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According to this question, I'd assume that "fressen" is insulting cause it's defined "to eat like a pig". Am I right?

Das im Kalender ruhig ist, sonst aber Menschen plagt und frisst.

Does this sentence have negative connotation?

EDIT: The example is from a German riddle, complete form:

Was ist das, das im Wasser lebt

und noch am Sternenhimmel schwebt?

Das im Kalender ruhig ist

sonst aber Menschen plagt und frisst?

Schwarz kommt es in die Küchen,

rot steht's dann auf den Tischen

And the answer is "der Krebs" (crab, cancer).

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Incidentally, Old English had this distinction as well: etan > to eat vs fretan (of animals). –  Ansgar Esztermann May 22 '12 at 8:11
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Fressen is not actually defined as "to eat like a pig" - it is the correct term to describe when animals are eating:

Du isst, aber dein Hund frisst.

Du trinkst, aber dein Hund säuft.

The latter is technically correct, though many people say that animals do trinken.

As with many things describing animals or what animals do, fressen is considered rude when talking about humans. In the meantime, Deve provides some examples where fressen is used without insulting - in cases where it's not a human eating.

Your sample sentence seems to relate frisst to something that is not human, but rather eating humans. In that context, fressen may be the right choice. Essen may even have humorous connotation when not used with humans. Fressen is fine not only if an animal is eating, but also if something's eating.

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Edited for more context. "[...] der Menschen frisst" is referring to humans, Isn't it? –  user508 Jun 17 '11 at 15:04
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@Gigili: It is referring to humans, but the humans are the objects and not the subjects of that sentence. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 17 '11 at 15:54
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@Gigili: Not true. The "Krebs" ("cancer") is eating "Menschen" (accusative). –  OregonGhost Jun 17 '11 at 16:08
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@Gigili: Nope, then it would be "den Menschen fressen". –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 17 '11 at 16:10
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Bart's "Eat my shorts" is "Friss' meine Shorts". –  Max Ried Jun 22 '11 at 6:38
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Menschen essen und trinken. Tiere fressen und saufen.

You use a different verb, depending on who is eating or drinking.

Herr Meier frisst.

would translate: Mr. Meier is eating like an animal. - Which would be insulting and therefore rude.

Oh the other hand, it would sound strange to say:

Du willst mit dem Hund Gassi gehen? Warte noch ein paar Minuten! Er ist gerade beim Essen.

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Fressen as a synonym of eating is quite rude. You're right with your definition as to eat like a pig/animal. You would never use it in a formal context except when talking about animals. It's considered vulgar. Some people might use it with humans, but I wouldn't recommend doing it.

In other contexts it's okay to use fressen. Some examples:

Die Hausarbeit frisst eine Menge Zeit

Housework is consuming a lot of time.

Der Kopierer hat meinen Brief gefressen.

The copy machine pulled in my letter and destroyed it.

Der neue Bahnhof wird Unmengen von Geld fressen/verschlingen.

The new station will require a huge amount of money.

All the examples above use fressen in the sense of consuming something with the connotation of greed or excess. Verschlingen in these examples is a more formal synonym to fressen.

The following example, however, is a common idiom:

Den habe ich gefressen.

I don't like him.

The verb fressen is also used in more figurative ways:

Der Bohrer frisst sich in das Gestein.

The drill eats itself into the rock.

Finally, there's a verb that has been derived from fressen: etw. ausfressen. It's mostly used with children that have played a trick on someone:

Was habt ihr jetzt schon wieder ausgefressen?

In my opinion, the usage of fressen in your example isn't rude. A person can be eaten up by a disease or a bad feeling. Especially for cancer, this imagery is used from time to time. For example, you can say

Seine Gier frisst ihn auf.

It means that a person is heavily influenced by a feeling (here: greed) so that their personality changes gradually.

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+1, great examples for not being rude, though of course colloquial. –  OregonGhost Jun 17 '11 at 15:04
    
Please check the edit for more context. –  user508 Jun 17 '11 at 15:09
    
I have edited my answer. –  Deve Jun 17 '11 at 15:17
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"Jemanden/Etwas zum Fressen gern haben" is another positive example. –  Takkat Jun 17 '11 at 15:25
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@Gigili: That's actually no problem: A Milchschnitte is basically the same as a Schokoladenkuchen, and you can eat it well under one minute. No, seriously, you'd be impolite saying that, unless you're definitely joking and/or know the person well. There are only certain (mostly colloquial) usages like the ones Deve mentions where it wouldn't be impolite in a serious context. –  OregonGhost Jun 17 '11 at 16:03
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