Today’s post is in honor of our shared cultural symbolism that connects small mammals with long and sometimes floppy ears with Easter and the delivery of eggs, especially the chocolate kind. Now, you ask, why didn’t I say “rabbits” given we refer to the “Easter Rabbit” or even the “Easter Bunny” in English? Well, in German it is der Osterhase or “Easter Hare,” while the word “rabbit” (or as it was described to me by a German acquaintance “that smaller animal with spoon-shaped ears that children have”) is translated in my Pons dictionary as das Kaninchen – which to my ears sounds like it should be a small canine – and the word “bunny” is translated as das Häschen!
Well then, what is there to say about hares? It turns out that they appear in a number of German expressions. But before I get to the examples, I wanted to say a little bit about idiomatic expressions. To get some background, I looked at a paper that analyzed the ways in which idioms were arranged in Italian-English dictionaries. In addition to reminding me of the features that make idioms idioms, I also came away with a deeper appreciation of the challenges we languages learners face when trying to use dictionaries to learn idioms (the more linguistically-minded among you might enjoy perusing this article). In particular, there is the challenge that not every content word in an idiomatic phrase gets an entry under that word, therefore advance apologies if your favorite German expression about der Hase isn’t mentioned here!
Here’s the lowdown on idioms:
- You may not be able to say why a phrase means what it does, but you only get the idiomatic meaning when you use the phrase as a whole, or to use an idiomatic expression, the whole is greater than (or different from) the sum of its parts
- You may be able to change words or rearrange them, but only certain changes are allowed or the phrase loses its meaning
- You may be able to connect some of the words to their literal meanings, but then again you may not
Let’s dig into some examples which feature der Hase.
In German you can say wissen/sehen, wie der Hase läuft and this can be rendered as “to know/see which way the wind is blowing.” The literal translation of “knowing/seeing how the hare runs” does have a connection to the meaning of the set phrase as it is about knowing, but it is unlikely that anyone (other than perhaps someone seeking those Easter eggs) would have much interest in how or where the hare is running. I loved the way this page explained the origin of the English idiom and made reference to Bob Dylan: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/222050.html. What it suggests by saying that sailors needed to know the direction of the wind, is that this phrase is about understanding something important, however in our modern age of ships powered by motors rather than sails, this does seem a bit quaint.
Clearly, there is or was something quite significant about hares running as they also feature in so läuft der Hase or “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” which means something to the effect that “bad things can happen and it’s often best to accept them and move on rather than mope.” (Or if I were to quote a musical line to illustrate this it might be from the John Lennon tune Beautiful Boy: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.)
To take us in a different direction, in German you can say Mein Name ist Hase and mean something like “I haven’t got a clue.” I’m not sure where this would leave someone whose name really was Hase, but I am guessing that he/she would have been teased as a child. The English phrase seems pretty literal – “I don’t have any idea (sorry)” – however, if you replace “clue” with “piece of evidence” people very likely wouldn’t have a clue what you meant.
And somewhat poignantly, apparently der falscher Hase is “meatloaf.” I wonder what you’d find in the Easter basket he delivered?!