Word of the Week: Wolkenkuckucksheim

Mar 15, 2013

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.


Buildings float atop "smog clouds" Enlarge image Buildings emerge as if floating in the clouds from dense smog (© picture-alliance/dpa)

The notion of a "Wolkenkuckucksheim" (Cloud-cuckoo-land) can be loosely defined, along the lines of building castles in the air (Luftschlösser), as "eine Utopie ohne Bodenhaftung oder Realitätssinn" (a utopia without grounding or a sense of reality).

This expression is derived from the Greek Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkygia), which comes from the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes' comedy "The Birds". Acclaimed by modern critics as a perfectly realized fantasy, it described a city in the sky created by birds that gained control over all communications between men and gods. Pisthetaerus, a middle-aged Athenian who persuaded the world's birds to engage in this lofty endeavor, is miraculously transformed himself into a bird-like figure. With the help of his newfound feathery friends, and with advice from Prometheus, he soon replaces Zeus as the pre-eminent power in the cosmos. The city in the sky was named - you guessed it - "Wolkenkuckucksheim" (Nephelokokkygia/Cloudcuckooland - although the word "Heim" literally means "home").

In the early 19th century, the philoshopher Arthur Schopenhauer translated and used the word "Wolkenkuckucksheim" in various published works. He also hurled it as an accusation at other philosophers, by way of suggesting that they were just talking in a "Wolkenkuckucksheim" fashion, or basically making up a bunch of malarkey.

Some German-language translators of the Aristophanes play previously used variations on the same theme such as "Wolkenkuckucksburg" (a castle instead of a "home") or "Kuckuckswolkenhof" (a court) instead of "Wolkenkuckucksheim," which eventually became the generally accepted German-language translation.

Synonyms include Luftschloss (air castle), Fantasiereich (fantasy realm), Insel der Seligen (island of the blessed), Märchenland (land of fairytales), Märchenwelt (fairytale world), Traumgebilde (dream structure), Traumwelt (dream world), Utopia (utopia) and Wunderwelt (wonder world).

Antonyms for Wolkenkuckucksheim include Realität (reality) and Wirklichkeit (reality, truth).

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