Today when I made a mistake and put on lip balm/salve before, rather than after, brushing my teeth, I shook my head and said to myself „Nein, Nein, Nein.“ Just then I realized that if overheard by a Brit, this exclamation could be taken either as something truly dire or something ironically exaggerated, because to get the emergency services one calls 999 (I started to write “one dials” and then was struck by how rarely this would literally describe the motion one would make in this age of smartphones). Yes, the sounds are a bit more clipped in the German version, but I would add “nine, nine, nine” and neinnein, nein to my list of English-German/Deutsch-Englisch false friends.

All this put me in mind of when I was taking Japanese back in the early ’80’s because we were taught a bit about word play involving numbers. This type of wordplay is based on the fact that the characters that name the digits 0-9 have three different spoken renderings. This page from Wikipedia gives a number of examples, including the numeral 23 being used as a race car number by Nissan since one rendering of these two digits is pronounced /ni-san/. And as you do, I started to think about how you might put the sounds of the German number names together in order to get something meaningful in English, and at once 69 – sechs nein– came into my head. The bad pun on “head” is fully intended, so here’s hoping no pun-loving and precocious children are reading, or, if they are, perhaps learning German just got a bit more exciting?!

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