Monthly Archives: September 2014

Treading lightly

I recently learned the word der Vertreter with the meaning of a person who is substituting or replacing someone who’s absent or unavailable. Vertreter sounds to me very much like the English word “traitor,” which of course meant I had to learn what the German word for “traitor” is. Turns out it also sounds quite a bit like “traitor” – Verräter. I turned next to to understand a bit about the morphology of these two German words. What jumped out before I even got that far, though, was that both were instances of words indicating something about a person’s character:

  • der Vertreter – guter Charakter (the synonym given here is der Verfechter – “the advocate”)
  • der Verräter – schlechter Charakter

This intriguing piece of information recorded, I discovered that Vertreter comes from treten and Verräter comes from raten, both with ver-, a buddy of our old friend ent-, tacked on at the front. Interestingly, given I learned the word der Vertreter in the context of someone subbing for someone else, one meaning of treten is “to step” (“to tread” is betreten) and substitutes are often said to be “stepping in” for someone else. Traitor’s parents raten – “to advise” or “to guess” – and verraten – “to betray” or “to reveal” – to my ears both sound a bit “rotten.”

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Angling for Ghoti

In English we have some pretty odd spelling-to-sound correspondences, one of which is “GH” (see more here: Just how far the sound can stray from spelling is illustrated with the neologism “ghoti” – pronounced like “fish” because GH can represent /f/ as in “tough,” O can represent /ɪ/ as in “women” and TI is frequently pronounced /ʃ/ as in “action” (more on ghoti and its friend ghoughpteighbteau – pronounced “potato” – here:

Intriguingly, many of these GH-words are cognates with German where the GH corresponds to CH:

das Recht – “right”
das Lachen – “laugh”
durch – “through”
tochter – “daughter”
acht – “eight”

As German has much more regular spelling-to-sound correspondences, there are two main options for the pronunciation of CH, namely /ç/ as in durch /dʊrç/ and /x/ as in acht [axt] (this latter spelling-sound pattern appears for some speakers of English in the Scots Gaelic word “loch”). The third possibility is to pronounce CH as /ks/ as in Achse /aksə/ which corresponds generally to the spelling X in English – die Achse is “axel” or “axis.” (Note that when there is a morphological boundary between S and CH, for example in am reichstenreich-sten “richest,” the /ks/ pronunciation is not used.)

There are some loan words in German where the pronunciation of CH does not follow one of these three patterns. For example, there are numerous streets in Hamburg that are called Etwas+Chausee /ʃɔˈse:/. Following the “ghoti” example, perhaps this could be spelled *Tiausee?!

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Versteckt im Klar – Hiding in plain sight

Ich habe gerade bemerkt, dass „der Weg“ in der Mitte „die Bewegung“ versteckt ist. Zu bewegen ist jemand oder etwas auf dem Weg zu sein, nicht wahr?

Ich habe ein Paar Möglichkeiten “hiding in plain sight” zu übersetzen entdeckt:

  • „Tarnung durch Auffälligkeit“
  • „vor aller Augen zu verstecken“
  • „verstecke mich im grellen Licht“
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It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)

Ein Bekannter von mir fragte die Gruppenleiterin »Was bedeutet das Wort „vergewaltigen“?« Sie sahen ihn fassungslos an, und sagten »In welchem Zusammenhang haben Sie das Wort gehört?« Er kannte nicht erinnern. Eine sagte, dass das Wort „Sex zwingen“ bedeutet. Jetzt sah ich sie verwundert an, weil ich dachte, dass sie „Sex swingen“ sagte! Bald sagte sie weiter »unfreiwillig, gegen jemandes Wille« und es fiel mir wie Schuppen von den Augen.

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Negative growth?

Since fostering growth is a key part of what I do professionally, I learned the words die Entwicklung and entwickeln – “development” and “to develop” soon after I moved to Germany. What I didn’t notice until this morning is that in both languages the words for “development” are prefixed with something that typically indicates a negation of the meaning of the stem. For instance, this is the definition of “de-” from the Cambridge dictionary: “used to add the meaning ‘opposite’, ‘remove’, or ‘reduce’ to a noun or verb.” Duden offers a number of meaning for ent- : “something is undone or returned to its original state, the removal or displacement of something, or taking something away.” The German Language page of relates it to the English prefixes “de-” and “dis-” and gives its meaning as “away from.”

Now “*velop” appears in both “develop” and “envelop” but it is not currently a standalone word with a meaning that can be negated (Google gives the etymology as arising from Latin “dis- ‘un-’ + a second element of unknown origin found also in envelop,” which became the French word développer – “to unfold, unfurl). Wickeln, on the other hand, is a standalone word with the meaning, according to Pons, “to wrap something around something” and colloquially “to change a baby’s diaper.” This is a rather productive stem with one word from the family, einwickeln, being one possible translation for “to envelop.”

When I think about development or die Entwicklung now, I will pay even more attention to how it must involve paring away and replacement rather than simply accretion of the new.

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Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht sind für deutsche Anfänger nicht!*

Heute morgen habe ich diesen Satz gelesen: »Aber warum weiter Versteck zu spielen?« Aber ich dachte, dass ich »Aber warum weiter Besteck zu spielen?« gelesen hat. Ja, die Umgebung dieser Geschichte ist ein Cafe und ich wusste noch nicht, die Redewendung »Versteck spielen,« aber trotzdem ist das komisch. Seltsam, weil »Be« und »Ver« nicht so ähnlich sind, und spaßhaft, weil spielen mit Besteck ein sonderbar Bild im Kopf bringt!

Nach Duden online »Versteck spielen« hat zwei Bedeutungen. Die erste ist ein Spiel für Kinder – hide and seek. Die zweite ist »Versteck [mit, vor jemandem] spielen (seine wahren Gedanken, Gefühle, Absichten [vor jemandem] verbergen)« –  to hide or disguise one’s true thoughts, feelings or intentions. Vielleicht, wenn man mit Besteck spielen, verbergt man seine wahren Appetite und Geschmäcke?!


*Der Löffel ist nicht dabei, aber er kann auch tödlich sein wie »den Löffel abgeben« – to kick the bucket.

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Full up

»Sara hat mir erzählt, dass sie das Gezeter ihrer Mutter leid ist…« – “Sara told me that she is tired of her mother’s nagging.” This sentence comes from the children’s book Das Cafe-geheimnis (it was originally written in Swedish and stars Lasse and Maja) and introduced me to both the word das Gezeter, which will be treated in a subsequent post, and the verb-adjective combination leid sein.

On Duden I found this entry for leid sein. It offers the definition “someone is/has grown tired of something” – » jemandes, einer Sache überdrüssig sein« – and this sample sentence »ich bin sein dummes Gequatsche leid.« – “I’m sick of your blathering.”  Clearly this is an important concept as there are a fair few synonyms given in this entry, and they range from the colloquial to the idiomatic to the rather formal:

genug haben –” to have enough”
müde sein
– “to be tired (of)”
satthaben – “”to have had a bellyful”
satt sein; (gehoben)  – “to be fed up” (satt sein is used to mean that you have had enough to eat)
überdrüssig sein; (umgangssprachlich)
– “to be tired of/weary of”
bis obenhin haben
– “to have had it up to here”
dick haben/kriegen 
– “to be fed up” (literally something like “to have or get [it] thickly)
die Nase voll haben
– “to be sick of something” (literally “to have a nose full”)
langen – “to be enough” (it can also mean “to reach” and in its transitive form “to pass, to hand”) 
reichen – “to be sufficient” (like langen, it can also mean “to reach” and “to hand”)
überhaben; (salopp) –”to be fed up with something” ( literally “to over-have”)
stinken  Mir stinkt es! – “to be fed up” (it can also mean “to stink”)
den Kanal/die Schnauze voll haben – “to have had enough” (literally “to have a canal or snout full “), with Kanal, it can also mean “to be sloshed” something that happens when one has “had enough” to drink and puts one in mind of the literal meaning of a canal overrunning its banks.

Many of these can be made even stronger by adding gründlich – “thoroughly” – as in etwas gründlich satthaben – “to be sick to death of something or someone” or “to be fed up to to the back teeth with something .” (One can also add the word die Faxen – “nonsense” or “shenanigans” – as in Ich habe die Faxen satt.) I don’t think I’d ever given much thought to the expression “to be fed up” before. On seeing the various translations, though, I was startled to see how many of them are related to the consumption of food: “a bellyful,” ” to be fed [up],” “back teeth” and even “to be sick of,” as something one is “sick of” can be something that one doesn’t want to eat again. Perhaps that might be that one is “fed up” with something then that thing is what one can no longer “stomach?!”

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Zer-, sehr stark

»Wir sind unzertrennlich, irgendwie unsterblich« singt Helene Fischer in Atemlos durch die Nacht. Ich hatte dieses Wort »unzertrennlich« nie gehört, aber ich habe das sofort verstanden, weil ich das Wort »trennen« kenne und das Präfix »zer-« geläufig ist (z.B., »zerstören« was sieht man oft am Häuser hier in Hamburg). Mit habe ich ein Paar andere Wörter gefunden. Alle sind ziemlich stark.

zerreißen – to tear, to shred, to rip to pieces und Zerrissenheit – disunity, strife, inner conflict

zerrütten – to subvert to ruinto wreck und Zerrüttung – breakdown (of a marriage), destructiondisintegration

zerschlagen – to smashto annihilateto shatter

Bei habe ich entdeckt, als ich habe gedacht, dass das Präfix »zer-« »auseinander oder kaputt« bedeutet. Daher die Überschrift, die mit dem Wort »sehr« und dem Präfix »zer-« spielt.

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Ready, fire, aim

At today’s Barmbek Dialog in Deutsch I was introduced to the idiom Schieß los! offers “Get cracking,” “Fire away” (a bit more literal even as it is still being used metaphorically), “Go for it,” and “Hit me.” Pons gives the phrase Na, schieß schon/mal los! with the translations “Come on, out with it!” and “Come on tell me/us!” as well as natürlich, schieß los! – “of course, go ahead!” Duden gives three meanings for the full verb losschießen:

  1. to open fire/to start shooting
  2. to set something in motion quickly or suddenly; to pounce on someone or something
  3. to begin to speak; to feel the urge or compulsion or need – aus einem innereren Bedürfnis heraus – to say something offer mitteilen – “to inform” or “to let somebody know something” – as the hypernym for the meaning concerned with speaking. I hope you didn’t find this post missed the target, as it sometimes happens when one is trying to speak up in German!

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In a holding pattern

At the end of Friday’s Dialog in Deutsch session, one of the group leaders asked me if I knew the words vergeuden or die Vergeudung. I had to say “no” and it was a challenge even to repeat them! She smiled and said that they meant “to waste” or “to squander” something or “a waste.” gave this definition: etwas planlos/sinnlos/unrationell* aufwenden – “to use/spend something in an aimless, pointless or inefficient way.” Eager to know more,  I discovered some of the common accompaniments to these words using

  • von RessourcenSteuergeldernSteuermittel, ArbeitskraftRohstoffen, Energie, Geld
  • Kraft, Talente, Jahre, Menge, Milliarden, Viertel, LebenszeitGut 
  • unverantwortliche, sinnlose, gigantische, volkswirtschaftliche, nutzlos, unnötig
  • Behörden, Staat, Einführung, Regierung, Politik
  • in Warteschleifen, im Kampf, von Arbeitsstunden, an Stellen, mit Dingen, mit Diskussionen, mit Streit, auf Weise, zu Energie, zu Zeit, für Projekte offered a couple of idiomatic phrases in English that can be translated using vergeuden: “to flog a dead horse” – Kraft vergeuden – and “to spend money like water” – Geld vergeuden.

While some might disagree, discovering more about about how one talks about wasting time, etc., in German was not aimless or pointless or inefficient exercise for me!



*Unrationell is a member of the –ell family of false friends (e.g., punktuell – “selective,” eventuell – “possibly,” aktuell – “topical”).  Confusingly, there is another form of suffixation with –ell and –uell that are cognates (e.g., bakteriell and manuell), you can learn about them here:

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