It could have been a contender

I came across the word der Mitstreiter in an article in Hinz&Kunzt about Marily Stroux from Wohnschiffprojekt Altona e.V. winning a prize for her work with refugees. It was the occasion for one of my incorrect initial mis-syllabifications. Der Mitstreiter is mit + Streiter (that is “with” + “contender” or “militant” or “champion”) not *mits + Reiter, although the idea of someone who’s “riding with” someone else does capture the meaning of Mitstreiter –”comrade-in-arms” or “ally” – in a poetic sort of way.

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Die Liebe

Ich liebe lieber sehr als häufig.

-Ildikó von Kürthy

…love moderately; long love doth so.

Romeo and Juliet

Sprichwörter haben immer ein kleines bisschen Wahrheit, oder?

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Um Humor aufsuchen

Das Thema war Medizin. Eine Teilnehmerin sagte, dass ein Hautarzt die Haut behandelt. Eine Andere sagte, dass ein Augenarzt die Augen behandelt. Die Nächste, dass ein Frauenarzt Frauen behandelt. Ich wollte einen Witz machen und sagte „Besuchen Häuser denn einen Hausarzt?“

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Words and worth

The „Unwort“ of the year was just announced. What is an Unwort you ask? The prefix »un« can be used as eine Verneinung or a “negation” of the noun that follows it. This suggests that the meaning of the word Unwort, which comprises un + Wort (word), is “non-word.” However things are slightly more subtle than that.

For example, take the word das Unkraut which means “weed.” The word das Kraut means “herb,” “foliage” and “cabbage.”  Thus weeds are “herbs that are not herbs.” For me, with this combination comes the notion that they are of no use to us, unlike herbs or cabbage, or perhaps that they even disrupt the growth of plants that are.

Or consider the word der Unrat. The primary meaning of der Rat is “advice.” Nevertheless der Unrat means “filth” or “muck” and in polite or old-fashioned speech “refuse” (used as a noun meaning “garbage”). I’ve come across Unrat in the historical novels I’ve been reading; and on the red refuse bins here in Hamburg. In this later case, Unrat has been substituted as a play on the expression »Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat« – “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” ( or “things have a way of sorting themselves out” ( Finally, compare das Heil – “salvation” or “health of the soul” or “well-being” and das Unheil – “mischief.”

Let’s return then to das Unwort which 24 contributors to translated as “misnomer” with an added remark categorizing it is an untrue or misleading term. “Ghastly neologism,” “taboo word,” “faux-pas word” and “non-word” also appear. In addition, there is an entry for the full phrase Unwort des Jahres for which the contributor offers “ugliest word of the year.” Consulting Duden online reinforces this impression, stating that an Unwort is an inappropriate word, a negative word and also one whose form is somehow erroneous or fallacious, perhaps leading the hearer or reader astray, just as un + Kraut, un + Rat and un + Heil all do.

Indeed das Unwort des Jahres 2015, „Gutmensch“ fits this pattern given it takes the positive word gut and the neutral word Mensch* and combines them into a word used to describe the people providing help and support for refugees. To say Gutmensch when referring to such people is to say that they are stupid, naive and deluded for helping, nay, even for tolerating, refugees.

Maybe this is a step to far, but I have wonder, are certain users of this word also intending to imply that the refugees (those being helped by the so-called Gutmenschen) don’t quality for the term Mensch? That is,  in direct contradiction to the German constitution, which is founded on the idea that the dignity of man is inviolable, is the intention to suggest that refugees are less than human? If so, there is something particularly invidious about using a word like „Gutmensch“ to defame or denigrate as the insult or threat it holds may be somewhat obscured  for the uncritical listener by the positive connotations of gut.


*Interestingly, the word mensch has come into English from Yiddish to mean “someone worthy of respect, who has integrity,” making the gut almost superfluous.

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Roman, romantisch

Ich lese einen historischen Roman – „Die Freimaurerin“. Es interessiert mich sehr, wie die Autorin bei dem Leser/In ein bestimmtes Gefühl  hervorrufen versucht. Zum Beispiel verwendet sie die Ausdrücke „die Stirn runzeln” und „die Augenbrauen zusammenziehen” ziemlich oft. Sie gibt auch viele Details nicht nur über solche Mienen, sondern auch Kleidung und Dekoration. Sie erfindet eine ganze Welt.

Getting a word in edgewise

I’ve started a new Lernkrimi which has an exercise where you are required to pick out the words whose meanings that are similar to sagen – “to say, to tell or to speak.” From the list given, I already knew the words sprechen, reden, plaudern, erzählen, erklären, and vortragen. I wasn’t yet familiar with äußern, kundtun, schwatzen and anmerken. There were, however, more words in my vocabulary from this semantic field: ausdrücken, erwidern, antworten, meinen, flüsternbemerken, tratschen, klatschen, sich unterhalten, diskutieren, debattieren, heißenbehaupten, schreien, rufen, quatschen and berichten. Looking further led me to erläutern, verdeutlichenausrufen, ankündigen, kontern, sich über etwas/jemanden auslassen, durchsagen, labern, plappern, quasseln, faseln, schwafeln and schwadronieren.

One way of exploring the different nuances in meaning is to look at the common co-occurrences or collocations. If you take the trio antwortenerwidern and kontern and look them up on, you find both overlap and contrast among the words that commonly accompany each of them. For antworten the most common words are: mit Jamit Neinausweichend (“evasively”) and auf Frage (“to [a] question”). For erwidern they are: Gruß  (“regards” or “greeting”), Liebe (“love”) and Zuneigung (“affection”). For kontern they are Attacken (“attacks”), mit Gegenfrage (“with a counter question”) and Vorhaltungen (“reproaches”).

Our word choices can also indicate our feelings or opinions about a subject. For example, if you say plaudern – “to chat,” or as PONS puts it „sich gemütlich unterhalten“ – you likely mean to convey quite a different feeling about the interaction you are describing than if you were to use the word diskutieren – “to discuss” (although there can be occasions when someone asks you to “pop in for a little chat” where this can be a threat of something quite ungemütlich to come). If we mention seeing someone and use the word schwadronieren – to hold forth – to describe the way she/he told a story, we create quite a different impression than if we were to use the more neutral word erzählenClearly there is a lot to say when we are talking about “talking!”


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Hear je, Hear je!

On my run this morning I had another moment of seeing how the parts can indicate something about the meaning of the whole word. The word was jemand and it means “someone, somebody. anyone, or anybody,” which fits with its parts:

je – “each”
je – “ever”
je – “per, as in for each or for every”

man – “one” or “you” or “we” or “people” or “they”

The man inside jemand is a signal that this indefinite pronoun can only replace a person. There is another family of je words – jederjedenjedemjedes, and jede – that can be used to replace either an object or a person. These latter je-words can also be used as adjectives as in this example from PONS:

Ich liebe jede Art von Schokolade – I love any form of chocolate

Thank goodness for this blog allowing me to tell someone, anyone, and/or everyone about this discovery!

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Weighty matters?

I feel as though I may finally have cracked the code for adjective inflection, thanks to For each word, they supply the various forms that the word may take. For adjectives these are the positive, comparative and superlative forms and the three inflection classes for each of these. Why three classes? Because in addition to gender, number, and case, German requires different inflections based on whether there is no article, a definite article or an indefinite article. These are respectively the strong, weak and mixed inflectional forms and it is these names that now begin to make sense.

The strong or stark inflection is the most varied. For each gender and for the plural form, there are three different forms. However, because there is some overlap, there are only five forms in total. That’s still a lot to remember, hence one needs to be “strong” or “do some heaving lifting” memory-wise when going without an article.

The weak or schwach inflection is the least varied. Each gender takes only two forms and these two forms are the same for all of them – an “e” or an “en” ending. The plural has only one form – an “en” ending. To stay with the idea of heft, two is less than five, thus less “strength” is needed to “pick up”these forms (assuming, of course, that one has mustered the strength to commit the definite articles to memory).

Finally, in the mixed inflection each gender has just two forms, however these vary between them and therefore there are four forms in total (the plural has only one form). For the feminine and the plural, the forms are identical to those of the weak inflection – “e” and “en” endings for the feminine and the “en” for the plural. For the masculine, the ending in the nominative case is “r” and for the neutral, the ending in the nominative and accusative cases is “s” – just as they were with the strong inflection. In the other cases the ending is “en.” In my mind’s eye, I see some barbells. The masculine one has a single weight on one side and three on the other; the feminine and neutral have two weights on each side; and the plural has all of the weights in the middle since it takes only one form.

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Why it helps to know the local language – II

I started this post ages ago, but last week I was back at the Bezirksamt Eimsbüttel and the experience was so much less stressful that I was finally able to complete it.


I had just moved into a new apartment. As required by law, I was on my way to register this change of address when I saw this headline on the front page of the paper that the woman across from me on the U-Bahn was reading:

Kundenzentren Computerpanne legt alle sieben Hamburger Bezirksämter lahm.

Now the word lahmlegen was not familiar, but the word die Computerpanne was. I’d been reading the book Mein Leben voll daneben!* and in it there is quite a bit about “computer glitches” and their consequences for the young hero Polly (panne also exists as a slang word meaning “nuts” or “dumb”). Even without knowing the meaning of lahmlegen, it didn’t sound like the Bezirksamt was the place to be that day and so I went to the Isemarkt and did a bit of food shopping instead.

Later I was able to find out that lahmlegen means “to paralyze [something]” or “to bring something to a standstill.” On its own lahm can mean “lame” or “paralyzed” or “sluggish” and lähmen is “to paralyze [somebody/something].” I was quite relieved that I’d been able to get the basic meaning and had decided not to try to do my registration.

I should have stayed away a bit longer, though, as when I visited the next week, it took nearly four hours to be seen and there couldn’t have been more than five minutes left until closing time when my number appeared on the board. That being said, the woman who helped me was very calm and we finished the registration without any fuss in about two minutes.


*More soon about voll daneben, “alone” and other expressions that can only be used as predicates (e.g., while “He is alone.” is grammatically correct “He is an alone man” is not).


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Das kann dauern

In der Regel wartet man am längsten auf die Vorsilben der trennbaren Verben. Aber mit diesem Satz muss man auch geduldig sein, um die richtige Bedeutung zu kapieren:

»Sinkende Verkaufszahlen und immer weniger Festanstellungen: Der Trend in der Branche der gedruckten Zeitungen betrifft Magazine wie BISS aus München oder Hinz&Kunzt aus Hamburg nicht.«

In diesem Fall steht das Wort „nicht“ ganz am Ende. (Hier gibt es eine Tabelle mit Bespielen der Positionen „nicht“ haben kann.) Wenn man diesen Satz liest, kann man Wörter überspringen, bei hören nicht.

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