Word of the Week: Mahlzeit
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.
Enlarge image Leibniz University Hanover canteen (© picture alliance / dpa Themendie)
Have you ever been in a German office or factory during lunch time? If so, somebody will have greeted you by saying “Mahlzeit!” And maybe it didn’t sound like a greeting but rather like an order. That could be a reason why this greeting – although very widespread – is somewhat controversial in Germany. Some companies have even classified it as “to be avoided” in internal code of conduct guidelines.
So what does “Mahlzeit” actually mean? The word by itself simply means “meal”, or literally “meal time”. Historically, it is a short form of “gesegnete Mahlzeit” and stands for “(enjoy a) blessed meal”. The adjective “gesegnete” (blessed, from “segnen” to bless) – as a remnant of saying grace – simply got dropped over time.
Nowadays the phrase is mainly used around midday during lunch time, but not only at the table. People say it in the elevator, in the hallway or on the street, not even necessarily on their way to lunch. This shows that “Mahlzeit” expresses more than just “Guten Appetit!” (“Enjoy your meal!”), which you use when you actually sit at a table and wish your neighbor to enjoy his or her meal. “Mahlzeit” rather became a typical ubiquitous greeting in working environments from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, especially in the western and southern parts of Germany and in Austria, but not in Switzerland.
As previously mentioned, some see it as controversial. Why that?
Opponents say, that it sounds rough and not educated. Especially the implicit reference to food, which is a very personal issue, might appear impolite to people whom you don’t know close enough. But the crucial aspect is in which situation you use this phrase. In the cafeteria? Everybody will be fine with that. But in front of the restroom? Obviously, that can be seen as inappropriate.
All in all you will be save by using it as a paraphrase for “Enjoy your meal!” If you want to use it as a general greeting, pay heed to the situation.
Enlarge image "Prost Mahlzeit!" - this truck lost its load (© picture-alliance / ZB)
However, be careful and don’t say “Prost Mahlzeit”! By preceding “Mahlzeit” with the word “Prost“ (“cheers!”, from Latin “prosit” - “may it be beneficial”), you use a very ironic term. “(Na dann) prost Mahlzeit” is an expression for annoyance, disappointment or scepticism: “there you have it”, “this will lead to nothing”, similar to “eine schöne Bescherung” – “a nice how-d’ye-do”. Like the proper “Mahlzeit” itself, this ironic or negative version is already documented in the 19th century Deutsches Wörterbuch of the Brothers Grimm.