Tag Archives: vowels


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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Hang onto your cats

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.

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This post was prompted by getting my haircut yesterday (and, no my German is not up to this task, I was lucky enough to find a stylist who spoke wonderful English to give me a trim). The name of the salon I went to is FON which is both an abbreviation and a bit of word play: the word for “to blow dry” is fönen and this small chain calls itself Friseur Ohne Name. They have a very good value option where a wash and cut are included and then you do the fönen yourself with their dryer and brush. This isn’t something I’ve seen in the US, although perhaps I’d simply not been looking for it!

A haircut also turns out to be a good change to practice what for English speakers is a fairly subtle vowel difference between the German u and eu/ö because die Frisur is “hairstyle” and der Friseur / Frisör is “hairdresser.” Yes, you can probably be a tiny bit lax because the grammatical genders are different, but where’s the fun in learning German if you aren’t challenging yourself to get your tongue around some new vowels?!

I also discovered that the idiom “Tell it to the Marines!” has as its German counterpart “Das kannst du deinem Friseur erzählen!” I’m not sure what it says about the view of either hairdressers or the Marines that when you want to suggest you don’t believe what someone is saying, you tell them to share it with either of these groups, perhaps the idea is that they’ve heard it all?! Interestingly, there were quite a number of phrases that at least one website categorized as having related meanings in German.

One final interesting aspect of talking about haircare in German is that you  use a reflexive verb and don’t refer to “your hair.” So you “to brush your hair” you say something like “oneself the hairs brush” – sich die Haare bürsten. Different yet again is when you want to say “to comb your hair,” here you say – sich kämmen, something like “to comb oneself” where the hair isn’t even mentioned.

I wish I’d found some way to fit “hair-splitting” into this post, but I’ll have to settle for remarking on how “hair-raising” – haarsträubend  being a compound of das Haar – hair – and sträubend -“bristling” – makes me think first of a porcupine or a wild boar and then the metaphorical meaning takes over and places them on a giant roller coaster…

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