Tag Archives: cognate

Compound, Thy Name is Mud

Yesterday morning at Dialog in Deutsch we were presented with the word die Haarspalterei and asked to take a guess at what it might mean. My guess was that it might mean “split ends,” as spalten is “to split” (as in wood) and das Haar is “hair.” And, indeed, one way to say “split ends” is die gespaltene Haarspitzen – “the split hair tips” – and the two other options – der Haarspliss and der Spliss – rely on a different verb for “split,” spleißen which has spliss as the third person singular (and sounds a bit like the English word “splice” making it a false friend as “splicing” involves joining things together). I also had a moment where I wondered if it might indicate a place where you could have your hair worked on as there are several shop names that end in -ei (e.g., die Bäckerei and die Metzgerei). However -ei is simply one way to form a noun from another noun; canoo.net gives the example of forming a new word from das Ferkel – “piglet” – plus -ei which doesn’t mean a shop where piglets can be purchased but rather die Ferkelei means “mess” or a “dirty/disgusting/filthy thing to do.”

We also discussed a few other ways to get across the concept of “hairsplitting” including the words that could be applied to people:

der Haarspalter – hair-splitter
der Erbsenzähler – nit-picker (or “bean counter,” from the more literal reading “pea counter”)
der Federfuchser – petty-minded pedant (literally, I think this is “feather annoyer/nettler”)

Finally, there is the somewhat more neutral adjective penibel – “persnickety,” “painstaking,” “fussy” or “fastidious.”

I look forward to having fun to making a fine mess by debating the difference between nit-picking and hair-splitting!

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Free reading

On my run tonight (dusk is coming much earlier now, sigh), I started to wonder about the many uses for the word frei because of seeing the Stadtpark Frelichtbühne – “open air stage/theatre(er)”  or literally “free light stage.” Dict.cc gives a large number of meanings for frei, including: “unengaged,” “at liberty,” “liberal” as in “not strict,” “clear,” “nonattached,” “blank,” “frank,” “allowed,” “idle” and “uncommitted.”
The “open air” family has several other members:
• das Freilichtkino – “open air cinema”
• das Freibad – “open air/outdoor swimming pool”
• die Freifläche – “open space” or “undeveloped land”
das Freilichtkonzert – “open air concert”

Frei is also a cognate of the English word “free.” Something that is frei is available at no cost (one can be more more specific and say that something is kostenfrei). In a related semantic field, there is the meaning of frei that corresponds to unabhängig –“independent” – which is a favorite word of mine as the Unabhängigkeitserklärung – The Declaration of Independence – was signed in my home town, Philadelphia.

Finally, one of the phrases I learned on my first trip to Germany in 1984 also uses freiIst dieser Platz frei? which means “Is this seat taken?” In this context frei means “unoccupied” or “not in use” or perhaps even “spare” if you intend to pick up the seat in question and take it to another location. I was delighted DWDS included this example sentence for the “available” or “spare” meaning of frei – Sie liest in jeder freien Minute, “She reads in every spare moment” – because it is so apt as far as I am concerned!


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