Monday March 26, 2012
A look at some commonly used words that have German origins
SAMBAL ON THE SIDE by BRENDA BENEDICT
A look at some commonly used words which have German origins.
IS that the right way to say it? ‘Children garden’?”
One of my English students recently posed this question during a raucous class debate on the advantages and disadvantages of living in the city versus the suburbs.
I was initially stumped and asked if she meant a playground. But she explained that children also go there to learn their alphabet. Then it hit me – she meant kindergarten.
To give her due credit, she had accurately translated the term for my benefit and in reference to the “children’s garden” that was first created in 1839 by her countryman Friedrich Froebel.
Freelancing as an English instructor over the past three months has exposed me to many German loan words that have become commonplace in the English language.
And which some German speakers go to great pains to translate for us only to be surprised that we use them, too.
Take, for instance, the angst that I had prior to my maiden English lesson. The word that describes a “neurotic feeling of anxiety and depression” is distinctly German and pronounced “ungst”.
My nervousness during that first lesson also left me nursing a severe headache, which I promptly treated with aspirin; this go-to painkiller was first stabilised and patented by German chemist Felix Hoffmann between 1897 and 1900, while working for the renowned German drug maker Bayer AG.
For me though, what drugs cannot cure, sweets usually can.
One sugary confection that can calm the most frazzled of nerves is a generous slice of apple strudel.
This is a sweet pastry comprising thin layers of dough rolled with a filling of grated apples cooked with sugar, raisins and cinnamon.
Strudel itself means “whirlpool”, probably in reference to the swirly pattern of the dough and filling when you cut through the pastry.
In the literary world, there is the Bildungsroman. I must admit that when I first spotted this word in a book review many moons ago, I was baffled.
I later learned that it refers to a “coming-of-age” novel; something that many aim to publish to critical acclaim someday.
As undisputed dog lovers (in my view at least), the Germans have given the world the Doberman, the Rottweiler and the German Shepherd.
However, if teensy tail-waggers warm the cockles of your heart, then there is the adorable Dachshund.
But do not be fooled by the size or the melting eyes – this dog (der Hund) was originally trained to hunt badgers (der Dachs).
Two of my favourite loan words are often used in reference to fashion: “Glitz” (from glitzern) is often paired with “glamour” and generally used to describe the atmosphere or the people at A-list events.
There will certainly be no tolerance for kitsch here or you might expose yourself to receiving some serious flak; the latter is the abbreviation of the German “Fliegerabwehrkanone” or aircraft defence gun.
You can almost picture the rapid-fire criticism one could receive for donning tasteless threads.
Finally, there is the multipurpose German prefix, uber. Used together with a choice of adjectives or nouns, it exaggerates the description of something or someone. So you can either be uber-cool or an uber-geek.
But German and English also share many false friends – words that are either spelt or sound alike but with completely different meanings.
My aforementioned student was once irritated by my constant question: “Everything ok so far?”
Finally, she whispered in German to her neighbour: “Why does she keep asking about a ‘sofa’? There are only chairs here!”
We all had a good laugh but it was a reminder of how certain words can cause much confusion between English and German speakers.
For instance “arm” in English means a limb, in German it means being poor.
Gordon Ramsey may be a “chef” to you but for your German friend, it’s her boss at work.
For us, a “dose” is a recommended quantity of medication, for a German a “doh-suh” is a can in which you can package mushrooms, milk or anything else that can be canned.
The English “hose” refers to a water pipe; the German “hoh-suh” is a pair of pants. And while we think of Aladdin at the word “genie”, it means a genius in German.
So, as my students and I approach the end of the semester, I can only hope that some of them are on their way to becoming English genies and that none of them think I’ve taught them mist. *
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. *Mist in German means “codswallop”.