Week 7 Anniversary

Earthquakes make the ground tremble and according to Online Etymology, the word “terrible” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *tres–  which means “to tremble.” What both earthquakes and trembling bring to mind for most of us is fear – think of the related word “terror” – thus, it can be rather confusing for people trying to learn English when they come across  the adverbial form of “terrible” – “terribly”-  as the former usually signals something negative and the latter something positive (think “terrific”).

“That was a terrible meal” VS. “That was a terribly good meal”

Similar issues arise with “awful” and “awfully,” which can be substituted above with no significant change to the meanings of these sentences. In both cases, the adverbial form has come to be used as an intensifier rather like “very” or “really.”

It turns out that there is at least one similar situation in German. Because German does not have a suffix like “-ly” to mark adverbial forms, disambiguating the two meanings/usages is perhaps even more confusing for a non-native speaker; one must rely on the surrounding words to get the correct sense. The word I’m thinking of here is unheimlich. As an adjective, pons.eu says it means “terrible” or “eerie” or “sinister” or “gives you the creeps” and also “incredible” and “terrific.” As an adverb, the meaning given by pons.eu is “incredibly” (or “eerily,” however this meaning is not given in the entry for unheimlich but only when you look up “eerily” itself).

Also note that unhelpful un at the beginning of unheimlich. This prefix usually signals negation as it does in English (you may recall unsichtbar from a previous post, meaning “not (or in-) visible”), thus increasing one’s tendency to believe this word has a negative connotation. However, appearances can be deceiving as heimlich also expresses something on the negative end of the spectrum, among the possibilities dict.cc gives are: “furtive(ly),” “surreptitious(ly),” “secret,” “clandestine,” “steathily” and “covert(ly).” Using heimlich with a verb adds a sense of sneakiness or doing something on the QT, for example, “to elope” – heimlich heiraten, “to plot something in secret” – etwas heimlich planen.

There is a German expression that plays off this pair – Lieber heimlich schlau als unheimlich doof – which means something to the effect of “It is better to be brilliant and keep quiet about it than it is to be an obvious and loud-mouthed idiot” (I did like this effort to preserve the word play: “Better guardedly canny than uncannily stupid” – although I altered the last word as the original made me uncomfortable).

So here’s wishing you an awfully, terribly, tremendously, earth-shakingly, unheimlich good week!

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One thought on “Week 7 Anniversary

  1. […] is that you sometimes simply don’t get what you expected. For instance, when I was writing the post about unheimlich, I noticed that “sinister” was given as a meaning and figured that […]

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