Tag Archives: idiomatic phrases

Getting things done?

In English “housework” and “homework” are distinguished by the first part of each compound being different “house” + “work” versus “home” + “work.”  In German the same two words are distinguished by the second part of the compound: die Hausarbeit and die Hausaufgabe. Breaking them apart we get das Haus + die Arbeit – which can be translated as “house” + “work” – and das Hausdie Aufgabe – which can be translated as “house” + “task.” 

“Housework” might be considered “work done to the house or for the house” and “homework” might be considered “work done at home” and, in particular, schoolwork done at home. We could describe work done to or for one’s house as “work done to or for one’s home,” but we don’t say “work done *at house” in English, the collocation with “at” and without an article is “at home” (although “at the house” is possible). In pondering this, it occurred to me that to say “at home” in German, you say typically say zu Hause, although you can say zu Haus. This Hause form is used regularly with two other prepositions im and nach: for example, im Hause bleiben – “to stay indoors” and auf dem Weg nach Hause – “on the way home.” Dict.cc and Duden also include the word das Zuhause for which dict.cc offers the translations “home” and “crib” (in the slang sense of this term rather than a type of bed for a child!) and further searching uncovered the idiomatic phrase wie ein zweites Zuhause – “like a home away from home” – and this article about bookstores in Hamburg!

And I can’t resist throwing in another compound with das Haus – der Hausarzt/die Hausärztin – the “family doctor” or “general practitioner” and not the doctor who works from home, nor the doctor for a particular house, nor someone who repairs houses, although perhaps this is the person you might consult if you’ve lost the energy to complete your housework or homework!

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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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A newly minted error

I amused my conversational partner recently by referring to a person as frisch rather than frech. In English if we want to talk about food or weather we can refer to them as “fresh” and we can do the same with people if they are “getting fresh with us.” In German, however, there are different words to express the two ideas. A person can be referred to as frech meaning “fresh” or “cheeky” or “bold” or “sassy” and “to make a sassy reply” is frech antworten. Interestingly, rather than referring to a “cheeky monkey,” you suggest someone is like a sparrow – wie ein Spatz sein. It also appears that certain things other than people can be frech – dict.cc gives the example of “a hat worn at a rakish angle” – ein Hut frech aufgesetzt – and pons.eu offers “a peppy haircut” – eine freche Frisur.

To refer to the freshness of weather or food, however, you want to use frisch: frisches Brot, frisch gefallener Schnee, frisch gepresster Orangensaft, Frisch also means “recent.” Hence when there is “wet paint,” you will see signs saying frisch gestrichen and to say something is “hot off the press” you can say it is frisch gedruckt. Frisch also can be used in reference to making up a bed with fresh linen – die Betten frisch beziehen. And in checking dict.cc, I learned that there are situations where frisch can be part of a phrase that applies to a person: “clean-shaven” – frisch rasiert; “just married” – frisch verheiratet; and “to be fresh as a daisy” – frisch und munter sein.

With the help of Collins online, I now know how to say “we’re fresh out of cheese” – uns ist gerade der Käse ausgegangen and “they are fresh out of ideas” – ihnen sind die Ideen ausgegangen. Which I am, and so, until next time, my friends!

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Here’s looking at you!

Today in Dialog in Deutsch we were playing the “pick the odd man out” game with German vocabulary. We started with:

Eisen    Kupfer    Kohle    Messing
“Iron”    “copper”    “coal”    “brass”

The answer here is Kohle as it is not a metal. We went through a few more that relied on similarly subtle distinctions, the flower among the trees and the spice among the herbs, etc. Then we moved onto this set:

Lesebrille    Sonnenbrille    Fernbrille    Klobrille
“reading glasses”  “sun glasses”  “distance glasses”  “toilet seat”

Clearly the book’s authors had a sense of fun as they were composing this exercise!

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Clean and unclear

I walked on a doormat today that reads Immer schön SauBär and has a picture of a bear with a pig’s nose. Now, doormats are crucial for keeping your home sauber and sauber sounds very much like a combination of the two nouns die Sau and der Bär – the “sow” and the “bear.” I am guessing that part of what makes it funny if you are a native speaker of German is that there is the fixed expression immer schön sauber bleiben. Unfortunately, in my search for the meaning of this phrase I was only able to find two shortened forms, Bleib sauber! – “keep your nose clean” or “take care” or “keep yourself clean” – and sauber bleiben – “to go straight” or “to keep out of trouble.” However, I did find lots of articles, videos, etc. entitled Immer schön sauber bleiben.

For example, here is a video from the US about littering: http://www.clipfish.de/video/3778814/immer-schoen-sauber-bleiben/

And here is a list of how to separate your rubbish from the city of Herne: http://www.herne.de/kommunen/herne/entsorgung/www.nsf/0/18b9d3381735bbb2c125753900437624/$FILE/Flyer_Abfalltrennung.pdf

And an article on the grooming habits of the ancient Romans: http://www.geo.de/GEOlino/mensch/roemerbad-immer-schoen-sauber-bleiben-67841.html

And finally, an apron with a rock ‘n roll theme for keeping you clean: http://www.amazon.de/Immer-sch%C3%B6n-sauber-bleiben-Sch%C3%BCrze/dp/B00AE94MOC

All of this variety made it hard to make a clean and sober assessment of what the full phrase immer schön sauber bleiben means.

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Anniversary Week 9

I subscribe to a “phrase a day” email service from www.phrasen.com (well, actually it is Phrasen des Tages and there are three phrases per post). Mostly they are idiomatic phrases, which is why I subscribe, but sometimes I have no idea why they believe the phrase is one people might need (or want) to learn. For example, this arrived on the last day of May:

Deutsch:  Die Beschaffenheit des Felsens lässt auf einen vulkanischen Ursprung schließen
Englisch: “The nature of the rock implies/suggests that it is volcanic in origin”

Lucky for me, this phrase just happens to be related to earth science and thus is useful given each Wednesday I try to concoct a post that somehow simultaneously discusses learning German and falls under the “earthquake” banner. But for other people without such a particular need, is this a phrase that would make them say, “Gosh, I sure am glad phrasen.com shared that with me!” No, probably not.

Now, I’m assuming that the point of this rather random sentence is to give you meaning for the rather complicated verb form schließen lassen auf – “to be indicative of” or “to imply.” However this feels quite different from expressions such as Probieren geht über Studieren – “The proof is in the pudding” (dict.cc also offers “Suck it and see”) or im Dreck herumwühlen – “to muckrake” – which, while they aren’t things you will be saying each and everyday, are usable “as is” by everyone, not solely geologists, vulcanologists or people whose blogs happen to mention earth science concepts in their titles. Perhaps a little more Studieren is in order at phrasen.com?

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