What to Say in a Knife Fight and other Regrettably Forgotten Lessons from High School German

By Charles Sinclair Kowalski

When it comes to learning a foreign language, they say if “you don’t use it, you lose it.” It’s all very true, I hate to report, but better you know it now than experience the embarrassing affair I did just a few weeks ago.

Of course, 16-year-old me would hear none of such talk. Hopelessly adrift in hormones, girls, and self-consciousness, I wasn’t about to trouble myself with today’s lesson on how to handle a healthy knife-laden standoff. Herr Geibel tried. If only I had listened.

“Kowalski!” I recall him shouting one winter afternoon, the fierce whip of his wooden pointer landing on key terms he had written on the board, like das Messer (the knife) and bis zum Tod (until death). “What are you going to do when you’re in Berlin and you can’t even threaten to stab a man, let alone challenge him to a one-handed blindfolded stabbing duel?”

Like I cared. I had no plans to knife-fight in Germany. I was perfectly happy meeting up with my high school friends and maybe having a knife fight down at the courts or in my buddy Abe’s basement. Besides, as far as I knew, everybody in Europe could knife-fight in English anyway, so what was the point? Needless to say, I barely passed the vocabulary quiz and did even worse on the simulated knife fight conversation.

Little did I know how misguided my monolingual stubbornness was. I never even gave it much thought until a few weeks ago, when the lady and I took a trip to Germany. A faint vision of my pathetically fumbling through everyday knife vocabulary passed through my head, but I shrugged it off.

That is, until a few pleasant German fellows I met down one of Berlin’s charming narrow alleys kindly propositioned me to join a knife fight they had started.

I figured once I conceded to being an out-of-practice American, they would sort of ease me through the process. I had also heard from friends that Germans loved to practice their knife-fighting in English when they knew they were talking to an American — to get some language pointers should they ever come to the States, I imagined. So I approached the situation as best as I could remember.

“Ich… Amerikaner,” I managed, as I unclipped my utility knife from my belt. “Ich kann nicht so gut stechen auf Deutsch. Können Sie bitte auf Englisch stechen?”

After the fact, I discovered that I had pronounced the verb stecken (to stick), not stechen (to stab). I’m turning red just thinking about it.

They scratched their heads, sighed a bit.

Great, I thought to myself, just great. Here I am, in the lovely, cosmopolitan city of Berlin, trying to enjoy myself away from the stressors of home, and now I have to worry about making a complete idiot of myself in front of these polite gentlemen who just want to skewer each other’s organs like I’m sure they always do on balmy weekends. If only 16-year-old me could have seen what a social faux pas his teenage indifference had created.

Things only got worse. I was so nervous to say the wrong thing that I dropped my paperback dictionary several times while dodging the impassioned thrusts and swings of my new knife enthusiast acquaintances. (As a note, Germans are much more cautious when it comes to counting you among their social circle. They typically won’t call you a knife enthusiast Freund/in until they have gotten the opportunity to knife-fight you a little better.) It took me 10 minutes just to figure out how to use ‘Take that!’ and some confused looks suggested that I probably chose the wrong form of ‘take.’

I could hear Herr Geibel as I struggled my way through the dancing circle of blade work. “Well, Kowalski, maybe if you had spent a little more time on threatening dialogue project instead of copying everything from Google, you wouldn’t be in this predicament!”

My tiny, singular triumph was remembering to shout “Rufen Sie einen Krankenwagen!” (“Call an ambulance!”) at one point when the bout had reached its fever pitch. We all had a good laugh about that one — well, perhaps not the sour apple crying on the ground trying to hold his innards in, but I guess you can’t please everyone.

In short, don’t be me. Young or old, don’t be that obstinate American who thinks his country is too good to honor the unique knife-fighting traditions and lingo of peoples the world round. The last thing you want to do is get the chance to experience the knife fight of a lifetime and embarrass yourself to death.