Compounded, nay confounded

While compound words are a very familiar part of the German language learner’s life, I only heard the word die Bandwurmwörter – literally “tape worm words” – for the first time last Tuesday in Dialog in Deutsch. I was surprised that I’d not come across it on, but when I did a search, I discovered that it does not come up when you enter the singular form “compound word.”

The words that we were discussing all had to do with kinds of insurance, for example:

die Krankenhaustagegeldversicherung – a benefit paid out for every day one is in the hospital

die Berufsunfähigkeitsversicherung – a benefit paid out when one is unable, due to disability or illness, to work in a specific occupation or do a part of a job

The segments making up the first “worm” are die Versicherung, das Geld, die Tage and das Krankenhaus or “the money-days-hospital-insurance.” (Compound nouns are typically considered modifications of the final item in the compound, here die Versicherung, and take their gender from this final segment.) In this case, the relationship between the parts and the meaning of the entire compound is reasonably transparent. Let’s consider another more common compound word, das Frühstück – literally “early-piece (bit/chunk/slice)” but actually “breakfast.” This is quite a bit more opaque, especially when compared to the names for the other meals das Mittagessen and das Abendessen – “lunch” and “dinner” and literally “mid-day-food” and “evening-food.” Finally, consider the word die Klobrille – “toilet seat” – which I discussed in a previous post. It falls somewhere in between as the Klo part is transparent but the Brille part is not (or rather is it, but not in the linguistic sense!).

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