Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb: conflicting

16 November 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science

I was recently introduced to a German word which I had never come across before: Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb. (thanks, 4TuneQkie) It's not in particularly common use (my online search engine turns up only about 5000 results). Nonetheless, I think it's a really fun word to say and wish it came up more in conversation. So like General Melchett, I'd like you to make a note of it, Darling. However, the thing it denotes is somewhat ... conflicting.

Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb is a compound noun. That is to say, it is made up of several other words. I love German words like this; I remember being in school and using a methodical, almost "scientific" approach to working out what they mean. Indeed, I still do this now. So let's break this one down into chunks and build up its meaning from there. (If there were be a metaphorical enzyme for this kind of thing, it would be called "lexicase". I'll get my coat.)

1) Luftballon

Luftballon is itself a compound noun. German can be quite "meta" like that. It means "balloon", of the rubber variety that you might make a dog out of. Luft means "air", and ballon means "balloon". I'm not sure why German feels the need to specifically call them "airballoons", because the word Ballon is not used by itself.

By the way, the original German version of Nena's song "99 Red Balloons" doesn't actually specify that the Luftballons are red at all. In fact, I would guess that they were made red in English purely to make the syllables fit. See the many-coloured balloons in the video.

Ironically, Nena's song is not available on YouTube in Germany:

Youtube screenshot: Nena not available in German

German songs not available in Germany. Die Ironie, sie brennt mich!

Another quirk of German is to take words from French and keep the original pronounciation: ballon here uses the French "on" sound, not the German one (which sounds much more like English).

Speaking of Germans borrowing words from French, while I was writing this post I came across this new version of 99 Luftballons, featuring French verses at the start and end:

A "hot air balloon" is a Heißluftballon. I wonder whether this is understood as a [hot][airballoon] (i.e. a hot balloon, because [airballoon] = [balloon]) or as a [hotair][balloon]. Would any native speakers of German care to weigh in on this in the comments?

2) Weitflug

Child with helium balloon from XKCD

From XKCD "What If?" #44 "High Throw"

Once again, we have another compound-within-a-compound.

2) a) Weit means "far". Not "wide". So a literal translation of "far and wide" would be weit und breit. When you see breit, think of "broad", not "bright". Damn those false friends.

2) b)Flug means "flight". If you squint, you can see the family resemblance. The verb "to fly" is fliegen, and the eponymous insect is die Fliege.

So our not-necessarily-red, balloons are flying somehow.

3) Wettbewerb

Finally, der Wettbewerb is the German for "the competiton" (see also the verb bewerben, "to apply" and die Werbung, advvertising).

To read a compound noun in German, we have to work backwards through the chunks. So with Luftballonweitfgulwettbewerb, we get: a competition for the furthest-flying balloon, i.e. a balloon launch.

I love words like this, and for some reason I'm particularly fond of this one. But are these competitions good? I don't mean in terms of "organised fun". Indeed, the idea that I might write a note one day and have someone a long way away read it and get in touch at some point eally tickles me. Comments on this blog are a big part of what makes me want to keep writing (hint, hint).

Harmloses Spaß?

Rather, I mean to question whether such competitions are ethically sound. You might be a tad incredulous at that. What harm could there possibly be in releasing a few balloons? Well, actually, there are (at least) two concerns.

First, because the balloons are released into the wild, the vast majority end up lying around in unknown locations and aren't disposed of properly. The rubber (German: Gummi) used in party balloons is not exactly eco-friendly. It doesn't biodegrade, and it isn't good for animals that eat the balloons.

Second, the world is running out of helium with which to fill balloons in the first place (and no, you can't just use hydrogen instead). Despite it being the second most common element in the Universe, there is a limited amount of helium on Earth. It is being generated by radioactivity in the rocks beneath our feet, but we are using it up faster than it is being created. Admittedly, balloons at parties and competitions are only a small part of this use. More helium is used in liquid form for things like superconducting magnets which are used in fundamental particle physics research, exploring fundamental questions about the nature of the Universe, and MRI machines, key pieces of modern medical technology (in turn developed thanks to advances in fundamental physics). So it seems a shame to waste even a little helium, when we need it for important applications. In this BBC article, chemist Peter Wothers is quoted as saying

"We're going to be looking back and thinking, I can't believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it's so precious and unique"

So I'm in two minds about this*. On the one hand, it's a fun activity and Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb is a fun word. On the other, balloon launches are bad for the environment on three counts.

Whatever you think of Luftballonweitflugwettbewerbe, if you are going to have one, here's a handy demonstration of how not to go about it, from some students at my former uni ...


Related posts: Periodic Table of Etymologies: Sunstuff. << Where the name "helium" comes from,and how the element is formed.

Bonus material: Haven't you always wondered whether you could use a helium balloon as a parachute? xkcd has the answer.


* not really. In case it wasn't obvious, I'm exaggerating for effect, plus this word is a convenient excuse to talk about environmental issues and teach you some German at the same time.

Over to you:

  • Have you ever taken part in a Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb? Did you win?
  • What are balloon launch competitions called in other languages/ variations of English?
  • For German native-speakers: is Heißluftballon to be understood as [Heißluft]-[Ballon] or as [Heiß]-[Luftballon]?
  • Are party balloons a serious threat to the global supply of helium?
  • Do stray balloons cause major problems for wildlife or the environment?
  • Am I worrying too much about these issues?
  • What are your favourite super-composite words?

As usual, leave your answers in the comments below. Cheers!

12 Responses to “Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb: conflicting”

  1. Robin R. Reply | Permalink

    "A "hot air balloon" is a Heißluftballon. I wonder whether this is understood as a [hot][airballoon] (i.e. a hot balloon, because [airballoon] = [balloon]) or as a [hotair][balloon]. Would any native speakers of German care to weigh in on this in the comments?"
    -> Ich würde sagen [hotair][balloon], weil ein Heißluftballon nur wegen der heißen Luft, die im Ballon ist, aufsteigt^^
    = I would say [hotair][balloon], because a Heißluftballon just rises because hot air being inside the balloon.

  2. Kinseher Richard Reply | Permalink

    Ballon: this term is also used for glass-containers (Wikipedia: Gärballon, Glasballon, volume e.g. 20 L) which are used for ethanol fermentation to produce wine.

    Three different types of ballons are used: Heißluft-, Helium- and Wasserstoff(hydrogen)-ballons

    [Alex edit: this is a hybrid of Richard's comment & re-submission attempt. New commenters' contributions are held in a moderation queue.]

  3. Felix Reply | Permalink

    I always find it really entertaining when non-native speakers of German write about these things, because we Germans usually don't think too much about peculiarities of our language.
    "Heißluftballon" is definitively [Heißluft][Ballon]. The stress is on the first syllable (Heiß).
    If we take a ride in/on (?) a "Heißluftballon" we call it a "Ballonfahrt" (another compound). We wouldn't usually say "Heißluftballonfahrt". (By the way: I can only recommend doing a "Ballonfahrt".)

    When we talk about "Heißluft" alone, we would, in spoken language, usually split the compound up and say "heiße Luft". "Heißluft" sounds a bit technical, being used in engineering and so on. We have the word "Heißluft", so we also have "Kaltluft" (cold air). Again, it's not too common to use it like that in everyday language. What we often hear in our weather forecasts in winter is the word "Kaltlufteinbruch" (we just love compounds :) ). I think in English it's a cold surge, cold winds from the arctic regions making their way south, bringing us low temperatures.

    If you like "Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb" you might also enjoy "Kirschkernweitspucken", cherry stone far spitting (sounds strange). Another "Wettbewerb", which is won by spitting a cherry stone farther than your components. You could also say "Kirschkernweitspuckwettbewerb", but somehow we usually don't.

    It is quite normal for us to deal with these compounds. It is kind of a gag to build very long compounds, starting with "Donaudampfschifffahrts...". I don't know whether there is an original. When i type "Donaudampfschifffahrts" into Google, i get lots of different suggestions.
    For example: "Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftsraddampferkapitänskajütentürsicherheitsschlüssel".
    Donau = Danube (river)
    Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft = steam boat tour corporation
    Raddampfer = paddlesteamer
    So far we have: a paddlesteamer of the Danube Steam Boat Tour Corporation. The additional "s" after "Schifffahrt" and "Gesellschaft" mark the genitive.
    Let's go on:
    Kapitän = captain
    Kajüte = cabin on a boat
    Tür = door
    Sicherheitsschlüssel = patent key/security key (according to
    So the second part means: The security key of the door of the captain's cabin.
    Put together, "Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftsraddampferkapitänskajütentürsicherheitsschlüssel" means: The security key of the captain's cabin door on a paddlesteamer of the Danube Steam Boat Tour Corporation.
    Yes, we can really do this in German. And it isn't even too hard to understand. Still, we usually don't do it in language use. In spontaneously spoken language especially, we keep it simple.

    I hope i haven't completely confused you. ;)

    btw: It's "Der Spaß", so it has to be "Harmloser Spaß".

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks so much for this comment!

      I'm glad I'm entertaining when I write about German, though hopefully because I'm displaying healthy curiosity rather than getting things hopelessly wrong...

      I've fixed the Harmloses/r issue, thanks!

    • Nick Reply | Permalink

      German speakers are sometimes aware of the comic potential of their language. I remember seeing a comedy show on German TV a few years ago where they had enormous fun funding different ways to say the sentence "Widerrechtlich abgestellten Fahrzeuge wurden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt"

  4. teobesta Reply | Permalink

    Thank you for the post. I really enjoyed it. It is so rare to read a post that combines two of my passions: languages and science.
    I (mistakenly?) remember learning Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftsraddampferkapitänskajütentürsicherheitsschlüssel as the longest German word but as I tweeted (, it turns out the one in use was Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. Now, I'm all confused because it is clearly shorter. No matter, compounds were super fun in class. False friends weren't however: wo = where, wer = who O_o
    Plus offering ein Gift could get you in so much trouble (
    Thanks again, this was so much fun! (-:

    • Felix Reply | Permalink

      Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz was the longest word in official use until this year. But the great thing about the German compounds is that we can be absolutely creative and constantly create new words. We can use words in school essays or academic writing that don't appear in any dictionary. Therefore, there isn't "the one longest German word". There ist just the "longest German word that appears in a dictionary".

      @Alex Brown: I just think that reading about your own language from a different point of view is really enlightening. It also helps to try to teach non-native speakers about your language, as I have been doing for a few months. You get a totally new look on the peculiarities of your language that have always seemed perfectly normal for you as a native speaker. I also like stories of visitors to Germany who tell what they think odd about us (like pedestrians waiting for their traffic light to turn green when there are no cars).

  5. Erika Reply | Permalink

    Yes, it is definetly Heißluft-Ballon. I took part in a few Luftballonweitflugwettbewerbe as a child but didn't win. As for the ecological threat, it is of course true that they don't decompose and can be eaten by animals but the threat from plastic carrier bags is much larger.

    Your post also reminded me of a childrens book with the title: Der Satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch. It isn't really a compound word but one where the words sort of run together.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I agree that plastic carrier bags are also an environmental problem. I wish more countries would impose laws whereby supermarkets have to charge customers for them.

      I will now spend quite a while trying to pronounce "Satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch". Thanks!

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