Tag Archives: proverbs

The proverbial agony of choice

On my walks down our main Barmbek-Nord shopping street die Fuhle, I regularly see posters announcing opportunities to meet local, regional and national elected officials and nearly always they mention die Wahl – which in these contexts I interpret as meaning “the vote.” I also walk by a sign outside a bakery on the same street advertising their specials, and often this is 2 or 3 of something Ihrer Wahl – which I then interpret as meaning “of your choice.”

Today on my run, I saw a sign with the phrase große Auswahl – most likely “plenty of choice” in this context – but that I initially parsed (correctly) as “selection” because it combines aus – “from” or “out” – and Wahl. Indeed, in the first meaning given for die Wahl on canoo.net, die Auswahl is listed as a synonym for die Wahl along with die Selektion

Researching further, I came across the proverb wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual – “the greater the choice(s), the harder it is to decide” or as pons.de puts it “to be spoilt for choice.” I like this expression for several reasons. First is that it can be very difficult to make a choice when one is faced with too many appealing options or when one has no good options, and die Qual means “agony” or “torture.”

Secondly, it highlights a phrasal construction that feels very unnatural when translated directly, but is typically German: the wer die Wahl hat portion of the proverb. To translate this without modifying the word order gives you “who(ever) the choice has.” I suppose it might seem like one is being “held” by the choices and therefore one could poetically interpret this first clause to mean someone is “in the grip” of a choice. However this construction is in common use in modern German, not just in proverbs, and thus needs a more straightforward translation. For example, in an article in the June issue of Mobil Das Magazin der Deutschen Bahn, the following sentence appeared under a photo of two women in a tent in an article about cool camping equipment: Wer sich in freier Natur niederlassen will, sollte sich vorher informieren. When I see or hear these wer constructions, I tend to play a little loose and think about the wer as encapsulating something like “If you are the sort of person who…” or “For the sort of person who..” Thus I would translate this is as “If you are the sort of person who likes to set herself up in the wide open countryside, you should get the lowdown [on what’s best/what your options are].” It makes a bit of a mouthful of that wer but it helps to get past the rather un-English word order much more effectively than something “He who wants to settle in the open countryside” ever will.

And while we are in the Wahl family, I want end on another saying that uses this clan’s verb form wählenwählen zwischen Baum und Borke – “to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea” or literally “to choose between tree and bark.” I hope you enjoyed joining me to explore the forest, the trees and the bark that is learning German.

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Cats, dogs, buckets and strings

As we’ve been having rain – der Regen – here in Hamburg the last few days, I thought I’d learn more about expressions describing or involving “rain.” First, here are a few that allow you to talk about rainy weather.

Es regnet Bindfäden – “It’s raining cats and dogs” – literally “It’s raining strings”
Es gießt Strippen – “It’s pouring down” – literally “It’s pouring strings”
Es gießt wie aus Kübeln – “It’s pouring like buckets” (this seems to work literally and figuratively)
Es regnet in Strömen – “It’s bucketing down” – literally “It’s raining in streams”
Es schüttet ordentlich – “It’s chucking it down” – literally something like “It’s pouring neatly”
Es nieselt – “It’s drizzling”
der Regentropfen – “raindrops”
der Guss – “downpour”
der Platzregen – “downpour”
der Wolkenbruch – “downpour

Pons.eu served up some nice idioms that involve rain:

jemanden im Regen stehen lassen – “to leave someone in the lurch” – literally “to leave someone standing in the rain”

vom Regen in die Traufe kommen – “out of the frying pan and into the fire” or “to go from bad to worse” – literally something like “to come from [standing in] the rain to [being under] the eaves” which was described as moving from having individual drops falling on you to having a sheet or steam of falling water hitting you by redensarten.net.

ein warmer Regen – “a windfall” – literally “a warm rain,” it is interesting how both expressions refer to the weather

Himmel, Arsch und Wolkenbruch/Zwirn!
– “For crying out loud!’ – literally “Heaven, ass and cloudburst/[strong] thread”

Finally, in English we say “Every cloud has a silver lining,” which is surely worth remembering when days of rain are getting to you!

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How far does the apple fall from the tree?

In both German and English we have the proverb Der Apfel fällt nicht weit von Stamm – “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” – which I understand to mean that parents and children are often alike. This got me thinking, when we talk about words, we can sometimes say that they have a fairly transparent relationship – like apples and the trees from which they fall – but many times this proverb is violated, with words straying from their roots or being dramatically changed when they form compounds. To explore this, I took the German words fallendie Falle and das Fallen.

fallen – “to fall” or “to drop”
die Fallen – “pitfalls” or “traps”
das Fallen – “descent”

The relationships here seem relatively transparent and indeed in English we have expressions that use both “fall” and “trap.”  Of course, “fallen” itself is an English word.  Unlike German where it is the infinitive, “fallen” is the past participle of “to fall” (gefallen auf deutsch) and can also be used as an adjective as in “fallen arches” (to describe a foot problem).

What about compounds?  My favorite, given the topics of this blog is Sprachfallen or “language traps.”  They come in many forms, including the false friends like punktuell , and to keep with the connection to “falling,” we might say that you need to take care not to “stumble” over your words or that you must take care as some words can really “trip you up” (as one website said, you need to learn these Sprachfallen to avoid peals of laughter – um schallendes Gelächter zu vermeiden).

There are also a number of combinations in English that use “fallen” where it is not used in German such as “fallen asleep” – eingeschlafen; three ways of saying “fallen out with someone” – 1) entzweit (which has a literal meaning, “split in two, as you might expect from breaking it apart), 2) zerstritten sein (mit) and 3) jemand. hat/hatte sich mit jemandem verkracht; and “fallen short of” – unterschritten.

Moving to German compound verbs, an interesting relative for me is the verb ausfallen – “to fail (harvest, machine, power, etc.)” – because “fall” and “fail” are only one phoneme apart in English, and, if my experience with German word pairs of this type is anything to go by, these two are likely to be a “trap” for the non-native speaker.  Another prefix+fallen verb is zufallen “to shut.” Its membership in the family helps make the phrase jemandem natürlich zufallen – “to come naturally to someone” – make more sense to me (and to link it back to the tree, you could say that for such a person something “is as easy as falling off a log”)!

But probably more common than any of these are a set that leave me feeling out on a limb:


All three can take the meaning “to occur to somebody.” Of the three, as far as I can see only the first, einfallen, has a meaning that is related to “fallen” – it can mean “to collapse” or “to dip.” For beifallen dict.cc gives only the meaning “to occur to somebody” and says that it is both humorous and more elevated in tone. Auffallen has as its most frequently given meaning “to strike” in the sense of attracting attention. Now I suppose an idea could literally strike you – take the perhaps apocryphal story of Newton, the apple and gravity – but for my money we have wandered away from “fallen”

And since we’ve come right back around to speaking of apples, I wonder if it means anything that der Apfel is one of the few fruits (the only other I could find was der Pfirsich) with the masculine gender?!

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