Fancy dress and jelly doughnuts

Why the birds sing

In certain regions and cities in Germany, Carnival (KarnevalFasching, or Fastnacht) is a much-anticipated time of year, but it’s not as well-known in many English-speaking countries. Here, you can learn a little about the celebration’s history as well some interesting and important things to know when talking about it with English speakers.


Where does Carnival come from?

Carnival is tied to Roman Catholic traditions. It came about as a way for people to celebrate and empty their homes of rich and fatty foods before Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and religious reflection that goes from Ash Wednesday until Easter.

Ash Wednesday is a day when Roman Catholics who attend mass have crosses painted on their foreheads.

In earlier times, Roman Catholics were expected to avoid eating fats and meats during Lent. In fact, the word „carnival“ could come from the Latin carnem levare. The phrase means „to remove meat.“

It’s still common for stricter Roman Catholics to not eat meat throughout this period. In the U.K. and North America, some people of various Christian denominations give up an unhealthy food or drink during Lent, such as sugar or alcohol.


How to talk about the celebrations

Though German regions and cities celebrate Carnival in different ways, some elements of the festivities are the same no matter where you are. Here are some interesting things to know when discussing Carnival with an English speaker:

  • „Carnival“ might be a new word: Especially for North Americans, the word „Carnival“ by itself won’t always explain the sort of celebrations common in Germany and Europe. The word can be used to describe various festivals. If the person you’re speaking with is finding it hard to understand what you mean, try telling them that „Carnival“ is the European version of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.
  • Fancy dress“ vs. „costume„: Dressing up as something or someone else – a witch, a dragon, a well-known political figure, etc. – is a normal part of Carnival fun. But if you want to discuss this tradition with an English speaker, you’ll need to use different vocabulary depending on if they speak British or North American English. In British English, dressing up like this is called „fancy dress,“ as in „I’m going to a fancy dress party.“ In North American English, these outfits are called „costumes.“ While the British are likely to understand „costume,“ North American speakers often have no idea what „fancy dress“ means in British English. To them, it sounds like what you would wear to a wedding.

It’s also worth knowing that „costume“ in English is never used to mean a woman’s business suit like the similar German word.

  • Jam or jelly doughnuts: BerlinerKräppelKrapfen – whatever your local word is for the sugary treats, they’re a food closely connected with Carnival season. When describing them to a North American English speaker, the best word for them is „jelly doughnut“ („donut“ is also an okay spelling). For British English speakers, „jam doughnut“ is correct (if you say „jelly“ to a British speaker, they’ll think of what German speakers call Wackelpudding).
  • What’s a „float“?: Parades are a huge part of Carnival everywhere, and almost all of them have floats. „Float“ is the English word for what German speakers might call a Karnevals- or Fastnachtswagen.


The long nights are getting shorter

Whether or not you enjoy Carnival traditions, we hope you’re finding ways to have fun during the long nights and cold days this winter. Luckily, spring isn’t too far off by now.

We also want to let you know that if you’re interested in learning more about the fine details of communicating in English on topics a little more formal than Carnival, you may be interested in our upcoming Meet the World seminar. It will be on March 28-29, and in it you’ll learn various skills, vocabulary, and strategies you’ll need to run or be part of successful international meetings conducted in English.

Find out more on TIP TOP’s website.



much-anticipated – lang ersehnt

to be tied to – wird verbunden mit

Lent – Fastenzeit

Ash Wednesday – Aschermittwoch

cross – Kreuz

forehead – Stirn

be expected to avoid eating – es wird erwartet dass kein … gegessen wird

meats – Fleischwaren

to remove meat – Fleisch entfernen

still common – immer noch üblich

denominations – Glaubensgemeinschaften

though – obwohl

no matter – egal

fancy dress (BE) / costume (AE) – Karnevalskostüm

dress up – sich kleiden

worth knowing – gut zu wissen

be never used to – wird niemals verwendet für

sugary treats – zuckerhaltige Leckerbissen

huge part – großer Teil

whether or not – ob … oder nicht

strategies you’ll need to run – Strategien, die man drauf haben sollte

conduct – leiten, abhalten


Excite Your Senses

On our YouTube channel, you can follow along as a native speaker reads this month’s Learning Nugget accompanied by music and pictures.

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