Posted by: Lawrence D. Elliott | July 14, 2011

The Most Dangerous Word in German

Caution in Germany

Caution in Germany

Imagine…you’re a guy in Germany. You have a basic knowledge of German and you’re working hard every single day to improve your language skills. You visit a bird park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. You’re strolling by the exhibits admiring the wonderful array of birds from all parts of the world. Then, a beautiful woman walks up to you with a smile and asks, “Bist du gut zu Vögeln?”

How would you answer? It depends on what this beautiful woman means. I first learned of this possible dilemma before returning to Germany this year after being away for over 25 years. And now it comes up.

Let me explain…

Vogel is the German word for bird. It is capitalized because all German nouns are capitalized. This is great because you can pick out a noun just by looking at the sentence. The plural for this word is Vögel. However, in certain situations, the letter N is added the end of some words. This is one of those situations and one of those words. It has always been difficult for me to remember the rules of this practice, so I just try to learn as many of these words as I can.

So, this woman is asking, “Are you good with birds?”

But is she? You see, there is a problem with this particular word in another situation. It is not that it carries a different meaning. It becomes an entirely different word!

Let me explain…

The other word is vögeln. It’s a verb, not a noun. That’s why it is not capitalized. As I said before, the meaning of this word is completely different. It’s a more explicit verb for having sex. It is much like an American word that is not something that would be said in mixed company. I don’t think I need to go into more detail about this word, but if I tell you the first letter is an F and the last one is a K, I’m sure you can fill in the rest for yourself.

So, now you know the dilemma such an situation could pose.

Is she asking, “Are you good with birds?”

Or is she asking if I’m good at something entirely different?

Seeing either of these sentences in writing would most likely give one a clear understanding of what the other person meant. However, when spoken…well…it’s not so clear, is it? I guess the best thing to do before answering is to be aware of your surroundings. At a bird park…the obvious answer would be yes

However, if you’re in the bedroom section of a German department store, you might want to consider your answer carefully. As for me, I’m not currently looking for anyone with whom to vögeln. Trust me on that one.

And by the way…this is just a hypothetical situation. But you knew that, right? {wink}
© 2011 Lawrence D. Elliott


  1. Yeah, you’re in a place surrounded by birds, the answer was obvious. Lucky! I’m a student of Japanese and we have a lot of things like that, too! For example, the word for cute is “Kawaii”. For adjectives if you add “sou” at the end of them, it turns into “looks adjective”. So if you add that to our word for cute you get “kawaisou”: looks cute. A great word to use for clothes, girls. kids, right? Wrong. Actually “kawaisou” means pathetic. So everyday a sad Japanese student tells someone that the look “kawaisou” and totally offends them.

  2. Lawrence, wonderful post! Dellani

    • Thanks Dellani. I hope things are going well with the NaNoWriMo editing.

  3. This trap lurks for Germans, too… You try to speak a completely innocent sentence ending with “birds/Vö(…)”, have it spoken too hastily or the other one missing something – and you can see one face freezing and others grinning and feel the heat wave (shame) rising in you… Most attempts to repair or explain will result in even more grin. But mostly it ends in everyone having a good laugh. Mostly…
    Best wishes from Germany and curious to read more form “us” 😉

    • Thanks. I’m currently working on a short collection of stories about my exploits in Germany and with the language.

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