Poesie made in London

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? Read more

‘Ein’ oder nicht ‘ein’

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… Read more

Tales of the Rhine

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? Read more

Mother’s passport

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. Read more

Gute Fahrt, Mr Krabs!

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

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

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

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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