Elbow room

Today’s post is inspired by comments on Facebook by Herr Doktor Language Maven David Dunning whose use of the word Ellbogen prompted me to wonder about “bow” words in English and Bogen words in German.

In English we have “elbow,” “rainbow,” “crossbow” and the proper name “Strongbow” for a brand of alcoholic cider, as well as “bow-legged” and “bow-hunting.” There are also phrases with the word “bow” such as “hair bow” or “Cupid’s Bow.” These all derive from the “arc” or “arch” or “curve” meaning of “bow” – whose pronunciation /boʊ/ – rhymes with “glow” – rather than from its homographic sibling “bow” /baʊ/ which rhymes with “cow” (given it’s shape, it is a bit of a surprise that the front of a ship is a /baʊ/ instead of a  /boʊ/ but according to http://www.etymonline.com/ it comes from the “Old Norse bogr or Middle Dutch boech ‘bow of a ship,’ literally ‘shoulder (of an animal),’ the connecting notion being ‘the shoulders of the ship.’ ”

In German we have der Regenbogen – “rainbow” – and the aforementioned der Ellbogen – “elbow” – and we also have der Augenbrauenbogen – “the curve of the eyebrow” and other words that fit the English model. There is another, non-parallel, meaning for Bogen – “sheet” – as in the word der Ausschneidebogen – “the sheet of cardboard cutouts” – or der Briefmarkenbogen – “sheet of postage stamps.” Most intriguing to me, though, are a family of idioms using Bogen, namely:

den Bogen raushaben – “to know the ropes” [I couldn’t find an independent meaning for raushaben]
den Bogen überspannen – “to overdo things” or “to overstep the mark” [to straddle]
bei etwas den Bogen herausbekommen” – “to get the hang of something” [from something, to glean]
jemanden in hohem Bogen hinauswerfen – “to throw someone out on her/his ear” [someone, high arc, to throw out]
um jemanden/etwas einen [weiten/großen] Bogen machen “to steer clear of someone/something” or “to give someone or something a wide berth” [around someone/thing, wide/large arc, to make]
plötzliches Erbrechen in hohem Bogen – “projectile vomiting”
etwas in Bausch und Bogen ablehnen/zurückweisen – “to reject something completely” [wad, to refuse/to reject]

Finally, the title of this post, “Elbow Room,” can be translated in three ways. Pons.eu tells me that the first translation means “space to move” – die Ellbogenfreheit (literally “elbow freedom/liberty/privilege”). The second and third are figurative uses meaning “freedom of action” – die Bewegungsfreiheit (literally “movement freedom/liberty/privilege”) and der Spielraum (literally play + room/space, and properly translated as “leeway” or “scope” or “latitude” or “flexibility” ). Perhaps their lack of a Bogen is a signal for this more abstract meaning, although I must say that on reflection, room for one’s elbow(s) doesn’t offer all that much room…

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