Wimmelbilder – Greatest German word ever?

by | May 29, 2023 | Checking in | 0 comments

Language is funny stuff. Often absurd. Especially English. I certainly make that point often enough in my writing by having my characters misinterpret even the most common of sentiments in amusing ways.

As a professional language-wrangler, I probably torture it more than most people, so I have a healthy respect for it.

And while I don’t know much German, I find how words get built in German fascinating.

So it came as no surprise when, determined to figure out the word for the kind of puzzles I love, my wife Kristin discovered the term was none other than a German word.

If you saw my post about the Puzzled Patron, that’s what I mean. Stories in a picture. Tons and tons of tiny details. Often in amusing illustration styles.

Armed with nothing more than curiosity, and a reference to the most easily identifiable example—Where’s Waldo books—Kristin set out to discover the term she knew must exist.

And it does: wimmelbilder

It literally means “teeming picture”, or “teeming picture book”, if you use the expanded term wimmelbilderbuch. This amazing German word described the exact sort of intricate illustration where there’s so much going on, you’ll never notice it all in one sitting.

So why am I mentioning this? Sadly, I’m not going to tell you that today. But I will. Soon.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a project that’s nearly 8 months in the making. And it’s amazing.

For now, I’ll share one of Kristin’s favorite stalling tactics: a direct result of her search to uncover the term. The “wimmelbilder” subreddit! The online home for fans and artists alike to share their favorite examples of teeming pictures, or work-in-progress wimmelbilder art.

UPDATE: Special thanks to Email Insider Carola from Nuremberg for sharing more details about the term for us, and how it builds in that amazing way that German words do. 🙂

“One Wimmelbild

Several Wimmelbilder

A book of them: Wimmelbilderbuch

Several of those: Wimmelbilderbuecher

She goes on to share more about everyday usage, or lack thereof.

“The verb wimmeln is not really a very modern or normal German word, but teeming is not a bad translation. Another would be swarm. To me Wimmelbilder invoke chaotic small details and weird movement as well. It’s mostly used as “Es wimmelt (nur so) von …” “There’s a large number/overabundance of ….”, mostly with a slightly negative connotation.”

Personally, I think slightly negative connotation she mentioned is no accident, but instead is part of WHY this form of artwork bears this term. Illustrations in the wimmelbilder style are often chaotic, as Carola mentions, even confusing. And that’s part of the charm. This aspect gives the scenes life, and infuses a ton of humor and personality.


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