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Falcon Reese | Tongues Tied

Are you for real?

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 02:02

I’m beginning to think that many of the words I come across while researching for this column are just invented by internet trolls. There are words for thso many oddly specific phenomena that I have to conclude they’re either made up or there really are cultures that have a pressing need to concisely describe when you wear a shirt but no pants or underwear at home. (See “donáldkacsázás,” a Hungarian word that literally means “Donald Duck-ing.” Go figure.)

Therefore, when I came across a German word in my endless internet trawling that seemed too good to be true, I was slightly leery. The word was “backpfeifengesicht,” and it’s entirely possible German speakers neither use this word nor know that it exists. Regardless, the word translates to something like “a face that needs to be slapped” and refers to a person that is asking to be punched. It is someone so grating that it would be an injustice not to have a fist colliding with the side of their head, like, yesterday.

First of all, this word is amazing. I don’t think I have enough fingers, toes and strands of hair on my head to count off the number of people to whom I would apply it. Ignoring any difficulties in pronunciation, I will most definitely be adding it to my list of “words I mutter under my breath.”

But like I said, it seemed too good to be true. So I did a bit of digging and discovered a couple things that seemed to confirm that “backpfeifengesicht” is, in fact, legit.

German grammar allows for the creation of compound words, much like many other languages. In German, though, these words often become quite long and unwieldy — hence the term “mammutwörter,” which means “mammoth words.” “Backpfeifengesicht” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so it seems to at least have mammutwörter-status going on for it. So far, so good.

“Backpfeifengesicht” is composed of three separate words. They are “Backe” (cheek or jaw), “Pfeife” (whistle or pipe) and “Gesicht” (face). “Backpfeife” is a compound all on its own that means “slap to the face” — because apparently when you slap someone, it makes a whistling noise. Whatever. Then when it’s combined with “Gesicht,” I guess the combination comes out roughly to “slaps to the face.” (I can see the impending meme now: “Go home, German. You are drunk.”) Barring this inherent ridiculousness, it does make grammatical sense if we’re trying to describe a face that needs to be slapped. So, legitimacy increases!

Finally, “backpfeifengesicht” is from the same people who brought us “schadenfreude,” a word that means “to take pleasure in others’ pain and misfortune.” With this in mind, it seems the German language has a twisted — yet accurate — take on human nature and how often we’re prone to having an “other people should just not exist right now” kind of day. Any initial misgivings I had about “Backpfeifengesicht” have since vanished.

Now, I am, admittedly, not a violent person. I like to pretend to be because watching someone’s face when you tell them that you’re going to remove an as-of-yet unascertained number of their body parts with a machete to use in the stuffing of sweet Italian sausage is more amusing than you might think. But that makes me morbid, not violent. I don’t go around punching people, and so I have no real occasion to use “backpfeifengesicht.” I’m much better at giving raised eyebrows and withering looks. I therefore propose the creation of this word: “Backpfeifengesichtgesicht” — the face you make at someone when they need to have their face slapped. Seems legit to me. What do you think, German?

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