Tag Archives: collocations

Getting a word in edgewise

I’ve started a new Lernkrimi which has an exercise where you are required to pick out the words whose meanings that are similar to sagen – “to say, to tell or to speak.” From the list given, I already knew the words sprechen, reden, plaudern, erzählen, erklären, and vortragen. I wasn’t yet familiar with äußern, kundtun, schwatzen and anmerken. There were, however, more words in my vocabulary from this semantic field: ausdrücken, erwidern, antworten, meinen, flüsternbemerken, tratschen, klatschen, sich unterhalten, diskutieren, debattieren, heißenbehaupten, schreien, rufen, quatschen and berichten. Looking further led me to erläutern, verdeutlichenausrufen, ankündigen, kontern, sich über etwas/jemanden auslassen, durchsagen, labern, plappern, quasseln, faseln, schwafeln and schwadronieren.

One way of exploring the different nuances in meaning is to look at the common co-occurrences or collocations. If you take the trio antwortenerwidern and kontern and look them up on DWDS.de, you find both overlap and contrast among the words that commonly accompany each of them. For antworten the most common words are: mit Jamit Neinausweichend (“evasively”) and auf Frage (“to [a] question”). For erwidern they are: Gruß  (“regards” or “greeting”), Liebe (“love”) and Zuneigung (“affection”). For kontern they are Attacken (“attacks”), mit Gegenfrage (“with a counter question”) and Vorhaltungen (“reproaches”).

Our word choices can also indicate our feelings or opinions about a subject. For example, if you say plaudern – “to chat,” or as PONS puts it „sich gemütlich unterhalten“ – you likely mean to convey quite a different feeling about the interaction you are describing than if you were to use the word diskutieren – “to discuss” (although there can be occasions when someone asks you to “pop in for a little chat” where this can be a threat of something quite ungemütlich to come). If we mention seeing someone and use the word schwadronieren – to hold forth – to describe the way she/he told a story, we create quite a different impression than if we were to use the more neutral word erzählenClearly there is a lot to say when we are talking about “talking!”


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Colorful Expressions

Outside there is a bit of blue sky, it is the first in about a week and it suggested the idea of doing a post on idiomatic expressions that use color words. And in honor of that bit of sky, I’ll start with expressions involving blue or blau.

The expression “blue sky” can refer to something creative but perhaps a touch impractical. Pons.eu translate the impractical version rather literally as nicht ausführbar – “not feasible/workable” – but the creative version, when combined with the word “thinking,” is translated as Schönwetterdenken – “nice weather thinking.”

The expression “once in a blue moon” refers to a rare event. Dict.cc offers several translations from the very literal ganz selten to the more poetic alle Jubeljahr (einmal)  – “(once) every Jubilee Year.” The English phrase “blue moon” has another meaning, the second full moon in a calendar month, which is indeed something quite rare, occurring only once every two or three years.

The expression “out of the blue” indicates something that takes you by surprise, something unexpected and thus is literally translated by pons.eu as völlig unerwartet. The figurative option given is aus heiterem Himmel – literally “out of a bright sky” which I expect comes from the idea that seeing rain, or snow or lightning when the sky is blue is unexpected. And then there is a lovely phrase that literally means “the snow is coming in” – herein|schneien – which can be used to say that someone has “turned up out of the blue.”

Let’s turn now to German expression using blau that I discovered in this collection. The first is das Blaue vom Himmel [herunter]lügen – “to charm the birds out of the trees” or “to lie one’s head off” – and the second is related expression das Blaue vom Himmel versprechen – “to promise someone the earth/moon/everything under the sun.”

I found myself a little challenged by these phrases. Google translate puts das Blaue vom Himmel together to get “the moon” but the separate pieces mean “the blue” and “”from the sky/heavens.” I then went to dwds.de to see if I could find sample sentences using these phrases as sometimes the context clarifies the dictionary entry. Although it didn’t help me to parse das Blaue vom Himmel, I did get a better idea of how these phrases are used.

• Here is a pair featuring “to lie one’s head off” or das Blaue vom Himmel runterlügen:
Die verarschen die Leute und halten keine ihrer Wahlversprechungen. Die lügen doch das Blaue vom Himmel runter.
“They are taking the piss out of the people and keeping none of their campaign promises. They are lying their heads off.” (Or perhaps “They are a bunch of lying bastards” if you want to take it up a notch in vulgarity.)

• Here is one that features “to promise someone the moon” or das Blaue vom Himmel versprechen:
Den bedrängten Auto-Arbeitern in Michigan hatte Mitt Romney das Blaue vom Himmel, zumal Protektionismus, versprochen.
” Mitt Romney has promised the beleaguered Michigan auto workers the moon in the form of protectionist trade barriers.”
(This is a great example of the importance of noticing the case marker – Den tells you that while they come at the beginning of the sentence, the auto workers are not the subject of the sentence – and of needing to wait until the end to know what verb is being used.)

A final phrase is sein blaues Wunder erleben – “to be in for a nasty surprise” or “to get the shock of one’s life.” While this is something that may happen if one chances to use a word or phrase incorrectly in a new language, it seems that just as often something wonderful happens!

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