Need just the right word? Why German probably has it.

Given the relative freedom of compounding and metaphorical extension, German speakers can manufacture a word for nearly anything they want.


“German must have a word for it.” Most such internet assertions are false. But in my opinion as a German American and a linguist, this one turns out to be nearly true. Let me explain some of the tricks of the German word factory. There are quite a few Germanisms that have become part of English vocabulary, such as Schadenfreude, but let’s talk about the more subtle Fingerspitzengefühl. It means the sixth sense someone might have for the right move in a difficult situation.

Let’s dissect the word. It is a compound noun, just like swan boat or apple juice in English. German prefers to write its compounds without spaces or hyphens. The two nouns that come into play are Fingerspitze, itself a compound that means “fingertip,” and Gefühl, which means “sense” or “feeling.” German compounds (English ones, as well) are right-headed: The noun on the right determines the kind of thing referred to, so Fingerspitzengefühl talks about a kind of sense (just as a swan boat is a boat and apple juice is a certain kind of juice). The other noun modulates the meaning in some way. So Fingerspitzengefühl is a kind of sense or feeling that has something to do with fingertips.

Your fingertips are sensitive parts of your body, useful for delicate manipulations, such as undoing a stubborn knot in your shoelaces. But Fingerspitzengefühl doesn’t just refer to this physical sense. The next stage in the word factory is the one that associates transferred, metaphorical meanings with words that are originally rooted in the physical world.

So, what about the claim that German has a word for everything? Well, given the relative freedom of compounding and metaphorical extension, German speakers could manufacture a word for anything they wanted. Most of the time, it isn’t worth the trouble. There are other ways: One could use a sentence or two to describe the thing in a more complex way. One could make up a noncompound word. One could borrow a word from another language and be done with it. German liberally borrows words, especially from English. Last year’s top 10 new words selected by the German Society for Language included the English-derived Lockdown-Kinder and Booster.

There’s another assertion floating around the web. This one is patently false: Doesn’t the fact that one language has a word for something, while others don’t, reveal that your native language gives you exclusive access to aspects of reality that are not even perceptible to others? Well, no. More on that some other time. 

Guest columnist Kai von Fintel is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Melissa Mohr is on vacation. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Need just the right word? Why German probably has it.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today