Copperheads?

Today’s creatively confused mishearing was Kupfer /ˈkʊpfɐ/ “copper” instead of Köpfe /ˈkœpfə/ “heads.” The former made no sense in the context but (a) I’d heard and said it before and (b) it is an interesting word as it moved away from its Latin roots – cuprum- with German spelling reform.

Der Kopf is the source of a number of idioms, just as it is in English. The interesting ones for me in this instance are those where there is a semantic similarity that in some way mirrors the phonological similar of Kupfer and Köpfe. For example, in English we say “neck and neck” – perhaps two horses in a race or two programs with an equal chance of winning something or to use a different set phrase “to be in a dead heat” – and in German the expression is Kopf an Kopf (which PONS tells me can also be translated as “shoulder to shoulder”). Now to me, “head to head” means something different to “neck and neck” in that while there are still two parties involved, they are somehow “facing” each other, from two sides of an argument or two sides meeting each other in a sporting event, rather than “alongside” each other as “neck and neck” seems to require. Indeed, PONS offers gegeneinander antreten – which can also mean “meet” – as a translation for “head to head.”

Another example where the shades of meaning could trip you up is bis über den Kopf. According to PONS this should be translated “up to one’s neck/ears” but it looks very much like “in over [one’s] head.” It is certainly possible that something where you are “up to your ears” might also be something where you are “in over your head” but this is not necessarily true (e.g., you can be “up to your ears” in something like paperwork, which isn’t too challenging, but there is a heck of a lot of it). In line with this difference, “in over one’s head” can be rendered in German in at least two ways, one fairly literal and the other figurative:
   • einer Sache/Situation nicht gewachsen sein – “to be unable to cope with something/a situation”
   • kein Land mehr sehen können – “to no longer be able to see  land”

Such are some days in the life of a German learner and for Hamburg dwellers in particular,with the omnipresent harbor, the concept of not being able to see land seems particularly apt to describe the feeling one often has in trying to master the language!

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