The little word that could

I’ve been finding myself struggling with how many words seemed to be formed from the stem Zug. As a word on its own der Zug is most commonly used by new speakers like myself to mean “train” and this is also far and away the winner on dict.cc (1182 give this as the translation, the second most common translation, with 84 votes, is “tug” as in “he straightened the tablecloth with a little tug”).

The two examples giving me the most grief, because they seem so completely unrelated, both to each other and to der Zug, are der Anzug – “the suit” as in clothing – and der Aufzug – “the elevator/lift.”  It turns out that they are related, if you stretch that notion a bit, but not directly via der Zug.

Zug is very productive – canoo.net lists 241 forms – but neither der Anzug nor der Aufzug is among them. The –zug portion of all three forms comes from the verb ziehen – “to pull” (and also “to tug” making that connection back to der Zug). For those of you scratching your heads trying to see a connection between zieh and zug, it is via zog, one of the craziest past tense forms around (see my description of it and some of its buddies here in the post First Anniversary). Yup, you say ich ziehe and ich zog and all that changes is when the action happened!

Der Anzug was born when the prefix an was added to make anziehen whose meanings “to put on” or “to dress” best fit this context (apologies, unconscious punning in action). Likewise for der Aufzug, the prefix auf has been added to make aufziehen whose meanings “to raise” or “to bring up” are most relevant here. The nouns forms are created by converting the forms derived from these prefix + zog combinations by subjecting them to ablaut. Ablaut exists in both English and German and involves the signaling of a grammatical change by a change in vowel. For example, ablaut gets us from “sing” to “sang” to “sung” (and from singen to sang to gesungen) and also to the derived noun “song” (unfortunately, while der Song is a word and means “song,” what you will hear people say is das Lied).

Given how funny it must be for German speakers when I confuse der Anzug and der Aufzug, not to mention forgetting that gezogen is the past tense of ziehen, it is interesting to note that one meaning given for aufziehen is “to tease somebody” and another is “to hoist” – perhaps I should just laugh rather than allowing these forms to “wind me up?!”

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One thought on “The little word that could

  1. kwhirsh says:

    I came across another meaning of der Zug in reading Google’s attempt to translate this phrase [und bot ihm einen Zug daraus an]. It should have been something like “and offered him a puff/drag on it” but it came out as “and offered him a train on it.” Not a problem for a native speaker to recognize this as absurd, but what an earthquake word for someone who tried this out thinking you could “offer someone a train” on a pipe or cigarette?!

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