Word of the Week: Mäusemelken

Mar 22, 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.


"Es ist zum Mäusemelken!" (It's driving me crazy.) Enlarge image "Es ist zum Mäusemelken!" (It's driving me crazy.) (© picture-alliance/chromorange)

Have you ever been frustrated by a seemingly senseless task or impossible scenario? Then you may have felt like exclaiming: "Es ist zum Mäusemelken!" (It's enough to drive you up the wall.)

This figure of speech combines the words "Mäuse" (mice) and "melken" (to milk). Clearly the concept of "milking mice" is absurd. To get a liter of "Mäusemilch" (mouse milk) you would need to milk thousands of mice. The alliteration and repetition of the letter "m" in this compound noun comprised of two separate words also accentuates the absurdity of this notion.

A related and more straightforward expression would, by contrast, be "Es ist zum Verzweifeln!" (It is really frustrating / exasperating / worth despairing over.)

And a similar - albeit not quite identical - metaphor popular in the United States is the paradoxical cry of frustration: "It's like herding cats!" This expression could be used to describe an extremely difficult, but still necessary task, which in German is sometimes summed up as "einen Sack Flöhe hüten" (safeguarding a bag of fleas).

A Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) feeding on a hazelnut Enlarge image A Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) feeding on a hazelnut (© picture-alliance/WILDLIFE) By contrast, the expression "Mäusemelken" serves to underscore the senselessness of a specific situation or venture for which there is seemingly no hope of a conclusive or positive outcome. It is about starting something that more likely than not can never be finished, and banging your head up against a wall in the process.

You will know that your average task-oriented German person is supremely frustrated if he or she asks you: "Ist das nicht zum Mäusemelken?" (Doesn't it just drive you crazy?) In sum, this expression suggests that a situation is so exasperating that you might even try to do something like milking a mouse (Maus).

A related figure of speech in German is "Es ist zum aus der Haut fahren!" (It's enough to drive you out of your skin.) Synonyms might moreover include "sehr ärgerlich" (very frustrating), "wahnwitzig" (insane) and "mühselig" (tough going), as well as just plain "absurd" (absurd), which incidentally highlights how similar German and English are at times.

© Germany.info

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