I picked up my earth science book again on this the 4th anniversary edition of Earthquake Words and almost immediately stumbled across a familiar false friend, der Herd, but not with the meaning I expected. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being the name for a “stove” or “cooker,” der Herd also means “epicenter” when it is used in the context of earthquakes. Which got me to thinking about the way in which a stove might be thought of as being a center. It turns out that Herd and “stove” both have their roots in Latin and in the idea of the “hearth” which certainly would have been the focal point about which much of a family’s life would revolve as in the expression Heim und Herd. Thus it was intriguing to find that “focus” can be translated as der Brennpunkt because this word can be taken apart and its own fiery origins revealed: it is a compound formed from the verb brennen – “to burn” – and der Punkt – the “spot,” “dot” or “point.”
Canoo.net suggests that the “focus” meaning of der Herd is “the origin of something negative” and gives der Krankheitsherd (“seat of a disease”), der Brandherd (“trouble spot” or “source of fire”), der Unruheherd (“flash point” or “source of unrest” in addition to “trouble spot”), das Pulverfass (“powder keg” or “tinder box”) and der Erdbebenherd as subordinate meanings.
I also discovered that while der Herd – “the stove” – and its plural die Herde are false friends of “the herd” (as in “a group of animals”), die Herde (whose plural happens to be die Herden) is a cognate. Now I don’t know if this would qualify as a Teekesselchen because the one noun is singular and the other plural, but it certainly had me confused. In checking out which animals could make up a herd – for example, die Schafherde “sheep” – I discovered two nifty words for referring to “flocks of birds,” namely die Vogelschar and der Vogelschwarm. Die Schar is given many meanings on dict.cc such as “flock,” “bevy,” “gaggle” and “crowd” and der Schwarm gives us “school” as in fish, as well as “swarm” as in bees, butterflies and meteorites.
But, if we want to translate a favorite phrase of mine, “herding cats,” we have to turn to instead to the phrase einen Sack voll Flöhe hüten and “herd or tend a sack of fleas.” Hüten also has a second reflexive form sich hüten – meaning to “to beware of” or “to be on one’s guard against” and this is one place where we need to heed another expression – sich for falschen Freunden hüten!