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I'm studying German, but I'm fairly new to it - could anybody explain to me what does "Penner" mean, and how it is used in general?

I know it does refer to a homeless person, but I often find it used as an insult.

My main concern was in understanding why being a homeless person should be offensive, or is there another hidden meaning?

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    Did you check a dictionary (e.g. de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Penner), and in what way didn’t it help you? – chirlu Jan 15 '16 at 19:48
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    The word refers to a homeless person and is often used as an insult ;) – Carsten S Jan 15 '16 at 20:07
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    Note that outdated youth slang term Penne for ‘school’ is usually not associated with Penner, neither when used as an insult nor for homeless people. The imported Italian name for pasta of a certain form, e.g. Penne Rigate, is completely unrelated. – Crissov Jan 18 '16 at 8:18
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    Well, to put it this way: If somebody called you a Hobo, would you feel flattered or insulted? – adhominem Jan 21 '16 at 12:30
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    @Crissov there is "Pennäler" which would indeed refer to a schoolchild. Unrelated to Penner. – rackandboneman May 1 '18 at 22:21
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Yes, Penner is a derogatory term a priori. It derives from the slang verb pennen for sleeping (schlafen) and the initial meaning is thus someone who sleeps a lot. As it is often the case with slang words, they are not considered nice or formal and can carry the insult with them even when used ‘neutrally’.

The word is commonly used for homeless people because one can actually see them auf der Straße pennen.1 That does not make it nicer or more accepted — and I imagine those social workers working with the homeless to explicitly avoid the word Penner. Neutral terms for homeless are Obdachloser, Wohnungsloser or Person ohne festen Wohnsitz (the latter being bureaucratic). But note again that of all the insults you could toss at a homeless person, Penner is definitely one of the mildest.

When using it towards a random person you just met, apart from being derogatory in itself it also carries a set of prejudices people have towards homeless: smelly, lazy, potentially drunkards, beggars, etc. Especially the hidden meaning of begging rather than working for food and drink is rather harsh for Germans who often still consider themselves hard-working (even if they don’t consider society as a whole hard-working anymore). So it would definitely be understood as an insult.

But then again, it is a pretty weak insult and especially adolescent young men like using mildly insulting terms with their friends just to indicate closeness — so as dakab said, if you’re fine with calling your friend a bum or a bastard (and your friend is fine with it, too), it’s fine to use a word like Penner or Sack in German.

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As usual, it depends on context:

Colloquially, you may use Penner to refer to homeless people, maybe even without much degradation. It’s also used as a rather “friendly” insult, especially when referring to a run-down, worn-out appearance. Calling your hung-over, unwashed pal lovingly Penner is generally accepted.

In formal (and even standard) context, you’d not say Penner (which would be offensive), but Obdachloser, an almost literal cognate to “homeless”.

So:

  • When you’re with friends and you’d say “bum” or “hobo”, using Penner is okay.
  • In general conversation, use Obdachloser, which is non-judgmental.
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    In more formal texts, you may rather see Wohnungsloser ‘homeless’ or Person ohne festen Wohnsitz ‘without residence’ nowadays. One reason probably is that Obdach ‘shelter’ is generally thought to be provided for anyone in need of it. – Crissov Jan 18 '16 at 8:14
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As stated in the comments the literal translation refers to a homeless person.

The reasons it became an insult are probably because of the prejudices that people have against them. I don't really know the situation in other countries, but here in Germany when you think about a "Penner" you basically associate them with being kind of dirty, having drug problems and begging for money that they will just spend on alcohol or cigarettes.

Also most people cannot really understand how those people get into this kind of situation since in Germany social insurances cover a lot of things that can happen to you.

It becomes worse with the fact that a lot beggars are forced to get money in by begging by organized crime. Also there are a lot of stories around about homeless people who are seen at a local supermarket with a full shopping cart. As a consequence they just get seen as kind of a parasite who are too lazy to work and just want to get some extra money by fooling hard working people.

I don't really know how much truth is in the stories that are floating around here, probably some are right, others not. But I hope I could help you to understand the general negative connotation.

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  • you have it completely backwards. It's much more likely that Penner already was an insult when it came to be applied to people sleeping in the streets. Unless you have good evidence that let your suggestion seem probable. – vectory Feb 2 at 17:27
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As noted in the other answers and by yourself, the word Penner means homeless person and can be used as an insult.

The interesting fact, however, is what Penner literally means: It is derived from the verb pennen, which is a colloquial term for schlafen, i.e. to sleep. Hence, Penner could translate to sleeper - probably to describe someone sleeping (visibly, in public).

This is where you get the connection to the negative attributes mentioned in DenkerAffe's answer: Sleeping is arguably the laziest kind of activity homeless people could possibly be doing, which is where the association with being too lazy to work properly comes from.

Hence, to directly answer your question: Penner can be considered insulting because it refers to sleeping, and thereby insinuates a homeless person is too stupid or too lazy to do anything other than relax and sleep all day.

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  • A word being considered an insult because it refering to sleep? I wish Langschläfer, Schlafmütze, Tagträumer and Schläfer were considered offensive ;-) – dakab Jan 16 '16 at 22:04
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    @dakab: Depending on the context, at least Schlafmütze and Tagträumer can indeed be considered offensive. Imagine you somehow fail to notice something important, and instead of "Ihre Aufmerksamkeit lässt zu wünschen übrig.", your boss tells you "Sie sind eine Schlafmütze!" or "Passen Sie besser auf, Sie Tagträumer!" I'd consider that roughly equivalent to replacing "Sie sollten Ihre fachlichen Kenntnisse auffrischen." with "Sie sind ein Dummkopf." – O. R. Mapper Jan 16 '16 at 23:06
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    "Schläfer" is an uncommon word, and has connotations of "sleeper" = "covert agent". – rackandboneman May 1 '18 at 22:23
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All other answers are correct, but the word "Penner" also has other connotations. Quote from https://www.dwds.de/wb/Penner:

  1. A person who is sleeping a lot.

  2. A person who does not pay attention or misses a good opportunity.

  3. A disgusting person.

It is definitely not a compliment if you are called a "Penner". However, I believe it is used most frequently in the sense of 2. Synonyms for "Penner" in that sense are for example

Lahmarsch, Schlafmütze, Schnarchnase, Tranfunzel, Transuse, Trantüte.

This usage is closely related to the verb "verpennen". Phrases like "Das hat er voll verpennt" (or "Das hat er voll verschlafen") exactly refer to 2.

The female form is "Pennerin", but I have never heard that someone used it. Perhaps there are more Penner than Pennerinnen.

Finally, some references:

Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm - doch was ist mit dem späten Wurm?

https://www.welt.de/sport/article201800028/Ironman-Hawaii-2019-Frodeno-ueber-Rivale-Brownlee-War-schon-immer-ein-Penner.html

https://www.mopo.de/sport/wutausbruch-beim-training-hsv-trainer-fink---disziplin--ihr-penner---6053684

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Short and simple:

Normally it refers to a homeless person but in fact it is an common insult.

If your friend calls you "Penner", you should probably take this as insult.

If your teacher talks about "Penner", he probably means a homeless person. (Normally the teacher wouldn't say "Penner".)

In German most sentences depend on the person and situation.

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    I genuinely hope no! teacher ever uses “Penner” to refer to a homeless person. – dakab Jan 21 '16 at 8:58
  • sorry, in this case probably = "wahrscheinlich" – Maurice Jan 21 '16 at 9:00
  • @dakab a naive hope, I think. – rackandboneman May 1 '18 at 22:24
  • @dakab: No, teachers never would use slang words for homeless persons, officially – äüö May 2 '19 at 6:51
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Penner refers to a homeless person, but we always used it as a friendly insult towards someone who did something stupid or wrong. Like they slept through what they were doing...

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    but we always used it as a friendly insult Who is "we"? The people in the region of Germany where you live? Or just you and your friends? In the situation you describe I'm familiar with the terms "Schlafmütze" or "Schnarchnase" or maybe "da hast Du aber gepennt", but never heard "Penner" in a non-offensive context. – Volker Landgraf Dec 15 '19 at 21:29
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    Also neben der Bedeutung für Wohnungslose/Bettler wird es auch oft für Leute benutzt, die gerade etwas verpennt haben, ob im Straßenverkehr oder Schulunterricht. Davon abgeleitet auch für Fehler die auf andere Ursachen zurückgehen können, Dummheit oder was immer, wenn man entweder auf Pennen als dahinterliegende Ursache spekuliert oder eben verallgemeinert; ein Fehler, als hätte man etwas verschlafen/unaufmerksam übersehen. Eine gute Ergänzung, die Antwort, eigentlich, aber m.E. zu schnell kurzschließend zu dumm/falsch, ohne den Hinweis auf verpennen. – user unknown Dec 16 '19 at 3:31
  • From Borbeck, Essen. By 'we' I meant my friends and family. I'm sure other people used it that way as well though. It is still an insult, but nothing anyone would take to heart. – user41040 Dec 16 '19 at 4:56
  • Partially covered by the bit in my answer where I say that it compares to calling a friend a bum in English. – Jan Dec 16 '19 at 7:38
  • Yes, partially covered. My point was that when people in my area used it, the comparison would NOT be 'bum' in English. It would be more along the lines of; dope or idiot. Or someone not paying attention. – user41040 Dec 18 '19 at 10:39
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My main concern was in understanding why being a homeless person should be offensive, or is there another hidden meaning?

I share the doubt. In my personal experience the connotation is not usually intended.

A girl who calls someone a blöder Penner simply uses an insult . There is no deeper meaning. It's in how you say it--Der Ton macht die Musik.

There may be an association to the trodden down, insufferable apperance of certain beggars, but chances are the term was already negative before it was applied to people sleeping in the streets.

The answers claiming otherwise are unsubstantiated; appreciable, but formally inadmissable.

These comments are likewise unsubstantiated:

Note that outdated youth slang term Penne for ‘school’ is usually not associated with Penner, neither when used as an insult nor for homeless people.

there is "Pennäler" which would indeed refer to a schoolchild. Unrelated to Penner

They are correct insofar the interjection is used without any further association! The only association is what can be learned from its broad usage, which hardly includes any scolding of vagabonds. Like F@~k this $#!t, slurs are rarely meant to be taken literal, without doubt.

Confer Pfeifer on pennen:

pennen Vb. ‘schlafen’, umgangssprachlich (19. Jh.) aus der Gaunersprache; vielleicht zu jidd. pannai ‘müßig’, hebr. penaj ‘(freie) Zeit’, eigentlich ‘Zeit zur Muße’, wenn nicht besser Ableitung von

Penne2 f. ‘Kneipe, schlechte Herberge, Schlafstelle’ (Anfang 19. Jh.), älter Benne (Mitte 18. Jh.); aus der Gaunersprache, vgl. Bonne ‘ein Haus, wo Spitzbuben ein und aus gehen’ (Ende 17. Jh.); auch stille Penne ‘Gefängnis, Zuchthaus’ (dieses nach zigeuner. štilepen ‘Gefängnis’?). Vielleicht zu […]

Dazu Pennbruder m. ‘Landstreicher’ (Ende 19. Jh.) und Penner m. ‘Landstreicher, Schlafmütze’ (Anfang 20. Jh.).

[„pennen“, in: Wolfgang Pfeifer et al., Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen (1993), digitalisierte und von Wolfgang Pfeifer überarbeitete Version im Digitalen Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, https://www.dwds.de/wb/pennen, abgerufen am 02.02.2020.]

So it's true that Penner in its current form is whitnessed only turn of the last century, but the underlying notion is older and essentially unknown.

The given comparisons are good guesses, but weak insofar Gaunersprache (e.g. Rotwelsh) is notoriously hard to pin down because it's chiefly oral and secretive by nature.

A derivation of the verb from the noun is not even unlikely, if used as adverb of place, ich geh Penne.

Pfeifer further concedes to seeking Penne elsewhere:

Penne1 f. ‘höhere Schule’, scherzhaft in der Schülersprache (heute veraltend). Aus mlat. pennale ‘Federbüchse’ (in der Lateinschule aufkommend), dem substantivierten Neutrum von mlat. pennalis ‘zur Schreibfeder gehörig’ (zu lat. penna ‘Feder, Flügel’, spätlat. ‘Schreibfeder’), wird Pennal n. ‘Federkasten, Federbüchse’ (15. Jh.) entlehnt. Daraus bildet die Studentensprache scherzhaft Pennal m. ‘Student der ersten Semester, der alle Vorlesungen nachschreibt, deshalb stets sein Schreibzeug bei sich führt’, spottend von älteren Studenten verwendet (Mitte 17. Jh.), später (in der Schülersprache) ‘Gymnasiast, angehender Student’ (19. Jh.) sowie (mit neutralem Genus) ‘Gymnasium’ (Mitte 19. Jh.). Die verkürzende Eindeutschung Penne f. ‘höhere Schule’ entsteht wohl unter Einfluß von

Penne2 ‘Herberge’ (s. d.). Ebenfalls aus Pennal m. ‘Gymnasiast’ geht, zunächst als Schimpfwort, Pennäler m. ‘Schüler’ (Mitte 19. Jh.) hervor; heute ebenfalls in seiner Gebrauchshäufigkeit zurückgehend.

[„Penne“, in: Wolfgang Pfeifer et al., Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen (1993), digitalisierte und von Wolfgang Pfeifer überarbeitete Version im Digitalen Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, https://www.dwds.de/wb/pennen, abgerufen am 02.02.2020.]

Now you surely noticed that the two given etymologies contradict each other. That does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. Rather, it's difficult to say how they could be both correct. If (and only if) we accept that there might be mutual influences should we consider there might be even more:

  1. It's hear-say, but I think Penne used to mean the Karzer (penetentiary facility) in certain schools.

  2. En pen (chicken coop) means enclosure since Old English at least. This has been compared to pin reconstructing *penno

    Proto-Germanic *pennō, *pannijō (“pin, bolt, nail, tack”), from Proto-Indo-European *bend- (“pointed peg, nail, edge”). Akin to Old English pennian (“to close, lock, bolt”) (in compounds onpennian (“to open”)), Low German pennen (“to secure a door with a bolt”) [https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/pen bold emphasis mine]

    • Compare similarly Schalter (switch), Bankschalter (Kasse), Schlüssel (key), Schloss (castle), etc.

    • The slur is likely not so old that PIE need concern us, but for completeness sake note that the existence of *b in PIE is controversial. The root is not indexed in the wiktionary and the claim not sourced, but Texas University's IE Lexicon is indexing *bend- (either often following Pokorny's IEW, which is partially outdated), though showing no descendents other than Germanic, e.g. OE pund "pound", and pintel "penis". The loss of *-d- is not obvious to me. More or less similar roots are indexed: *bak-, *bhendh, *bhedhH-, perhaps *penkwe-, *(s)pen(-d)-, *spend-, *pen-, *bhudh-, *bhew- (as indirectly implied by Pfeifer), *(s)pingo-, *h2epi- ... As the saying goes: Everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer (or just if you have a hammer). Compare Spunt, Spint; also, err, sphincter (Schließ-Muskel).

    • also cp Stift, Stippie, Stepke and Stiftung, Stift, by the way, further Stöpsel, Stopfen and Stoppel, En stubble, stub, further stumpf, dumpf, dumm ... Dom?

    • Ger Hahn im Korb is likely cognate to coop, possibly also related to ab in's Körbchen, but that's not enough to compare Schlaf to Schloss, or anything like that.

  3. Spinner, spinnen: another slur of similar shape, without any obvious connotation. Lying, or creative interpretation, is associated e.g. through Seemansgarn (seeman's yarn, tell tale), further spinning wheel. Compare *bhendh- "to bind, bond" noted above. Having worked in a factory too long I found that it would easily derive from an occupational title, but only a Spinner would think so.

    Eng. spinner may mean tramp, hooker; Incidently, hooker might relate to [hitch] hike (walk the line, Ger auf den Strich gehen). English however says spinster for the occupation in textile; cp Ger Gespenst, *(s)pen(-d)- noted above? Be a bit spontanious? Also cp. spine, spindle (viz peg, pin above).

  4. puny, adj. "inferior ...", n. "A new pupil at a school etc; ...", from Middle French puisne, "contraction of puis (“later”) + né (“born”)", from Latin, from "post" according to wiktionary; However, cp *peH- "small".

  5. A word being considered an insult because it refering to sleep? I wish Langschläfer, Schlafmütze, Tagträumer and Schläfer were considered offensive ;-) – dakab Jan 16 '16 at 22:04 2

    @dakab: Depending on the context, at least Schlafmütze and Tagträumer can indeed be considered offensive. […] – O. R. Mapper Jan 16 '16 at 23:06

    • Although this is correct, sleepy heads themselves rarely are offensive.

    • The term generally implies bad manners, which of course readily allows association with all kinds of low-lifes, outlaws, people who cut the line and miss the light turning green.

  6. Implied above: Penner is often used by women towards sexist men; Usage is paramount for interpretation. Notably it's similar to Penis, insofar dysphemistic slurs often involve genitalia. I thinkt that's not intentional nor subliminal either, but hypotheticly an early influence. Typical example: Jasna Fritzi Bauer towards Taktloss in Loyale Nutten. Also compare arroganter Pinsel.

  7. It's beyond doubt that Schülersprache (see Pfeifer above) would enjoy a good double entendre. IMHO it's beyond reasonable doubt that penna was not one. Just how old it might be is hard to say, if pencil from a sense "tail" gives yet another parallel.

  8. Further, I don't want to touch upon penalty, but the association to jail is there in Pfeifer's notes. I have to remark that penetentiary officers may naturally be the referrent of insults, as much as are teachers.

Speculation usually opens up Pandora's Box, so it should be no surprise that there's no conclusion. But perhaps that's precisely my point, that the application of the slur to poor temporary homeless people and further interpretation, which others already explained, must be deemed coincidental for the time being.

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