Last night a friend told me that he wouldn’t be staying out too late because he had einen Kater – a hangover. Now der Kater is also a “tomcat” and thus when you say that you have a hangover to someone who knows only this latter meaning (perhaps from having read “Puss in Boots” or Der Gestiefelte Kater), he or she might wonder why you are sharing that you have a male cat at home and why this has resulted in the headache and nausea you’d also mentioned. Tantalizingly, although I couldn’t find an etymological connection to cats or die Katzen, one German word for “vomit,” or perhaps more accurately “puke,” is die Kotze and “to puke” is kotzen.
Now mistaking cats and hangovers would be amusing enough on its own, but somehow der Kater also brought to mind Mr Kotter, the teacher played by Gabe Kaplan in the 70s series “Welcome Back Kotter.” (Note: I probably spent too much time last week talking about the bad old days of television in the US: I was trying to explain the word der Hausmeister and the best I could come up with was Dwayne Schneider (Pat Harrington) from “One Day at a Time” which then spiraled off into whether with the name “Schneider” he was supposed to be of German heritage…). Of course der Kater is /katɐ/ and if “Kotter” were a German word it would be /kɔtɐ/ but for most North American speakers of English this contrast is diluted as /a/ and /ɔ/ rarely appear without being elongated – /a:/ and /ɔ:/ – and without this elongation the sound difference between these vowels can be difficult to perceive. Nevertheless, I think this character is now forever re-christened in my mind as Mr Hangover.