On my first visit to Germany at age 18, my German was almost nonexistent. But I did know that the word “Strasse” meant “street.” I was visiting my sister, who was living in the city of Karlsruhe, a moderately-sized city of 300,000. While she was at work during the day, I went exploring and managed to find my way back home to her apartment in the middle of the city. For someone with virtually no sense of direction, this was no mean feat in the pre-GPS era.
After the third day, she asked me how I found my way around without knowing the language. I couldn’t ask anyone for directions, yet unerringly found the route back.
“Oh, easy,” I said. “I know your address, so I just have to follow the signs that say ‘Einbahnstrasse.’”
Between peals of laughter, my sister explained to me that this word actually means “one way street.”
I was not alone in my foreigner folly. Many visitors out and about in Germany think they have it figured out. But often, they don’t. With intriguing results.
This applies to foreigners whizzing along on the Autobahn – from the passenger side, mind you, since the uninitiated are about as able to drive on a German Autobahn as they would be in a position to pilot the Millenium Falcon to the next galaxy. The mother of a friend of mine gazed out the window, marveling at the enormous size of the town whose exit signs they had been passing for the past hour. This town just didn’t seem to end. After about the tenth such sign, she finally remarked to the driver what a large city Ausfahrt must be.
Ausfahrt means exit.
In the early days of my German sojourn, I attended a concert with my boyfriend. It was sold out and the arena was packed. Not being comfortable in crowds, I scanned the area for the nearest exit. Once the lights dimmed, I noticed many well-lit signs above doors that seemed like they should be exits. But the signs didn’t make any sense. I knew that the word Ausgang meant exit, so why did all of these signs say Not Ausgang.
It seemed like the architect was making fun of the crowd by indicating all of the places where they could NOT get out if they had to, without bothering to tell them where they actually could.
“Here? Nope! I know this looks like a door, but it’s NOT. Ha! Fooled ya!”
“And over here? You think you can get out this way? Again, this does look very door-ish, admittedly, but I’m going to have to disappoint you again. This is NOT an exit, either.”
No sheep ever looked as sheepish as I did upon learning that the word not in German means “emergency.”
These were all perfectly labeled emergency exits.
After having married said boyfriend – despite the repeated linguistic humiliation – and living here a few decades, I once again gave in to the dangerous illusion that I pretty much knew everything there was to know about Germany, save the finer points of Faust (but I have my daughters for that). Strolling along the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, I kept passing an establishment that seemed to have been named after a prominent historic personality.
After walking by several times, I finally asked one of my daughters who this guy Mark Brandenburg was.
That’s when I learned that while Mark may have been the name of the guy next to me in eighth-grade science class, in northern Germany it is a geographic designation for an area located near a border. Living down south in Bavaria, I had never encountered this word since its origin is from the Old Saxon or Old Norse word, Marka.
In my defense, it’s an old word dating back to feudalism, so it’s not used very often anymore. On the bright side, this confusion provided ample amusement to my daughters.
There is no shortage of misleading signs for places and roads. Part of this problem stems from the fact that Germany did not unite until 1871, by which time many cities in different states had comfortably shared the same name for centuries if not millennia. This conundrum was solved by adding the name of the state after the town’s name on the sign, or an abbreviation thereof.
This is where you start to get into trouble. A friend of mine was perplexed at a sign for a town that he knew to be located in landlocked Bavaria, yet it seemed to indicate a large body of water nearby: “Landshut Bay.” I get it, he thought, there is a bay nearby named Landshut, after the nearby capital of Lower Bavaria.
But just because it seems logical doesn’t make it so. The “Bay” is an abbreviation for Bayern, meaning this is the city of Landshut, the one located in Bayern.
Looks like he had brought along his swimsuit for nothing.
And finally, some place names seem to be encouraging specific kinds of behavior, at least to an English speaker. Let’s start with the relatively harmless name of the city of Kissing, a town of just 11,200 inhabitants 10 km south of Augsburg. Admittedly, it does look like a romantic little town, so perhaps the name is not such a misnomer. Next on the list is the shockingly-named Wankbahn – don’t get any ideas, now – which is simply a gondola that takes you up a mountain called Wank and in no way prescribes any particular kind of behavior to be carried out inside the car.
One can only pity the inhabitants of the town of Fucking, Austria, whose place name dates back around 1,000 years and has no meaning in German. Little did the town founders know back in the days of the Visigoths that one day in the distant future, hordes of sniggering, English-speaking tourists would descend upon the town to take photos of its sign and sometimes even go so far as to steal it.
After years of putting up with these shenanigans, on January 1, 2021, the town council voted to change the name officially to “Fugging” which better reflects the actual pronunciation.
that was fugging good idea. Anyone who disagrees can just go to Hell, Norway.
Photo by Tobias Maier – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Led astray by my naïve trust in a native speaker, but I should have known better
Linguistic sleight of hand – bilingualism at any cost
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One thought on “Are you sure that’s what that sign means?”
wonderful – love your humour xxxxxx