Tag Archives: particle


Most of my opportunities to practice speaking German come during sessions of Dialog in Deutsch, a wonderful, free program run by the Hamburg libraries whose slogan is Menschen Treffen, Deutschen Sprechen. In one group today I learned the word der Aberglaube – “superstition.” It is the result of an adverb + noun combination – aber + Glaube. This is a rare type of compound for German, of the 173,782 nouns in the Canoo.net online dictionary, only 578 entries are of this type. As an adverb, aber can mean “however” or “though.” It is also a conjunction meaning “but” as well as a particle (a little word that adds spice to your speech, there are several posts worth of material on German particles) that can mean “but,” “really,” “oh” and “yes, of course.” Der Glaube means “belief” or “faith.” I like think about a “superstition” being a “belief” about which there is a “but” or a “however.” This seems like quite a nice definition.

In the DWDS entry for der Aberglaube, the following words are included in the etymology section:

das Aber – “but” or “catch” or “snag” as in “There’s only one problem…” Da ist nur noch ein Aber
der Aberwitz – “folly” (same adverb + noun formation: aber + Witz), here the meaning feels somewhat related to me
abergläubisch – “superstitious”
abermals – “once again” which is formed from aber plus the suffix –mals, other examples are erstmals – “initially” or “for the first time,” letztmals – “for the last time,” mehrmals – “repeatedly” or “many times” and vielmals – “many times” or “very much”

And among the words which the DWDS entry lists as having significant connection with der Aberglaube are:

feudalistisch – “feudalistic”
unausrottbar – “deep-rooted” or “ineradicable”
heidnisch – “heathen” or “pagan”
töricht – “foolish/ly” or “unwise”
weitverbreitet – “widespread” or “common”

Most importantly, though, I wanted to share one of the Aberglaube that I have had to learn here in Germany. A New Year’s tradition is to give good luck charms, one of which is a man with a ladder and a four-leaf clover or two. I saw these adorning bouquets, pictured on cards and as small figurines and so asked something along the lines of “what’s up with the leprechaun with the ladder?” To which people, after taking a moment to figure out what I was talking about (as so often is the case when something is part of your culture, you don’t notice it), said (but in German) “You mean the chimney sweep [der Schornsteinfeger]? He is good luck charm [der Glücksbringer].” After I had pushed all thoughts of the breakfast cereal out of my head, I wasn’t any more clear on why he was lucky, but at least I had a better idea about why he had both a ladder and those shamrocks!

To complete this post, I decided to learn a bit more about this superstition and discovered that there was a link to yesterday’s post through the hearth being the center of the home – ooh, now that’s a bit eerie, isn’t it?! If your chimney wasn’t clean, chances are you couldn’t make much of a fire and keep your house warm or cook your food. In addition, using a dirty chimney was risky when your house was made of wood and there were no smoke alarms or fire departments. There was also the possibility of poisonous gases killing you while you slept. Apparently because the sweep could rescue you from these possibilities, he came to be seen as a good luck charm or a “luck bringer.”

BTW, der Aberglaube happens to be the first entry in the list of adverb + noun combinations, perhaps the superstitious would make something of that?!

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Mal for the price of one

I first came across mal in a lesson on colloquial expressions on Memrise (a nifty tool that interfaces with Facebook). The first expression I learned using this flexible little word was mal sehen which can be translated as “we’ll see” or “I’ll have to see.” Like another phrase I learned early – Warum nicht? meaning “Why not?” – it comes in incredibly handy when you want to comment but can’t seem to form that nice, full sentence. Later on, I learned that you can do a swap and and say Sehen Sie mal! and ask someone to look at something – “Look!” – in a tone that is friendlier and softer than saying Sehen Sie! Likewise, to invite someone to try something in a friendly way, you can say Probieren Sie mal!

Today I added mal kurz to the mal family. This phrase is helpful when you don’t have your Handy handy and want to make a call or google something: Kann ich mal kurz dein Handy benutzen? “Can I use your phone for sec’ ?” Or if you want to check on something, you can say Ich gehe mal kurz nachsehen – “I’ll have a quick look.” Or when you are struggling to hold your groceries and get out your keys, you can say Kannst du das mal kurz halten? – “Can you hold onto this for a moment?” Then, when you get inside and realize that you’ve forgotten one thing, you can say Ich habe etwas vergessen. Ich gehe mal kurz nach draußen – I’ve forgotten something. I’ll just nip out.” Finally, mal kurz appears in a slightly humorous/euphemistic phrase you can use to indicate you need to use the toilet, similar to saying in English “I need to powder my nose/answer the call of nature/spend a penny.” This phrase, Ich muss mal kurz verschwinden, could be slightly confusing if translated literally – “I must disappear/vanish for a moment.”

Here’s hoping that mal kurz will stick in my memory the way mal sehen and Sehen Sie mal have, rather than vanishing after only a moment as so much of my new vocabulary seems want to do!

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