Ampel is the German word for traffic light. And Mann is German for man. If you put -chen at the end of a word, it makes it a small version. Like in English when you put a -y sound on something, eg. doggy, kitty. So Ampelmännchen means "little traffic light man", which is exactly what it is. It's the figures on the pedestrian light at an intersection which show you when to walk or to wait. West Germany has the boring normal one, which is just a skinny stick figure, sort of like what they use to illustrate the Olympic sports. But East Germany has/had a much much cooler set of figures:
Aren't they great? Full of character with that stout body and hat. I really like the green one, walking off with purpose and with his hat set at a jaunty angle, ready to face the world. Not to slight the red one, he manages to show that you should wait without making you feel that you are being preached to. And who wouldn't want to wait, to stride across the street with the green man, pretending you are wearing a hat that is set at a jaunty angle?
I first saw them in February 1994, when I went on a week tour of eastern Germany; visiting Leipzig, Halle, Dresden and Berlin. Seeing them again on TV, especially after hearing music from the time period as well, brought that moment in time and place back to me. It was a very Proustian moment.