Word of the Week: Hals- und Beinbruch

Aug 12, 2011

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Hals- und Beinbruch

close-up of legs of a hiker in front of mountain landscape Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/ beyond/Josef Fankhauser)

If you were asked to name a nation that is highly charming, endearing and affectionate, Germany might not be your very first guess. To many outsiders the harsh, guttural sound of the German language goes hand-in-hand with rough manners. Lending the rest of the world the word Schadenfreude (satisfaction felt at someone else's misfortune) might, moreover, not necessarily help to boost the image of German friendliness.

Old stereotypes die hard, right? Fitting perfectly into the "sinister" image that is painted here, you might still be surprised to hear that Germans commonly wish each other Hals- und Beinbruch (a fracture of their neck and leg). In fact, an orthopedist might wish his patient Hals- und Beinbruch before releasing him from the hospital. Good businessman, you might say. A wife might publicly wish her husband this lethal injury before dropping him off at a soccer match. Time for a divorce, might be your first thought. But is this really just blunt frankness? Black humor even? Some sort of incapability to express affection for each other?

In fact, the standing expression Hals- und Beinbruch is far from an active way of spreading a little Schadenfreude. Just as when Americans say "break a leg", Hals- und Beinbruch is synonymous to the expression "Good Luck" and is actually a nice encouragement to receive.

close-up of female legs lying on grass Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/ beyond/Tumi )

So why do people wish each other something bad when in fact they try to express the opposite? One explanation is that people used to believe ghosts would overhear good wishes and try hard to reverse them. People would wish the opposite to outfox the ghosts and avert damage. Smart move, right? 

If ghost stories don't convince you, here's another explanation: the expression might also derive from the Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, meaning "success and blessing", which has also been borrowed in Yiddish as hatsloche un broche, or "happpiness and blessing". As Hals- und Beinbruch sounds somewhat similar to these phrases, it is most likely just a more pronounceable way to wish each other well in the German language.

Whatever explanation you prefer, next time somebody wishes you deadly fractures, don't panic. A more appropriate reaction would be a smile and a simple Danke (thanks), seeing as someone has just wished you "Good Luck". As this expression underscores, once you decode the German language there is a lot more affection to it than you might expect to find at first glance.

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