Tag Archives: wordplay

Henkersmahl mit einem Laster geliefert?

Vor ein paar Jahren schrieb ich etwas über das Teekesselchen „der/das Laster“ und letzte Woche kam es gelegen. Ich ging ins Theater. Das Stück war eine Kriminal-Komödie, deswegen erwartete ich Wortspiele. Ich war nicht enttäuscht.

Eine Leiche eines Mannes lag auf dem Boden. Zwei Polizisten musterten die. Einer sage der andere »Vielleicht ist er an seinem Laster gestorben.« Der zweite Polizist runzelte die Stirn. Ein Lkw in einem Bürozimmer?!

Aber das war nicht nur ein Vergnügen, sonder auch eine Deutschstunde. Die Präposition an in Verbindung mit sterben verlangt den Dativ. Entgegen dem Nominativ und dem Akkusativ gibt es im Dativ keinen Unterschied zwischen den Wörtern der und das Laster. Die beiden sind von dem begleitet. Der Laster passt nicht dazu, aber dieses Wort ist viel häufiger als das Laster und deshalb fiel es dem Zuhörer zuerst ein. Tatsächlich hat der Mordopfer ein Laster, Weinbrand Bohnen, die jemand vergiftete. Also, er stirbt an seinem Laster!

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What’s so “Bad” about that idea?

Today I had to laugh as I saw a truck with the image of a family in bathtub at sea. The tub had a motor attached at the back and the mother, father and two kids seemed to be enjoying their journey. The image was an advertisement for a company that offers products from a firm called BadIdeen — “bath ideas” — but between the image of the bath at sea and the fact that the English word “bad” should be translated as schlecht rather than das Bad, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a company selling “bad ideas” rather than, as described below, tolle Ideen für das Badezimmer

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 4.38.30 AM


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Sehen Sie Meer und See Mehr

Noch eine Werbung mit einem Homofon

Fliegen Sie Meer

Fliegen Sie Meer

Man kann der Ton /e:/ mit »eh« oder »ee« buchstabieren. Auf Englisch sagen wir vielleicht See more of the world.


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Frightfully funny?

Today I saw an ad for Subway’s flatbread sandwiches which reads:

Einflach LeckerProbier jetzt dein Lieblings-Sub als frisch belegtes Flatbread
Delicious! Now try your favorite sub as a freshly topped flatbread”

Einflach Lecker - Subway

Einflach Lecker – Subway

The asterisks designate the fact that einflach is not a real German word, it is a play on two of them: einfach and flach, “simply” and “flat.” A parallel construction in English would be something like “Shrimply Delicious” – a play on “simply” and “shrimp.”

It is simply wonderful to know enough German to appreciate words at play and reminds me of a joke (which I told at a Halloween party) that relies on you knowing the grammatical cases German uses:

»Weißt du, wie die drei Geschwister des Werewolfs heißen?«
»Nein, wie denn?«
»Da wärst du nie drauf gekommen: Sie heißen Weswolf, Wemwolf und Wenwolf…«

“Do you know the names of the Werewolf’s three siblings?”
“No, what are they?”
“Your never gonna guess! They are called Genitive-Who Wolf, Dative-Who Wolf and Accusative-Who Wolf…”

For this to even get off the ground, you need to know that wer is the German word for “who” in the nominative case, and that it is inflected in the other three cases to become weswem and wen. You also know from the order in which the names are given – nominative, genitive, dative, accusative – that this joke is not brand new as the cases are now more commonly ordered nominative, accusative, dative and genitive, perhaps reflecting the increasingly rare use of the genitive forms.

I hope this makes the case, once again, for German humor making ample use of wordplay.

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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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Sharp sheep

It is lovely when wordplay works in multiple languages:

Warum laufen Nasen, während Füße riechen?
“Why do noses run while feet smell?”

Archetyp: Noah
“Archetype: Noah”

And you feel a bit of a loss when it doesn’t:

Man braucht scharfe Scheren zum Schafe scheren.
“One needs sharp shears when one shears sheep.”

“Sheep” and “sharp” are not a million miles apart in phonological terms, but they not nearly as close as Schafe and scharfe. In addition, while I’ve translated the German so that the noun and verb are both “shears,” this renders it a bit awkward and not really the sort of awkward that renders it funnier. So perhaps it would be closer to the feel of the original to say: “To spear sharks you need sharp spears?!”

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Did you get it?!

Since I was a girl and read Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles alongside my grandmother Mimi, I’ve enjoyed all sorts of jokes involving wordplay. For example, poised between a chuckle and a groan is “Why do birds fly south?” Answer: “It’s too far to walk.” Today at the library I checked out Witzbuch für Kinder, a collection which contains jokes of a similar nature in German. I found myself taken back in time, and like poetry, I think the economy of language in jokes gives you a special insight to real-world or everyday word use (die Alltagssprache).

WARNING/VORSICHT! You may want to read the examples below in private just in case you let out a loud guffaw (eine Lachsalve or in ein Gelächter ausbrechen – “to erupt in laughter” – or wiehern – ” to bray with laughter” – or gackernd lachen – “to cackle” – or schallendes Gelächter – “peals of laugher”) and then have to explain yourself by telling one of these jokes…

Zwei Flöhe kommen aus dem Kino. Es regnet in Strömen. Was meinst du? fragt der eine Floh. Springen wir zu Fuß, oder nehmen wir uns einen Hund?

Two fleas come out of cinema. It’s pouring rain. “What do you reckon?,” asks the one flea. “Should we walk home (literally jump or leap by foot) or should we take a dog?”

Zwei Spatzen sitzen auf der Fernsehantenne. Sie schluchzt herzerweichend. Er versucht, sie zu beruhigen. Vergeblich. Schließlich schreit er ganz verzweifelt: «Nun glaub mir doch endlich! Ich bin nicht verheiratet. Der Ring ist von der Vogelwarte.»

Two sparrows are sitting on a TV antenna (hmm, a bit dated, that). She is sobbing inconsolably. He is trying to calm her down but in vain. Finally he cries out in despair: “You have to believe me! I’m not married. The ring is from The Audubon Society” (or The European Union for Bird Ringing).

While das Rätsel seems to be the most common translation for “riddle,” I prefer die Scherzfrage – “the question joke” or perhaps “the joke question.”  Now hold onto your hats, because here’s my attempt to have a bit of fun by creating a “question joke” in German.

Sf: Wo findet man die Deutschsprachigen Leute?
A: Meisten sind unter dem demselben D-A-CH.

Qj: Where do you find the German-speaking people?
A: Most are under the same roof.

For this to have a chance of being funny you need to know that the word for “roof” is das Dach and that the abbreviations for the three major German-speaking countries are Deutschland, Austria and Confoederatio Helvetica (Switzerland). Therefore while coming up with this pleased me to no end, I’m not going to be outselling Mr. Cerf anytime soon!

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Today when I made a mistake and put on lip balm/salve before, rather than after, brushing my teeth, I shook my head and said to myself „Nein, Nein, Nein.“ Just then I realized that if overheard by a Brit, this exclamation could be taken either as something truly dire or something ironically exaggerated, because to get the emergency services one calls 999 (I started to write “one dials” and then was struck by how rarely this would literally describe the motion one would make in this age of smartphones). Yes, the sounds are a bit more clipped in the German version, but I would add “nine, nine, nine” and neinnein, nein to my list of English-German/Deutsch-Englisch false friends.

All this put me in mind of when I was taking Japanese back in the early ’80’s because we were taught a bit about word play involving numbers. This type of wordplay is based on the fact that the characters that name the digits 0-9 have three different spoken renderings. This page from Wikipedia gives a number of examples, including the numeral 23 being used as a race car number by Nissan since one rendering of these two digits is pronounced /ni-san/. And as you do, I started to think about how you might put the sounds of the German number names together in order to get something meaningful in English, and at once 69 – sechs nein– came into my head. The bad pun on “head” is fully intended, so here’s hoping no pun-loving and precocious children are reading, or, if they are, perhaps learning German just got a bit more exciting?!

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