Tag Archives: slang


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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Frisch von der Leber weg sprechen

Manchmal ist es gefährlich eine Sprache zu kennen. Wie heute. Ich war in der Barmbek Dialog in Deutsch Gruppe. Eine Spanierin hat gesagt, dass sie Kellnerin ist. Sie arbeitet bei einem Restaurant in der Reeperbahn. Dieses Restaurant heißt Cojones. Nur ich hat gelacht. Natürlich, wollen die Leute zu wissen was witzig ist. «Ähm,» sage ich, «das Wort meint…ein Paar…Männer haben ein Paar.» Dann sage ich «auf Englisch, sagen wir balls oder bollocks.»  Noch ein Rätsel für fast alles. Dann eine Freundin von mir sage «Eier. Das männlich Geschlecht hat Eier.» Zwei or drei Mehere hat ein Aha-Erlebnis. Ich suche nächst das Bildwörterbuch das steht in unserem Zimmer. Wenn (und das ist die große Frage) man das Wort höflich sagt, man sagt “Hodensack.”

Ich habe ja diesen Ausdruck recherchiert und jetzt kenne ich ein paar (tut mir leid, Wortspiel beabsichtigt) neue Namen des Cojones außerdem “Eier,” nämlich:

“das Gehänge” – pendant
“die Glocken” – bells (ich muss vorsichtig sein, weil der Name eines Lieblingsapfel von mir auch Glocken ist)
“die Klöten” – purely slang
“der Sack” – pouchbag
“die Familienjuwelen” – family jewels as in English

Es war auch interessant, dass, wo wir sagen, blue balls, sagt man auf Deutsch beide “Bräutigamsschmerzen” – groom’s ache/pain – und “Kavaliersschmerzen” – gentleman’s ache/pain.

Und als ich nicht ein Gedicht widerstehen kann, ist hier ein Stuck auf Englisch für euch:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope,  An Essay on Criticism, 1709

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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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