Since this word is actually used sometimes in everyday life by very few individuals, Germans have come up with an abbreviation for it: ReÜAÜG.
This 41-letter puzzle of a word can be really difficult to read, and its meaning is just as disorienting: “regulation requiring a prescription for an anesthetic.” Can you guess which one of the many words included in the above German compound noun means “regulation”?
Seeing a word as short as 30 letters must be an ironic relief, but don’t let its brevity fool you, this word is almost just as useless as any other on this list as it means “head district chimney sweep master.”
As David Sedaris said in his article about learning German on the New Yorker, this 22-letter word is roughly another option you could use instead of “lover” or “partner” but with a temporary twist, as it literally means “the person I am with in this phase of my life.
As I mentioned earlier, Twain was fascinated, though a bit irritated, by how long German words can get, and he documented his frustrations in his book A Tramp Abroad. In his book, he notes this term as meaning “independencedeclarations”, which is just a mashed up version of the Declaration of Independence.
In keeping with Twain’s frustrations, this “clumsy” word, as he describes it, is one that even an English speaker can break down and understand easily. Freund simply means friend and the word as a phrase means “demonstrations of friendship.” Quite the positive meaning for a word that’s described as “clumsy.”
This happens to be the longest German word according to the Duden German Dictionary, and it’s one you better learn to pronounce if you ever want to get started in insurance. Because it means “motor vehicle liability insurance.”
In German, even numbers get the glued-lego, sticklebrick, compound-word treatment, as the cumbersome word you just read simply means 7.254. All those letters just to say 7.254? Honestly, I’m starting to question whether this system is the best out there as well. But one thing I’m sure of is that it’s the most fun.
You thought the first number was long? You’re in for a treat. This compound word is an insane 65 letters and it’s another number, a really cool number in fact. If you try to break it down into parts you’ll notice that there are a lot of sevens and you’d be correct, as this number is 777,777. By the way: Germans don’t really use the comma to break up longer numbers, they use a full stop. So 777,777 would actually be 777.777 in German. A German would read 777,777 as 777.777 which can make quite a difference when you see that amount on your paycheck.
This modern-era word stands at a comparatively modest 49 letters, and like most of the other words on this list, it has a very VERY specific meaning. It translates to “social insurance broker trainee.”
This unique tongue twister has 46 letters in it and it really makes me appreciate just how efficient German is in condensing information into a shorter form, as the English translation is even more long-winded: “companies providing mass communications services”.
This 31 letter word means “food intolerance.” Yes. 31 letters. Just to say food intolerance. I’ll be honest, the word itself is giving me intolerance. You know what, this word got me questioning what I said earlier about German being efficient at condensing information. I’m starting to think Germans just like messing with non-German speakers by making random words incredibly long.
This 31-letter puzzle of a word is surprisingly short if you compare it to what it means in English. This German tongue twister translates to “Worker Accident Insurance Act”. Even the English translation needs another translation.
While this word isn’t even close to how long the other words on this list got, you might find this 18 letter word extra useful, especially on those days when someone won’t stop annoying you and you want to express your discontent. Backpfeifengesicht roughly translates to “a face in need of a fist.” As fun as this word is, I hope you don’t find a use for it too often.
- Innerer Schweinehund
Much like the previous word, this compound word is also a fun one. It literally means “inner pig dog”, but in practice, you can use this long word to talk about your “inner beast” or the “devil inside you”. Now that’s a word you can use when you need that extra bit of motivation to unleash your inner beast.
If making this list has taught me anything, it’s that you can always depend on bureaucracy and economics to come up with the longest words and the most mind twisting concepts. And this German word is no different, sitting at a proud 31 letters, it means “life insurance company.” Good luck trying to pronounce this one.
If you are the “garbage collector at the back of the truck”, which is the meaning of this word, you are going to need a really large name tag to wear, as this 25 letter (inofficial) job title definitely will not fit on a normal one.
This modest 18-letter German word doesn’t stack up to others on this list, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to translate. It literally means “mother soul alone”, but in practice it has a really unique meaning which makes it a really special word. Mutterseelenallein means the mother of all loneliness, and I hope you don’t ever find yourself needing to use this word.
So far, most of the words on this list have been long because they either mean something very specific that’s difficult to translate, or because they refer to a very complex concept. Not this 24 letter word though. This one means “matchbox”. A box for storing matches, nothing special about it, it just takes Germans 24 letters to say matchbox. Fun fact: even native Germans suffer when they try to pronounce this one, so if you learn it, your German friends will probably be impressed.
The shortest word on this list is something you probably have experienced if you kept delaying work until you had little time to do it. This fun 16 letter word means “last-minute panic” or literally the panic you get when you see the gates of the city close before you. Make sure you always stay on schedule, so you never have Torschlusspanik. Be careful though: even Germans will often wrongly write and say this as Torschusspanik (without the L) which would be the panic of scoring a goal in soccer. Quite a different thing, right?
This 31 letter word refers to a shop that you’d visit if your new house floor needs sanding. It translates to “shop that lends floor sanding machines”, and it’s this point, it’s not even surprising that German has a specific word just for that type of shop.
Finishing our list is this admirable 51-letter word that won the Austrian Word of the Year in 2016. It translates to “deferral of the second iteration of the federal presidential run-off election”, and reading its meaning makes me want to call my lawyer so he can explain it to me. Yet again, bureaucracy didn’t fail me with its ability to produce lengthy words.
Enough German words for today?
And I bet you used to think “congratulations” was long. German definitely takes the cake when it comes to long words.
I hope your eyes didn’t hurt trying to tell apart all the letters in the words, but what definitely won’t hurt your eyes is this much easier German course.
My favorite word from the list has to be Backpfeifengesicht. It’s just so expressive and punchy.
Written by Abdullah