Word of the Week: Eierlegende Wollmilchsau

Oct 28, 2011

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Eierlegende Wollmilchsau

"Eierlegende Wollmilchsau" (?!?) Enlarge image "Eierlegende Wollmilchsau" (?!?) - Clearly, a sheep that lays eggs, or a cow that provides wool, or any such combination does not (yet?) exist in the real world. (© picture-alliance/chromorange)

Picture this: a pig, covered in fluffy fur, that lays eggs and gives out milk. The image you have in your head right now is this week's word of the week, the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau, which could roughly be translated as "egg-laying wool-milk-sow". While this little creature may sound like a bit of a freak of nature, it is every farmer's wet dream: the perfect farm animal, uniting the qualities of chickens (laying eggs), sheep (producing wool), cows (giving out milk) and pigs (can be turned into bacon). The Eierlegende Wollmilchsau produces all the daily necessities and is tasty to boot, it is an animal that only has good sides to it. It goes without saying that this creature doe not exist.

Disappointed? Don't be! While the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau may not literally exist as a cuddly, yummy and useful creature, it does exist in the figurative sense. The Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is a single tool or a person that attempts to do the work of many, like a jack of all trades or the literal egg-laying wool-milk-sow. Needless to say, finding such a versatile tool or person is almost as hard as finding the mythical creature.

Two piglets hang out under a heat lamp in some straw on a farm near the western German city of Münster. © picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image Two piglets hang out under a heat lamp in some straw on a farm near the western German city of Münster. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

And so the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is nowadays mostly used to describe some unachievable ideal, proving that Germans not only have a finely tuned sense of irony, but are also more creative than given credit for. A perfect example of an ironic use of Eierlegende Wollmilchsau would be a job advertisement with so many, varied qualifications that no real person could ever hope to fulfill them all.

However, with the incredible development of new technologies, it is entirely conceivable that  the word might take on a new meaning. In the past, the closest thing to a real  Eierlegende Wollmilchsau was the Swiss Army knife, but it looks like the word will be put to excellent use to describe the new generation of smartphones. Whether smartphone companies would be delighted to know that their products are being described as an "egg-laying wool-milk-sow" is a different question altogether.

© Germany.info

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