Long German compound nouns (Bandwurmwörter “tapeworm words”) have been a popular source of merriment since Mark Twain’s satirical comments (cf. gender).
After making her home in London, my orchestral colleague Hildi reflected:
The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:
… inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing)
zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen (wave-blue).
Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!
In his comments on language learning David Sedaris pondered the expression Lebensabschnittpartner “partner”!
Many of the most ponderous terms belong to the language of bureaucracy, such as
- Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung “motor vehicle indemnity insurance”
- Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister “head district chimney sweep”
- Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (helpfully abbreviated as RkReÜAÜG—out of the frying pan…) “law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labelling of beef”
- Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz “Cattle marking and beef labeling supervision duties delegation law”
- Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung “regulation governing the delegation of authority pertaining to land conveyance permission”
- Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung “regulation governing the delegation of authority pertaining to land conveyance permissions”
- Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft “association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”
The device took on an sinister new slant under the GDR with euphemisms like Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung—“treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past—as well as Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, “scrutinising session”.
Of course, all this is a question of orthography: such terms are written in English with spaces, whereas German writes them without; it’s not that German has longer words than English, just that it has different formatting conventions.
I also think of Molvania:
The Church of the Blessed Holy Sisters of the Discalced Flower of the Immaculate Virgin Incarnate is a pretty Baroque chapel, which can be a little hard to find as all signs bearing its name have long ago collapsed under the weight of their own letters.
For a generously titled German book, click here.