What is a beautiful word? To borrow from the rather beautiful words of Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it,” which is what the distinguished Supreme Court associate justice said in 1964 when asked to describe his test for obscenity.
At our publications, we are all word and language lovers. Therefore, when we saw that the publication Deutsch perfekt had come up with a list of the ten most beautiful German words, we were curious as to what their readers voted for and we also gave thought to that other language we write in, English, and what beauty holds therein.
Let’s start by looking at what makes a word beautiful. Unlike things such as symphonies or artwork, words aren’t created by great artists and composers to create a sense of beauty; rather, they are, much more utilitarian. That makes it much more difficult to pinpoint a beautiful word as well as the beauty of a particular word.
We define a beautiful word because of its sound as well as its meaning. In addition, some words, such as “peace,” not only sound beautiful but define beautiful concepts.
We looked for words with an elegant and unique sound, sometimes one that is fun to pronounce or a tongue twister.
Finally, because beautiful words are in the eye of the beholder, your mileage may vary, as may your opinion.
Now let’s look at Deutsch perfekt’s list. That publication’s most beautiful German word is “(das) Kuddelmuddel,” which means a muddle, a mess, a hodgepodge (U.S. usage), or hotchpotch (U.K. usage). The word is a loanword from the low German “Kuddelmuddel” and originally meant “dirty linen”. The rhyming part could be based on a cognate of the German “Modder” (“mud”), a Dutch form which led to the English word “muddle.”
The top three were of course (das) Kuddelmuddel, followed by “(das) Fingerspitzengefühl” or “tact,” and “(der) Frieden” or “peace.”
The remainder of the top ten include “(die) Gemütlichkeit,” a word used to convey a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness, coziness, and/or good cheer; “(die) Liebe,” or “love”; “(die) Augenweide,” or “eye candy”; “wunderschön,” or “beautiful” (as used in the German translation of the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” or “Wäre det nich wundascheen” as the German equivalent of Eliza Doolitttle’s Cockney accent and her pronunciation of “lovely” in English as “loverly.”
The list continues with “(der) Schmetterling,” or “butterfly”; “(die) Vergissmeinnicht,” or “Forget-me-not” (used by Johann Sebastian Bach as “Vergiß mein nicht” as a title for several compositions); and finally, “(das) Eichhörnchen,” or “squirrel.”
Naturally, we disagree with many of their choices but first, here is our list of the most beautiful words in English, as compiled by the editorial staff of The Travelist and Frequent Business Traveler, presented in alphabetical order as we could not come to a consensus on the top 3.
1.) Antidisestablishmentarianism – once the longest word in the English language, it means opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.
2.) Effervescence – vivaciousness or enthusiasm, bubbly.
3.) Ethereal – other worldly; extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.
4.) Incandescent – emitting light as the result of being heated.
5.) Love – an intense feeling of deep affection and a word that describes a beautiful concept.
6.) Lyrical – beautifully stated.
7.) Peace – a state in which there is no war, tranquility and a word that describes a beautiful concept.
8.) Plethora – a large or abundant amount of something.
9.) Serendipity – the occurrence and development of a series of events by chance with a happy or beneficial outcome.
10.) Zenith – the time at which something is most powerful or successful.
With that, here are our choices for the most beautiful words in German, in order of preference.
1.) (die) Schadenfreude – the joy in someone else’s sorrow, pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. If you are unsure of the correct pronunciation of Schadenfreude, which is also a loanword in English, I suggest you listen to the song of the same title from the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Avenue Q.”
2.) Servus – a word of greeting or parting used in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as in southern Germany.
3.) (das) Bussi – a “kiss” in Austrian German.
4.) (das) Wintermärchen – “Winter Tale.”
5.) Liebe – “Love.”
6.) (der) Schmarrn or Schmarren – “nonsense” in Austrian German.
7.) Heuer – “this year” in Austrian German.
8.) (das) Lichtbild – the oldest word in German for “photo,” literally it means “light image”; the word “Foto” is today more common.
9.) (der) Palawatsch – rarely used word in Austrian German for a “fine mess” or “fine kettle of fish.”
10.) (die) Jause – the in between meal between the midday repast and the evening meal, somewhat equivalent but not as formal as afternoon tea in Britain.
Outside of Austrians and Germans (I’ll leave out the Swiss for reasons obvious to the Austrian and German readers here), the language of Johann Wolfgang von. Goethe and Friedrich Schiller as well as Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, and Franz Werfel, doesn’t necessarily have that much of a reputation for beauty, per se, but we’ve managed to locate ten words that are more beautiful in German than in English.
1.) (die) Unarmung – a hug or embrace. Literally “around-arming.”
2.) (die) Glühbirne – light bulb. Literally “glowing pear” as observant readers of this space already know.
3.) (der) Himmel – sky or heaven, which gives rise to the beautiful “himmelblau,” a more poetic way of saying “sky blue.”
4.) liebäugeln – a verb meaning to flirt or ogle. Literally “to love with the eyes.”
5.) (die) Baumwolle – cotton. The soft sound sounds much more like a soft fabric and it literally means “tree wool,” although cotton does not grow on trees, nor does spaghetti, for that matter, despite a past BBC faux-documentary send-up to the contrary.
6.) zauberhaft – our final entry in this category, “magical.” It’s hard to describe but “zauberhaft” simply sounds more magical than does, ahem, magical. The word “zauber” means “magic” and the ending “-haft” is roughly equivalent to the endings “-full” or “-some.”
To close, we will end with some of the most beautifully funny words in English.
1.) Nincompoop – a foolish or stupid person. The word is believed to come from the Latin “non compos mentis,” “not of sound mind.”
2.) Brouhaha – an overly excited or noisy reaction (to something).
3.) Bodacious – slang for bold, brazen, remarkable, or outstanding. The origin is uncertain but it could have come from “bold” and “audacious.”
4.) Bamboozle – to deceive by underhanded means, dupe, or hoodwink. The word is a derivative of the 17th-century vernacular “bam” (“to trick” or “to con”), which in turn is a derivative of the noun “bam” (“fraudster”). It may come from the French “embobiner,” “to swindle.”
5.) Shenanigans – silly or high-spirited behavior or mischief; also secret or dishonest activity. Its origins are unaccounted for but it’s truly a fun word to say out loud, as in “Max and Franz are up to their usual shenanigans.”
Basilio Alferow and Kurt Stolz contributed reporting.
(Photo: Accura Media Group)