Word of the Week: Fisimatenten
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 Young man looking away, making "Fisimatenten"? (© Laurence Mouton / PhotoAlto) “Mach’ doch keine Fisimatenten!” a stressed-out mother may tell her defiant son, asking him to stop. What did he do that his mother wants him to quit? Well, maybe he was a little troublesome, but nothing too serious. He may also have prevaricated in a way that got on his mother’s nerves. “Fisimatenten machen” can mean either – or both – of these things: to be bothersome or to make excuses. Naturally, few people would think of their own behavior as “Fisimatenten”. The word will typically be used to mildly rebuke others for irritating or cumbersome behavior.
Although it may sound similar, “Fisimatenten” is not related to “fies”, a German slang word for “mean”. The story Germans like to tell about its origin is this one: In the early 19th century, when Napoleon’s troops stood in the Rhineland, bold French officers would ask shy German girls for a date by saying, “visitez ma tente” (“visit my tent”). Another version reads that they might have claimed “je visite ma tante” (“I visit my aunt”) as an excuse to get past the guard posts for their rendezvous. “Fisimatenten”, Germans will assert, is derived from one of these suggestive French phrases. But it is not.
In fact, it is much older, but the word’s etymology remains disputed. First documented in the 16th century, it may stem from Latin “visae patentes” (“validated documents”), used ironically to mock lengthy bureaucratic procedures). According to other sources, it is derived from early High German “fisiment” (“meaningless ornament on a coat of arms”). You see, the word itself is making “Fisimatenten” by eluding a definite etymological explanation.
Enlarge image Mach keine Fisimatenten! (© Colorbox) The German language knows several other terms to express essentially the same sentiment. Like “Fisimatenten”, they exist only in the plural form. “Sperenzchen” are related to the verb “sich sperren” (“to balk at”), implying somewhat extravagant behavior that disturbs notions of normalcy and order. “Mätzchen,” derived from “Matz” (“silly lad”), is typically used to reprimand children when they stage opposition to parental orders: “Mach’ keine Mätzchen!” Yet, all three terms are often used with the wink of an eye. If you are ever told not to make “Fisimatenten”, hurry up a little, get to the point, tell the truth, but do not worry too much about it.