German disease

Doctors Hospital Corridor Nurse Pushing Gurney Stretcher Bed

My husband and his colleagues often discuss how strange the German language is to them. They find it amusingly logical that gloves are called ‘hand shoes’, love the fact that the end of a working day is called ‘celebration night’ and wonder why women’s football teams are called Mannschaft (literally: ‘manship’ – the related matter of sexism in the German language will have to be discussed in a separate entry). Another one of those peculiar words is Krankenhaus.

‘Why would you want to go to a “sick house” to give birth?’ one colleague observed. True. For the same reason, the former Krankenschwester (‘nurse’; literally: ‘sick people’s sister’) is now officially called ‘Gesundheits- und Krankenpflegerin’ (‘health and sick people’s carer’), which is even more ludicrous as not only is it awkwardly long but it also unfittingly combines an abstract noun and a concrete noun. Our health insurance companies, however, are still called Krankenkassen (‘sick people’s funds’). Well, we Germans are known for our propensity to go see the doctor and for an obsession with our own ailments.

This talk about the health sector reminds me of a so-called ‘false friend’, a word that seems to be identical in two languages, but isn’t. The German Klinik (or Klinikum) has a distinctly different meaning from the English ‘clinic’. The German word usually refers to a specialised hospital or medical centre or is sometimes simply a synonym of Krankenhaus. The English word, on the other hand, denotes something usually of smaller scale and restricted to outpatient treatment. Depending on the context, it may be translated, among others, as Praxis, Ambulanz or even Sprechstunde, but rarely as Klinik.

Next time you go see your doctor, be a proper German and ask for your Krankenschein, will you? Meanwhile, the Pommes Buddha will be dealing with a different kind of incompatibility.

The Pommes Buddha says: When your Hexenschuss plagues you, sick people’s gymnastics is the way.

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Poesie made in London

bangers and mash

Als ich meinem Ehemann, einem Typen aus Südost-London, erzählte, dass ich einen Eintrag über Rhyming Slang schreiben wolle und ihn fragte, was er mir darüber sagen könne, erwiderte er, dieser Patois sei altmodisch und eigentlich nicht mehr gebräuchlich. Und das aus dem Mund desselben Mannes, der allabendlich unserer Tochter amüsiert ins Gesicht sagt, sie sei „cream-crackered“ (= knackered; etwa: „hundemüde“). Aber was hat bloß Steffi Graf mit alldem zu tun?

Beim sogenannten Rhyming Slang handelt es sich um eine aus London stammende ursprünglich als Ganovensprache entwickelte „Geheimsprache“, die darauf aufbaut, dass man das eigentlich gemeinte Wort durch eine Redewendung ersetzt, die sich auf dieses Wort reimt. Ein Beispiel aus dem klassischen (und laut dem an dieser Stelle zur vertiefenden Lektüre empfohlenen Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang in der Tat heute obsoleten) Rhyming Slang ist apples and pears („Äpfel und Birnen“) anstelle von stairs („Treppe“). Das genannte Wörterbuch definiert des Weiteren eine zumindest passiv geläufige Form des Rhyming Slang, die durch Kultfilme und –serien wie Only Fools and Horses und Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels am Leben erhalten bleibt. Hierzu gehört dog and bone („Hund und Knochen“) für phone („Telefon“). Schließlich gibt es noch die Neuschöpfungen, den modernen und durchaus gebräuchlichen Rhyming Slang. Aus den 1990er Jahren stammt der Ausdruck Steffi Graf für (having a) laugh („lachen“, „sich lustig machen“). Es kann sich bei den Redewendungen also auch um Namen bekannter (realer wie fiktiver) Persönlichkeiten handeln.

Treibt man die Charade auf die Spitze, so verwendet man nicht die gesamte Redewendung, sondern lediglich den ersten Teil davon. So entstehen Sätze wie You’re having a Steffi oder Take a pig’s out of the tower („Nimm‘ ein Bier [pig’s ear à beer] aus dem Kühlschrank [Tower Bridge à fridge]“; Zitat der Schauspielerin Gemma Arterton in einer 2014er Dezemberausgabe der Sendung Alan Carr Chatty Man als Beispiel für eine typische Aussage ihres Cockney sprechenden Vaters).

In Australien scheint sich eine eigene Variante des Rhyming Slang entwickelt zu haben, denn im genannten Oxford Dictionary werden auch etliche australische Neuschöpfungen erwähnt.

Und beim nächsten Mal geht’s um eine Eigenheit der deutschen Sprache …

Der Pommes-Buddha sagt: Wer ohne Würstchen zum Gürtel geht, steckt in Barney. (Na, wer kann das entschlüsseln?)

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‘Ein’ oder nicht ‘ein’

Homemade Raspberry Polish Paczki Donut

Some things are really, really small, but they can make a huge difference. From a linguistic perspective, articles are such things. The rules for their application in various languages are often tricky, which is why many non-native speakers can be found out by their incorrect use of them. Knowing that our grammar is particularly relentless, we Germans will happily overlook any such slip, in particular as it normally won’t impair understanding. However, there are some exceptions …

When John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin in 1963, his blunder (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’) went down in history as the Jelly Doughnut Misconception. (I’d like it noted that I strongly disagree with the statement made in the Wikipedia entry, according to which the ‘figurative’ meaning of the sentence requires the indefinite article.) The correct version would have been ‘Ich bin Berliner’. While this goof went widely unnoticed, it is a brilliant example of an error that has since become rife even among native Germans. I am convinced the Duden will one day rubber-stamp ‘Ich bin ein Lehrer’ as grammatically correct. However, dear non-native speakers and lackadaisical Germans, it is not! Unlike in English, when expressing affiliation to a profession, religion, community or other group, you cannot use an article. In most cases, using one has no consequence, except sounding somehow ‘strange’. However, some snacks named after cities can be an issue. Beware of turning yourself into a hot dog (‘Frankfurter’/‘Nürnberger’) or a hamburger (‘Hamburger’). Simply do without the article, and it’s clear that you are (or feel like) a citizen of the respective place.

By the way, in Berlin, Berliner go by Pfannkuchen and Pfannkuchen by Eierkuchen. So there you go. The people of Berlin wouldn’t call themselves doughnuts now, would they? That’s why JFK got away with it …

To learn what linguistic oddities you can get away with in England, come back next week.

The Pommes Buddha says: Pancake or eggcake – we’re all human.

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Tales of the Rhine

Burg Maus über dem Rheintal

The other day on the bus I went past a stop called ‘Rheinsteinstraße’. That reminded me of the English word ‘rhinestone’, which is used primarily as a name for little fake gems that decorate clothing items (‘Strasssteine’), as in the (cheesy) song Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. So what’s the connection with the big long river on which Cologne is situated?

According to the eponymous Wikipedia entry, rhinestones were originally indeed gathered from the river Rhine. This river, one of today’s most important waterways, has a great deal to offer. Not only does it run through (and lend part of its name to) Germany’s most populous Bundesland North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), passing its largest cities Bonn, Cologne and Duesseldorf, but it is also the setting of many a rambler’s wet dream, the Rheinsteig. This leisurely and beautiful hiking trail follows the course of the Rhine. It sets off in Bonn and soon passes the Siebengebirge mountains, whose Drachenfels (‘Dragon’s Rock’) is supposed to have been the stage of Siegfried’s famous battle with the beast, as purported in the Nibelungen saga. It continues its path along the Middle Rhine, an area of astounding beauty which has inspired scores of writers in the Romantic period, including Lord Byron. Eventually, it takes you through the lovely Rheingau region with its superb wines (don’t miss out on Kloster Eberbach, the very monastery where part of The Name of the Rose was shot) and finishes in picturesque Wiesbaden.

And then you have the whole saga thing involving the Rhine going on. If you’re an opera aficionado, you’ll know Wagner’s Ring, as the four-part Ring der Nibelungen is referred to. Really great stuff, if you can turn a blind eye to the composer’s dubitable qualities as a human being. Or, if you’re a bookworm like I am, you’ll devour Stephan Grundy’s Rhinegold, which compellingly retells the Scandinavian version of the famous legend.

Next week, let’s look at the British person’s paragon of romanticism.

The Pommes Buddha says: Roses are red, violets are blue, rhinestones are tacky and so are you.

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Mother’s passport

Schwangere Frau liegend hält  Babybauch und Mutterpass

As the birth of our second child is imminent or may have taken place by the time you read this, I’ve been thinking about this oddly-named booklet that accompanies you through your pregnancy in Germany, the Mutterpass (literally: ‘mother’s passport’). To me it sounds like a certificate you’re awarded when you’ve passed all the exams related to baby stuff such as changing nappies, mopping up barf and skillfully steering around nervous breakdowns two to three times a day.

One manufacturer of baby formula had this very suitable TV ad, which unfortunately I’m unable to locate online. It said something along the lines of ‘No prior experience required. No need for an interview. No assessment centre. And yet the job is yours’, meaning the job of being a parent. The Mutterpass, accordingly, is not a proof of aptitude. It’s a medical document filled out by your OB-GYN (note to German readers: pronounce each letter separately – by the way, a brilliant source for English abbreviations is which you have to have on your person at all times throughout your pregnancy.

On my quest to find out whether the same thing existed in English-speaking countries, I came across the South Australian ‘pregnancy record’, but couldn’t find an NHS equivalent. My husband’s cousin, a mother of two, informed me that the English equivalent is an A4 record simply referred to as ‘the notes’. I’d love to hear of other ‘bump log’ versions from you ladies around the globe.

The online dictionary suggests two translations for Mutterpass, one of them being the above-mentioned ‘pregnancy record (book/booklet)’. However, I found the other one, ‘maternity log’, much more appealing, imagining how I navigate through some kind of baby haze and keep a log to record my journey to and through parenthood. Reminds me a bit of the Ehefähigkeitszeugnis (literally: ‘proof of ability for marriage’, legally a so-called ‘certificate of no impediment’) I only barely escaped from providing when getting married in England.

Next week, we’ll check out a different type of pass …

The Pommes Buddha says: Never trust a mother without a passport.

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Gute Fahrt, Mr Krabs!

Asphalt mit dem Text Gute Fahrt

Any expat living abroad will experience this at some point: you’ll come across a word in the language of your country of choice that may provoke an inappropriate reaction because, though being perfectly neutral in that language, it is rude or knee-slappingly hilarious in your native tongue. Let’s look at some German words that cannot be pronounced by an English-speaking person without at least a tiny smirk.

It all starts with ‘Gute Fahrt!’ (‘Have a safe journey!’), which my husband, in his British, slightly-embarrassed but giggly, can’t-let-that-one-go-uncommented manner usually responds to with ‘Don’t mind if I do …,’ as it sounds to him like best wishes for a healthy passing of wind.

Remaining in the realm of digestion, one day on our street I came across a van labelled with a strange company name that doesn’t even mean anything in German but struck me because it would have been impeccably spelled, were it an English name: Oxenfart (pertaining to a certain Frank, who, as it happens, does very snazzy bathrooms).

Names of companies or products are a fascinating thing in this respect, by the way. Have any of you heard of the Mitsubishi Pajero? Probably not, because it’s called ‘Shogun’ in the UK and ‘Montero’ in North America and Spanish-speaking countries because in colloquial Spanish ‘pajero’ means ‘wanker’. Also, would you go and have your hair cut at a salon called ‘Arson Hair’? (Could be a great dare for your next stag or hen do, though …) But my all-time-favourite in Cologne is … drum roll … Mr Krabs, which is actually a good name for someone dealing in aquarium paraphernalia! Can’t remember why I thought it was funny …

Sorry, guys and girls, this was a very childish foray to the not-so-profound linguistic depths – but I couldn’t resist. And next week, too, we’ll have a crackin’ time, I promise.

The Pommes Buddha says: When you’re looking for crayfish, Mr Krabs is your guy!

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Von Linden und Limetten

Fresh juicy limes on wooden table, on dark background

Neulich, Ende August, war mal wieder die Windschutzscheibe unseres Gelegenheitskraftfahrzeugs mit diesen schön hartnäckigen Absonderungen von Lindenbäumen verunreinigt. Als ich meinem Mann erklären wollte, woher die Klebe kommt, fiel mir auf, dass mir, wie viele andere botanische und zoologische Bezeichnungen, das englische Wort für „Linde“ nicht geläufig war. Also, Wörterbuch zur Hand und …

Wie bitte? „Lime tree“??? Aber „lime“ heißt doch „Limette“. Was also, wenn man einen Limettenbaum meint? Ich war komplett verwirrt und gleichzeitig fasziniert von diesem für mich völlig absurden „Teekesselchen“ oder, linguistisch ausgedrückt, Polysem. Zumal „lime“, nebenbei bemerkt, auch noch „Kalk“ heißen kann. Und da behaupte noch einmal jemand, Englisch sei eine einfache Sprache.

In einer bekannten Online-Enzyklopädie lässt sich unter dem englischen Eintrag zum Lindenbaum (unter dem botanischen Namen „Tilia“) nachlesen, dass „lime“ vom mittelenglischen „lind“ stammt und dass „linden“ ursprünglich das entsprechende Adjektiv war. (Die Verwandtschaft des Deutschen und Englischen wird in den jeweiligen alten und mittelalten Varianten dieser Sprachen immer wieder frappierend deutlich.)

Übrigens kommt der umgangssprachliche Spitzname „Limey“, mit dem Amerikaner und Australier die Briten bezeichnen, nach einer Lesart von dem Liverpooler Straßennamen „Lime Street“, dem Sitz des Hauptbahnhofs und Ausgangspunkt für viele Auswanderer in diese Länder. Hier kommt der Name jedoch, im Gegensatz zur in Deutschland wohlbekannten „Lindenstraße“ (TV-Vorabendserie vergleichbar mit der englischen „Coronation Street“), wohl eher vom Kalkstein. Eine andere, wahrscheinlichere Auslegung, verortet den „Limey“ tatsächlich bei der Zitrusfrucht. Danach handelt es sich um eine abschätzige Bezeichnung für Seeleute, die zur Prävention von Skorbut Limetten entsafteten und mit Wasser versetzt zu sich nahmen.

Im vorweihnachtlichen Deutschland werden Zitrusfrüchte hingegen gern im Glühwein verwendet. Doch dazu mehr nächste Woche …

Der Pommes-Buddha sagt: Ob Kalk, Limette oder Linde, der Leim hält alles zusammen.

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When Horst met Doris

Alps - Hiking Couple takes break in mountains

Nomen est omen, the Latin saying goes. Is it really true that your name tells people more about you than you’d suspect? And what the heck does all of this have to do with Horst and Doris?

The authors of Freakonomics have linked baby names from US-American registry files with the average amount of years the respective mothers have spent in further and higher education. They maintain that your first name reveals your social origin (read more here).

But then there are names that burden their bearers not only as – supposed – telltale tokens of their social background but also as derisive designations, thus having acquired their own separate little picturesque lives as nouns. For example, Horst may be a nice (likely middle-aged) guy in German, but if used in a certain context (Du Horst!), the name is a way of expressing one’s displeasure at the other person’s foolishness. (Even more emphasis can be added by referring to someone as a Vollhorst.) The British, and apparently also US-American, equivalent would be ‘Doris’, as evidenced in a quote from the TV series Life of Crime, ‘You’re not even a constable. You’re a Doris. A plonk.’ (Incidentally, ‘plonk’ in British English may also refer to ‘cheap wine’, Plörre in German.)

I’m sure there are more examples of proper names being used in a derogatory manner in other English-speaking countries, and I’d love to hear from you, dear natives of those lands – do make avid use of the ‘Comment’ section below.

I wonder, though, why it’s a male name in German and a female name in English. Are there more male twonks in Germany and more female wallies in England? Or is it just a matter of Horst & Doris’ respective life partners being less tolerant than their counterparts? This is a mystery we’ll never solve. One mystery that can be solved, however, is that of the guy living in the roof gutter. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: Don’t put the saddle on the wrong Horst.

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Of owls and other birds

UK Wild Llittle Owl

In a recent conversation with friends, the German saying Wat dem eenen sin Uhl [Eule], is dem annern sin Nachtigall (literally: ‘One man’s owl is another man’s nightingale’) came up. When my English husband enquired about the meaning of Nachtigall, our friends’ sixteen-year-old daughter suggested ‘mockingbird’ (Spottdrossel) as a translation. But isn’t that an entirely different kettle of fish?

After some discussion, it turned out that the daughter, who insisted she had verified the translation (‘Generation Y’-style, on her smartphone, of course), based her assumption on the German translation of the book title ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Wer die Nachtigall stört). In this specific case, the mockingbird, commonly found in North America and the state bird of several US-American states while rarely sighted in Europe, was replaced in the German book title by the nightingale, a bird more prevalent there and thus more familiar to German-speaking readers. (Besides, Wer die Spottdrossel stört just hasn’t got this certain ring to it, does it?). Translation theorists refer to this seeming mismatch as ‘pragmatic translation’ or ‘cultural substitution’, meaning that a culture-specific word is replaced with a target-language word with a different meaning but a similar impact on the target reader (Mona Baker: In other words. A coursebook on translation. Routledge, 1992, p.31).

Getting back to the German saying, it is maintained that the owl represents doom or death, whereas the nightingale with its beautiful song is a bearer of good news, so an apt translation would indeed be ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

My favourite use of the German Nachtigall, however, is in the Berlin figure of speech Nachtijall, ick hör’ da trapsen!, which refers to the speaker’s hunch or premonition about something – perhaps a ‘ghost driver’. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: When the nightingale traipses, there is no escape.

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