Word of the Week: Zwickmühle

Apr 27, 2012

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


A windmill in Santorini, along the Aegean Sea in Greece. Enlarge image A windmill in Santorini, along the Aegean Sea in Greece. (© picture-alliance/Arco Images GmbH)

Any situation in which you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place is a "Zwickmühle", a figure of speech derived from the German word for mill (Mühle).

Let's say you just know you're going to be late to a dinner party which will include someone you view as a potential romantic partner because you're working on a tough work assignment on a tight deadline. You need to finalize the assignment so as not to dissapoint your colleagues and superiors at work. But at the same time you really don't want to make a bad first impression by arriving late - or even canceling - your dinner plans. So you're stuck in a real "Zwickmühle," in which you're essentially "damned if you do, damned if you don't."

The use of "Zwick" in this context comes from the German word meaning "pinch" (zwicken). The expression is derived from a strategic board game for two players called "Mühlespiel" (Windmill Game). Similar to check-mate in chess, when one player plays the "Zwickmühle" move combination, the other player is literally trapped and has lost the game.

Real life, alas, is not always that simple.

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