The Frau Erica Project
Muellers in America:
The first 155 years
FrauErica.org: A Mueller Lexicon
Certain German words and phrases persist in daily usage down through the generations. Some have been Anglicized, some have shifted a bit in meaning, and some had particular meaning within the Mueller family circle (e.g., Büpfer). Many are no longer to be found in German/English dictionaries or online translators. So here they are, some of them. Some of the terms may trace back to Fritz Mueller himself (d. 1866), which accounts for their absence in 20th and 21st-century lexicons.
If your branch of the Mueller family tree still uses a few German terms, drop the Archivist a line and let him know. He will happily add to the lexicon and credit the proper branch.
Disclaimer: Spellings, where possible, have been checked in Cassell’s German Dictionary, but many spellings are necessarily guesswork. Apologies in advance for butchery; all errors will be promptly corrected.
- abgebißene [op-geh-BISS-en-eh]
- [adj.] To have a bite taken out, to be bitten off. In Mueller circles, used almost exclusively to denote a Rook card with a bent or missing corner (“He’s got the abgebißene red 14!”)
- Ach du lieber Strohsack [LEE-bur STROH-zok]
- [idiom.] An expression of exasperation roughly equivalent to “Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Literally something like “Oh, you lovely sack of straw [straw mattress],” it may originally have connoted laziness, a fondness for sleeping late, or a habit of dozing off in the afternoon.
- Bemidji Bock [often Anglicized to buck]
- [n.] When grown-ups would announce a trip to Bemidji for supplies — thereby ruining a day’s fishing and swimming in Lake George — staying behind was not an option. At least one kid would develop the “Bemidji Bock,” a persistent, dark, and very foul mood (see Bock, below).
- Biernase [BEER-nah-zeh]
- [n.] A red nose, an inflamation thought to be caused by overconsumption of alcohol and strong beer. Doctors now call it rosacea.
- blamieren sich [blah-MEER-run zich]
- [v.r.] To commit a large faux pas, make a fool of oneself. Often used as a cognate in English: “He tried to propose a toast but he blamiered himself.”
- Bock, bockig
- [n., adj.] The words have several meanings in modern German, but the Muellers were interested in the ones that derive from “billy-goat, bridge strut, pig-headed person.” To “have the Bock” was to be bockig — stubborn, obstinate, sulky, crabby, and determinedly, persistently so.
- [n.] A boy who had the Bock was a Bockhans and was given wide berth for the day. A skillful Bockhans — and the Muellers produced some great ones — would resist attempts to cheer him up and could remain bockig until dinnertime. Used of adults, the term connoted a stern, inflexible demeanor. Adelheid Nickel, who knew a Bockhans when she met one, occasionally used the term to describe a dour, obdurate, strict or unusually disputatious Lutheran clergyman. Germans could personify characteristics by adding -Hans or -Peter to some sort of condition (see Büpferhans and Streuwwelpeter).
- Brumm [broom — same vowel sound as in “Rook”]
- [n.] A deep or low sound (e.g., the Brummbaß is the lowest rank of pipes on an organ). The Muellers used this as an onomatopoeic term for flatulence; a fart.
- Brummkasten [Brumm plus Kasten, a chamber]
- [n.] A person — not always a child — who is frequently and loudly flatulent.
- Buckel [BOOK-ul]
- [n.] A bump, hump, or protuberance. Used as a genial way to describe the physiology of aging. (“He’s getting a Buckel” denoted stoop-shouldered posture.) The word was almost always mispronounced and misspelled by Mueller descendants, who began the word with a P.
- Büpfer [BEEP-fer]
- [n.] The urine in a wet bed; the persistent odor of a wet bed even after the bed has dried.
- Büpfersack [BEEP-fer-zok]
- [n.] A wet bed (combined form of Büpfer and Strohsack, a straw mattress).
- [n.] A little boy who wets his bed. Used benignly by parents of small children, it was also a powerful teasing word among siblings, even in their adult lives. There was no feminine counterpart. A little girl was never a Büpferhans, but she could have a Büpfersack.
- Charlie Spatz’s beer
- [idiom.] A glass of water. The archives offer no explanation for the idiom, but it was fairly well known and often used among the Muellers of Freedom Township, Minnesota. Choosing to drink a glass of Charlie Spatz’s beer made a dramatic difference when water was the only available thirst quencher. The phrase had overtones of making the best of an unsatisfactory situation (e.g, being out of beer). It probably derives from Spaß/spaßen, a joke/to make a joke out of something.
- dummer Esel [AY-zul]
- [n.] Dunce, dolt; literally a stupid jackass. An expression of frustration sometimes used of oneself, spoken aloud after doing or witnessing something stupid (“Ach, du dummer Esel!”)
- dummes Zeug [tzoich]
- [n.] Nonsense, rubbish, a stupid thing or utterance. Used of oneself after doing or saying something stupid or of an inanimate object (as, for example, when insulting a hammer after having whacked one’s own thumb).
- [n.] A stupid, foolish person. The word does not occur in the Cassels dictionary, although Patsch itself is there (a slapping sound as in smacking one’s forehead and uttering “duh”). The word is likely a combination of dumm (stupid) and a German cognate of “patch” in the obsolete Shakespearean sense (fool, clown, rogue, knave). It was a very common, though somewhat gentle putdown, along the lines of “dummy” or “dunce.” The Muellers used the term at least four generations into the arrival in America.
- fressen [FRESS-un]
- [v.i.] To eat like an animal — rapidly, loudly, without manners, until everything is devoured. Humans essen; animals fressen. Used colloquially at moments of great hunger: “Let’s fress.”
- fuschen [FUSH-un]
- [v.i.] To handle dexterously, make rapid or cunning movements. This may be the word from which the word fuscher derived. Adelheid Nickel loved to fuscher in forests and meadows, quickly digging up plants of interest and hauling them off to her yard or hunting for heart-shaped rocks. Fuscher always had clandestine overtones.
- ganz schrecklich [gahnz SHREK-lich]
- [adj.] Absolutely dreadful, horrible, ghastly, atrocious. Uttered in exasperation when one’s situation has taken a turn for the worse or events are overwhelming. Also used in an aesthetic sense for condemnation of poor color choice, doggerel poetry, hymns sung loudly and badly off key, soup that tastes like dishwater, general ugliness.
- guts der zytens [zytens rhymes with whitens]
- [idiom.] Entrails, fish guts. Not technically a German phrase, “guts der zytens” was an earnest child’s coinage by Jimmy Nickel, based on the opening of a common German table prayer he heard at his Uncle Ernst’s farm. The Marquardts said, “Gott sei Dank”; Jimmy parsed that to “Guts der zytens.” The full prayer: Gott sei Dank / für Speis’ und Trank / durch Jesum Christum. Amen
- Jammer [YAH mur]
- [n.] Misery, distress, woe, lamentation. Es ist allhier ein Jammertal (We live in a vale of tears) shows up in Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (No. 14). In Mueller usage, it was most frequently an expression of exasperation: Ach Jammer! — “Oh woe is me!” or “I can’t stand this anymore!” Also used by parents of unhappy, whining, over-tired kids: “No more jammering!”
- Kaplier [kah-PLEER]
- [n.] The word does not appear in Cassell’s, but was a frequent part of Mueller conversation. A Kaplier was an awkward social situation or a difficult problem. Having 15 dinner guests with food for 10 would be a Kaplier. Frau Erica herself famously ran out of coffee at a dinner party — a Kaplier at dessert time — but brazened it out by taking an empty coffee pot and faking her way all around the table (“Are you sure you wouldn’t like another cup?”). Irma Marquardt Gelhausen once remarked that Kapliers were mostly a Mueller phenomenon. (See also Pech.) A 21st-century coinage uses Kaplier as a golf score, representing a triple bogey or worse, as in, “I started the front nine with three Kapliers and a par.”
- Katzenmusik [KAHT-zen-moo-ZEEK]
- [n.] Caterwauling; literally “cats music.” A coinage by H.C. Nickel to describe the 12-tone serial compositions of Arnold Schönberg and others. H.C., who knew the German texts and loved the melodies of the Bach chorales, considered Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto tantamount to sacrilege because its final movement quotes the chorale tune “Es Ist Genug” from Bach’s O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60). When his son James, then a college student, would play his recording of the Berg, H.C. would leave the room.
- Kinderschar [KIN-dur-shahr]
- [n.] A group of children; the kids. Germans often append Schar (group, band, horde, flock) to create collective nouns. Engel is an angel; Engelschar is the multitude of the heavenly host.
- klimpern [KLIM-purn]
- [vt.] To jingle (of coins) or plonk (of a piano). Used exclusively as a cognate because there is no single English verb that connotes the pointless, time-wasting plunking out of notes at a piano to no apparent musical purpose: “Jimmy, stop klimpering and practice your scales.”
- Klotz, klotzig
- [n.] A log of wood, a lump of something; a clumsy or boorish blockhead; [adj.] massive, clumsy, bulky.
- Klotz am Bein [sometimes Anglicized to clutsumbine]
- [[idiom.] Literally a log attached to one’s leg, more like a millstone around one’s neck or a ball and chain. Used to describe a socially awkward, third-wheel person, someone who is part of a group but fails to grasp the spirit of the group, the black hole of fun. Muellers were greatly afraid of being dismissed as a Klotz am Bein.
- knabbern [KNAH-burn]
- [v.t.] To nibble, gnaw, crunch, or munch, as a dog with a bone or an old shoe. Also used while making a mild rebuke for too much noise while eating crunchy things or for eating, say, a stalk of celery or a raw carrot. “Stop knabbering on the peanut brittle!” (See schmatzen)
- Knorpel [KNOR-pul]
- [n.] Cartilage, gristle. Usually used of chicken or other foodstuff. If there were not enough good pieces of chicken to go around, a hostess could choose an inferior piece for herself — the Pope’s nose (the back) or the wing tip — and insist that she preferred the Knorpel for its flavor.
- Knust [knoost]
- [n.] A crust of bread or the heel of the loaf. Usually all that was left in the breadbasket after elder siblings had helped themselves. Also used of a small-portion diet or having just a taste of something, as in “Oh, I’ll just have the Knust.”
- na ja [NAH-yah, or if annoyed or exasperated: nah-YAH]
- [int.] Roughly the equivalent of “Whatever” or the more resigned “Ah, what can you do about it?” In print and e-mail among Mueller descendants, it is usually misspelled Nayah.
- Pech [pech — ch as in Bach]
- [n.] Literally pine tar, pitch; bad luck. Unlike the lighter-weight Kaplier, above, Pech is the kind of trouble that sticks to a person like tar, a source of cosmic sorrow that gets worse over time. Pech is getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, then discovering you’ve left the jack in the garage ... and the spare is flat anyway. Pech is the Mueller land swindle. It remains a modern German idiom: Pech haben, to be down on one’s luck, to get a bad break.
- pikieren, pikiert [pee-KEE-run]
- [v.t.] To pique or nettle; [adj.] touchy (pikiert über is to be touchy about something). Used almost exclusively as a cognate in an English command directed at older children who were pestering younger siblings to the point of tears. It was pronounced PEEK-er: “Don’t PEEK-er” or “Stop PEEK-er-ing!”
- punscher, Punscherei [PUN-shur, PUN-shur-eye]
- [v.i.] Children who play creatively with water — splashing, squirting, pouring, adding soap suds — are said to be punschering, and all their activity and equipment — squirt guns, water balloons, hoses, sprinklers, wading pools — falls under the category of Punscherei. The word occurs in Cassell’s only in connection with a beverage and punchbowl, which is not what the Muellers meant. It is possible, though, that punschering derived from the creative assemblage of liquid refreshment.
- [n.] Literally a rattletrap. Used of noisy old cars and worn-out pianos. The Muellers used it of children who got too wound up, who made lots of crashing and thumping noises while racing around upstairs. Kids who made lots of noise.
- Schluck [rhymes with book]
- [n.] A sip, mouthful, swallow. Used often by the Muellers as a cognate in English, and most often in a diminutive sense: “There’s just a Schluck of coffee left” or “I’ll have just a Schluck of wine.”
- schmatzen [SHMAH-tzen]
- [v.i.] To eat noisily or to smack one’s lips. Unlike knabbering, which was more about gnawing and crunching (see above), schmatzing was a noise associated with juicy or soft foods; loud slurping and repeated lip smacking.
- schnatter [SCHNAH-tur]
- [vi.] To gabble (of geese) or quack (of ducks). Used of people, the word equated to muttering or murmuring but seemed not to cross the line to the full nastiness of gossip (which would have been Quatsch).
- Schnattergans [SCHNAH-ter-gahns]
- [n.] Chatterbox, a loquacious or gabby person, literally a gabbling goose. The third grader in the second row who cannot stop talking. Of kids, an excited motormouth. Of adults, incessant muttering, sometimes with the barest hint of gossip.
- Schmaus, schmausen [rhymes with mouse]
- [n.] A banquet or feast; [v.i.] to feast or dine. Sollen wir ihm einen Schmaus geben would mean “Should we give him a testimonial banquet?” The Muellers — and especially the Nickels — used this grandiose word in a fully ironic sense: a snack, a little something, usually cheese, herring, Stollen, Wurst, Schinckenbrot, whatever delicacies were on hand. It was often initiated with the oxymoron, “Shall we have a little Schmaus?” Germans don’t do little Schmäuse.
- So ruckelt der Bauer [zo-ROOK-elt der BOW-er]
- [idiom] A children’s lap-bouncing rhyme, learned through countless happy, giggling repetitions with German-speaking uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents. It was passed down aurally, which accounts for infinitely varied misspellings. (Mueller descendants usually said “juchelt.”) Although the Mueller version used only the first three lines, the verse remains a classic German children’s song, a Kniereiter zum Mitsingen:
So fahren die Damen [“This is the way the ladies ride” – a gentle, rhythmic bouncing]
So reiten die Herren [“This is the way the gentlemen ride” – stronger, faster bouncing]
So ruckelt der Bauer [“This is the way the farmer rides” – bumpy, hilarious bouncing]
Zum Tor hinaus [“When they pass through the village gate” – omitted in the spoken Mueller version]
- Stich [shtich]
- [idiom.] The Muellers used this in its current figurative sense, einen Stich haben — to have a screw loose about something, to be touched, cracked, off one’s rocker; an obsession, almost a superstition. “Jimmy had a Stich about catching perch.”
- Stiftung, stiften [SHTIFF-tung]
- [n.] A foundation or endowment; [v.t.] to endow, donate, make a present of. A glorified way of describing a contribution, as in “Who’ll stift for a six-pack of Grain Belt?”
- Streuwwelpeter [STROO-vul-pay-tur]
- [n.] Literally “Slovenly Peter,” a book of cautionary tales for children by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, also the title of the main cautionary tale in the book. Described by the author as “lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren” (amusing stories and comical pictures for children from 3 to 6 years of age), Streuwwelpeter was the gruesome stuff of nightmares. In one story, a little boy, forbidden to suck his thumb while his mother was out on an errand, starts the Daumenlutschen (thumb sucking) as soon as she leaves. A tailor dashes in with a large scissors and chops off the child’s thumbs. A girl plays with matches and burns to death. A boy who refuses to eat his soup wastes away and dies. Slovenly Peter will not comb his hair or trim his nails and so becomes a social outcast. Third-generation Mueller parents were skittish about Streuwwelpeter even in English; some of them kept it away from their children.
- Teepuff [TAY-puff]
- [n.] A genteel flatulence associated with a ladies tea party and proper manners. Probably a Hedder-Mueller coinage from German Chicago in the 1890s. Die Leisen die da schleichen, vor denen mußt du weichen.
- verbiestern, verbiestert [fair-BEE-sturt
- [v.r.] To become lost, confused, annoyed. Often used when the driver of a car gets hopelessly lost (“He verbeistert himself in Owatona” or the intransitive “He got verbiestert in Mankato.”)
- verklecksen, verkleckst [fair-KLEXT]
- [v.t.] To dribble soup or spill food on one’s tie, shirt or blouse, make a mess of something, splatter. Often used as a reflexive verb (“Und jetzt habe ich mich verkleckst.”)
- verrappelt [fair-ROPP-ult]
- [adj.] Confused, dotty, afflicted with senile dementia, crazy. In polite conversation, an elderly person with dementia was said to be “confused” or “forgetful.” In plain talk, verrappelt was a term for severe dementia, what we would now recognize as Alzheimers. The word is not in Cassell’s, but the noun Rappel (fit of madness) and the phrase er hat einen Rappel (he is off his rocker) are included.
- Verwandtschaft [fair-VAHND-shahft]
- [n.] Relations, relatives, consanguinity. Used frequently by Muellers, who had a strong sense of kinship among them (“We had the whole Verwandtschaft here for dinner.”) The term is also used in chemistry to denote an affinity between certain elements to form compounds.
- Was werden die Leute sagen? [vas VAIR-dun dee LOI-teh ZAH-gun]
- [idiom.] “What will the people say?” This was a constant low-grade concern for the minister and the minister’s family, particularly his wife, all of whom lived in a fishbowl. It wasn’t just the congregation (which would have been die Gemeinde), but also the larger community of small-town and rural gossips, who expected a minister’s household and family to run perfectly, have well-behaved children, and never to show the slightest hint of imperfection. It was a powerful incentive for children to stay on the straight and narrow.