Word of the Week: Hochstapler

May 25, 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.


"Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull" by Thomas Mann Enlarge image The (unfinished) novel "Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull" was written by Thomas Mann. (© H.-P.Haack/Wikimedia Commons)

A "Hochstapler" is a conman, imposter or anyone who claims to be something that they really are not.

The origin of the word derives from an old expression for a beggar, or "stappler." This is not, however, related to the verb "stapeln," which means "to pile up" or "to stack up" specific objects (although one might infer from "Hochstapler" - which sounds like "high stapler" - that someone is trying to "stack up" better against others - hence this expression could lead to some confusion!).

So a "Hochstapler," in the original sense of the word, is essentially a beggar acting like he (or she) is originally of high-class origins, but is simply down on his (or her) luck and has fallen upon hard times.

German literary legend Thomas Mann (1875-1955) wrote an (incomplete) novel called "Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull" over an extended period of time. Conceived by Mann as a parody of Goethe's famous autobiography "Dichtung und Wahrheit," the idea behind this novel was something along the lines of "the artist as conman" or "the artist coming into dangerously close contact with the conman."

Famous real-life "Hochstapler" of course also abound in the real word, from Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 thriller "Catch Me If You Can") to Bernie Madoff, the New York "investor" who swindled his clients out of millions of dollars.

On a less dramatic (and lucrative) level, of course, anyone can become a "Hochstapler" at anytime should they decide to tell tall tales about themselves, for instance, or even pretend to be something they are not, such as a medical doctor or other type of qualified worker.

"Du bist ein verdammter Lügner" (You're a damn liar) Enlarge image "Du bist ein verdammter Lügner" (You're a damn liar) (© picture-alliance/ZB)

Exaggerating your achievements slighty, i.e. bragging a bit about yourself, is of course not the same as "hochstaplerei" or acting like a real "Hochstapler," but outright lying in the interests of blatant self-promotion at a workplace or within society at large would amount to "conning" people into believing you are something that you really are not.

While this expression could be used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to tease somebody, it by and large carries a highly loaded and negative connotation.

© Germany.info

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