expression • German
a greeting, commonly said to or by someone heading off to or in the process of eating lunch; literally, “meal time!”
Lunch is my favorite part of the day. On weekdays, it’s a break from work and a celebration of having made it halfway through the day; on weekends, when my day often starts much later, it’s the first real step into the day ahead of me and a chance to soak up the anticipation of what comes next. Sometimes lunch signifies a more official start to the day than breakfast does, marking the transition between an easy, lazy morning and an active afternoon full of plans. Even when that’s not the case, lunchtime is at the very least a chance to step away, regroup, and refresh between the first part of the day and the second. It’s always been the only meal that I’ve found equally enjoyable regardless of whether I eat it alone or in the company of others. (Breakfast and dinner are best with company; snack times are not only preferable alone, but ideally enjoyed in Maximum Introvert Mode™ while hiding under a blanket with food and a laptop playing YouTube or Netflix — the few minutes carved out of the day with the intention of getting absolutely nothing meaningful done. But maybe that’s just me.) I spend my mornings at work looking forward to lunchtime, and I’m always a little sad when it’s over — not because I dislike my job, but simply because I enjoy lunch that much. I don’t even consider myself a foodie. I just love eating lunch because it’s lunch.
Leave it to German to have not just a word, but a specific greeting dedicated to the midday meal. Truly, a language after my own heart.
Mahlzeit! As I was researching this word, I came across a number of stories from foreigners who came to work in Germany or Austria and were surprised, and a little confused, by the ubiquity of the greeting — much to their colleagues’ amusement. Indeed, it’s a staple of casual workplace lingo. And it’s shockingly versatile, even having its own layers of social etiquette. If you and a coworker pass by each other around midday, Mahlzeit! Even if neither of you is actually on your way to or from lunch, the implication is that you will soon eat or will have recently eaten lunch just the same — and so the greeting acknowledges this. The expected response, then, is Mahlzeit right back. If, however, you come across a coworker who is currently eating lunch (or vice versa), the greeting of Mahlzeit takes on the implied meaning of “Enjoy your meal” — in which case the proper response is Danke, “Thank you”. But there are other shades to Mahlzeit as well. As its literal translation is simply “Meal time”, it’s not necessarily exclusive to lunch; it can be used as a casual greeting around the time of any meal, or any time someone is eating (whether it’s a meal or not). The idea that Mahlzeit can be said at any time of day extends so far that in some parts of Germany it’s simply a general greeting, not tied to any associations with a meal at all. And if you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more to this word, think again. It can also be used negatively, as a sarcastic or ironic response to something unappealing or unfavorable — food or otherwise. High school cafeteria food? Mahlzeit. Accidentally dropped your keys in the trash and now have to fish them out? Mahlzeit.
Normally I’m able to pull something meaningful out of the words I choose, perhaps to explain why I think they’re great or worth knowing, but I don’t feel that this one needs any such justification for appearing here. I’m just happy that it exists — that it provides a means for people to acknowledge and appreciate the shared cultural experience that is lunch. It’s the meal that is so often overlooked, rushed, and not given a second thought to, but when it has its own greeting, it’s a joyful reminder of the way it shapes our day, our work, and even our social experience; it’s a reminder to take a break and enjoy this part of your routine. And now as I post this, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to lunch.