Ever hear about medical students’ disease? It’s when medical students develop hypochondria during medical school, convinced that they have contracted each new disease they learn about. It seems to stem from a phenomenon that once we have a name for something, we are more prone to suffer from (or simply feel) it.
That might then explain why Germans are such well-known hypochondriacs since the German language has a whole lexicon of words to describe illnesses and afflictions that don’t exist in English!
Distinctly German Diseases
There are a host of interesting illnesses that German has words for. They range from the practical (why don’t we have a word for that?) to the strange, to the silly (that’s not a real thing!).
Weather and Illness
We’ve all heard someone complain that their joints are aching when the weather is cold, but Germans take this link between weather and health a bit further. Some weather reports have a section dedicated to biowetter (Bio weather), which indicates what biological conditions you can expect along with the weather. With the report about upcoming rain over the weekend, biowetter will also tell you what aches, pains and body conditions to expect.
Föhnkrankheit is one such ailment that comes with the weather. Characterised by headaches and other feelings of ill-health, this “disease” comes from the wind. Föhn is a specific wind that is drawn up one side of a mountain, cooling down, and then down the other side, where it warms up. So with the föhn wind, you can expect to come down with föhnkrankheit. Just blame it on the weather.
Kresilaufzusammenbruch – Literally translated as “circulatory collapse.” This may sound pretty serious, but it is in fact a common affliction in Germany, and is used to mean feeling woozy.
Hörsturz – another serious sounding problem, hörsturz is a sudden loss of hearing. This is apparently a common stress reaction in Germany.
Frühjahrsmüdigkeit – Ever feel low in energy when spring rolls around? Well the Germans have a word for that: frúhjahrsmüdigkeit, meaning “early year tiredness” or “spring fatigue.”
Kevinismus – When German parents give their children un-German names like Kevin, Cindy or Mandy, they’re said to have come down with Kevinismus. The implication of the term is that these parents come from a lower social status, perhaps connected to a cultural disregard for such English names. Sorry to any Kevin’s out there.
The Weird and Wonderful
German hypochondria isn’t always a scary affair. There are some wonderfully unique afflictions, as well as names that describe some feelings we’ve all had.
Fernweh – A homesickness for a place you haven’t been, or the longing for travel.
Torschlusspanik – When you realise you can’t act on your Fernweh, you may be overcome with Torschlusspanik, or “gate closing panic.” This is the anxiety that comes from missing opportunities.
Putzfimmel – If you’re looking for a word for someone that is OCD about cleaning, the German language has you covered. Putzfimmel, comprised of Putzen (to clean) and Fimmel (obsession), means an obsession with cleaning.
Lebensmüdigkeit – Are you weary with the world? In a state of despair? You might be suffering from Lebensmüdigkeit, or “life tiredness.”
Weltschmerz – Or perhaps you’re upset that the world isn’t the way you wish it was. If this brings you deep sadness, your ailment might be Weltschmerz, or “world pain.”
For more interesting afflictions that German speakers face, read this full list of unique illnesses that only exist in German.
What is it about German?
All this begs the question, why do these diseases exist in German and not other languages? It seems to come down to the way a language names things. The structure of German makes it easy to form compound words in a way that English doesn’t. German can take a phrase or a complex feeling and express it in one word – and that word then becomes a possible diagnosis.
So where an English speaker would say, “I’m feeling rundown and tired. It must be because it’s this time of the year again;” a German speaker can simply express that feeling as frúhjahrsmüdigkeit.
Ben Schott, author of Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, wrote, “ The German language’s ability to express the inexpressible – and its capacity to form elaborate new compounds – explains why so many German “loan words” have been embraced into English: from Zeitgeist and Doppelgänger to Wanderlust and Schadenfreude.”
This ability to express the inexpressible also explains why German has the words for feelings that certainly exist for non-German speakers, but that English does not have actual names for. English does not allow us to form a structure like endofyeartirednessdisease. Although perhaps looking at the changing structures on twitter, this might be in sight soon. #englishneedsnewillnesses?
It also points to the remarkable ability of language to shape our thinking and reveals how differently we think in different languages. It’s another great reason to learn a new language as not only are you able to communicate with a wider range of people, but you also open up an entirely new way of seeing the world.
Oh, and you might become vulnerable to some interesting new illnesses.