Word of the Day – “peinlich”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. This time, we will talk about … my pee stain.
I was in a café, a very crowded café I should say, and I had to go to the bathroom. And as the guys among you know… sometimes a few drops come out late, no matter how thorough you are. That’s what happened to me that day. And as I washing my hands (like real gentlemen do),  it formed. A pee stain. Roughly the shape of Australia. Eight inches in diame… okay, okay, I’ll stop. Of course, we’re not gonna talk about that pee stain. There never was such a pee stain to begin with. The reason I made it up is that it has a lot to do with the word we’ll look at today:



And  peinlich does have a lot to do with pee stains because peinlich means embarrassing.
Why it means that, and why the translation is not always straight forward, that’s what we’ll look at today.
So let’s jump right in…

The origin of peinlich is the Latin word pena. The original sense of that was about punishment, retribution. A sense that we can still see in the word penalty. But because things were generally a bit rougher back then, it is no wonder that pena broadened to include the ideas torment, suffering and eventually made its way into several European languages as the general word for pain.
The German tribes liked their own word for pain better: der Schmerz. And I kind of get it. I mean… Schmerz does sound like someone twisting the skin on your arm.

  • Das Einhorn kriegt von Grammatik Kopfschmerzen.
  • The unicorn gets a head ache from grammar.
  • Maria ist genervt, weil Thomas mal wieder Weltschmerz hat.
  • Maria is annoyed because once again Thomas “is suffering pain because of how the world is”.
    (Is there an idiomatic translation for it? Danke :))

But German does have an offspring of the Latin pena, as well: the noun die Pein. It means something like torment, agony but it’s pretty rare nowadays and you rarely hear it in daily life.
Except as a part of the German word for embarrassing: peinlich. Originally, it meant something like painful and this is actually still kind of visible in the phrasing peinlich genau. Which is about being so precise, it hurts.

  • Marias Oma wiegt alle Zutaten peinlich genau ab.
  • Maria’s grandma painstakingly weighs all the ingredients. Lit.:  painfully exact“.

But the idea of embarrassing isn’t all that far either. Walking out of the bathroom into a crowded café with a six inch pee stain does kind of hurt. I mean… I think. I’ve never experienced it.
Anyway, examples.

  • Es ist peinlich, wenn man im Restaurant nicht genug Geld dabei hat.
  • It’s embarrassing if you don’t have enough money with you at a restaurant.
  • Die Qualität des Essens, der Service, die Musik… das alles war einfach nur peinlich.
  • The quality of the food, the service, the music… all that was simply a shame/embarrassing.
  • “Und, hat euch der Film geflasht, Bros?”
    “Mamaaa, hör auf, so zu reden. Du bist voll peinlich.”
  • “So, was the movie lit, bros?”
    “Mooom, stop talking like that. You’re so cringe.”
  • “Hast du gesehen, wie Thomas die Frau angetanzt hat?”
    “Ja, das war über peinlich.”
  • “Did you see how Thomas was flirt-dancing with the woman?”
    “Yeah, that was super embarrassing/super cringe.”

And if we want to add the person for whom something is embarrassing, you can do that with the Dative case.

  • “Komm, sing mal!”
    “Nee, das ist mir peinlich.”
  • “Come on, sing.”
    “Nah, that is embarrassing to me.”
    (I feel like there’s a more colloquial way to express that… help please :)
  • Es war dem Kellner sehr peinlich, dass er das falsche Getränk gebracht hat.
  • The waiter was really embarrassed that he had brought the wrong drink.
  • Dir ist auch gar nichts peinlich, oder?
  • You have no shame, have you? (small scale)
    Lit.: Nothing is embarrassing to you, is it?

Now, even though they’re overall pretty good translations for each other, there’s a couple of things we need to note.
For one thing, at least to me peinlich is a little less grave than embarrassing. Like… a drunk prime minister urinating on the flag of his own country would be too big an embarrassment to be called peinlich. There, beschämend is probably the better translation.

  • Dieses Video war beschämend.
  • This video was embarrassing (“be-shaming”).

But the more important difference has to do with the related words. We’ve already seen the origin of peinlich and the only relatives,  Pein and the noun die Peinlichkeit, are pretty rare.
Embarrassing on the other hand comes from the verb to embarrass, which is not rare at all, and neither is the form embarrassed. The origin of the verb is a combination of the prefix en- and a Latin word -barra which was about barring something, just in case you’re interested.
Anyway, the thing that’s a bit tricky is that those rarely translate to something involving peinlich.

  • I feel a little embarrassed.
  • Das ist mir peinlich. (you did something weird)

    Ich fühle mich bloßgestellt. (lit.: “put down bare“)(if you’ve been exposed, sounds formal)

    Das ist mir unangenehm. (source of embarrassment is outside, feeling of discomfort)

  • I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of everybody.
  • Ich will mich nicht vor allen zum Affen machen.
  • With his comment about unicorns, Thomas completely embarrassed himself.
  • Mit seinem Kommentar über Einhörner hat sich Thomas total blamiert.
    (blamieren is a false friend of to blame. The German version is all about “making a fool”, not “making accusations”)
  • Maria’s embarrassment was obvious. (her feeling embarrassed, moderate intensity)
  • Marias Verlegenheit war offensichtlich.
  • Unicorns and their recent behavior are an embarrassment for God, their creator. (strong cause of the feeling of embarrassment)
  • Einhörner und ihr Verhalten in letzter Zeit sind ein Schande für Gott, ihren Schöpfer.

Now you’re probably like “Oh my God, so many options. How am I supposed to memorize that.”
And you’re right to be worried because mixing those up is incredibly peinlich. Everybody will laugh.
The good news is, though, that you can avoid it. All you have to do is to make sure you have a big pee stain on your pants. That’s an ancient technique called pisstraction, and it’s from the book the Art of Warhol by Macchiavelli.
“Emanuel… does the fact that you’re talking nonsense mean that we’re done for the day? Because then we’d leave. We have stuff to do, you know.”
Well, you got me there. We’re pretty much done :).
Just to make sure though… of course it is NO problem if you don’t have the right translation for a given context. The ones I gave you weren’t even all there are. All that matters is that you remember that peinlich does NOT work as a translation for the entire embarrass-family, but only for embarrassing and cringy.

So, that’s it for today. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to share a peinliche situation from your life in German, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** vocab ** 

peinlich – embarrassing
der Schmerz(en) – the pain
die Kopfschmerzen – head ache

das Schmerzmittel – the pain medicine
die Schmerztablette – pain killer (aspirin)

die Schande, the disgrace – strong embarrassment (causing the feeling)
die Verlegenheit – a feeling of light embarrassment
bloßstellen – expose;embarrass
sich blamieren – to embarrass oneself
sich zum Affen machen – to make a fool of oneself

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