Posts tagged ‘confusing words’

July 17, 2015

Especially devious false friends

My husband pointed out a particularly devious pair of false friends for the German speaking crowd out there to me the other day and so I decided to write a quick blog about it.  The culprits are:

Pathetic (engl.)

Pathetisch (d.)

Let’s tackle pathetic first.  The word has two meanings, both not particularly pleasant.  The first basically means “in such a bad state that it arouses pity”.  An example would be “the poor abandoned dog looked pathetic, I had to adopt him”.  Synonyms would be pitiable, heart-breaking, distressing.

The second, and probably more common usage means “miserably, completely inadequate”.  Examples would be “his performance was absolutely pathetic. It was a disgrace” or me to my son “a B in math is pathetic, you shouldn’t ever have a grade worse than an A-.” (I am not crazy, the boy is a math whiz and anything worse than an A- indicates laziness, not lack of understanding).

Let’s turn our attention to “pathetisch” – it means passionate, maybe a bit too much so, solemn, declamatory.    The word can have a negative connotation and indicate that the speaker is totally overdoing it, might be showing off , use overblown or sententious language.  What it does not mean is paltry, miserable, abject, pitiable.

So one needs to be careful here.  Though a “pathetischer” talk can be annoying and too much it is a far cry from pathetic.

Another devious pair is sensible (eng.) and sensibel (d.).

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

The English sensible means rational, practical, prudent and is used in sentences such as “She is wearing boots for the hike, that is very sensible” or “Although I really would like you to participate in the meeting it is sensible to stay home if you are sick.”

The German “sensibel” on the other hand means “sensitive” in English.  It is used for example when talking about people “eine sensible Person” is a sensitive person not a sensible person. The word is,  particularly devious in German as it is spelled “sensibel” in some cases (das Kind ist sensibel – the child is sensitive) but takes the English looking version “sensible” although pronounced quite differently, if used as an adjective in certain cases “das sensible Kind weint” (the sensitive child is crying”).

So you can see who a prudent, rational person can quickly become a sensitive one if Germans are involved.




July 7, 2015

New Official English Words

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.  Pic:

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary recently released the latest words that are no officially part of the English languages, as opposed to being used but not being “official”.   Some surprised me because I expected them to be official words for, like, ever, some because I didn’t even know the word or I knew the word but didn’t know it had that additional meaning that now as made official.

Some others are pretty much non-events.

Let’s look at a few.

High on the list of media attention grabbing new words is “twerk”, the dance move, popularized in 2013 or thereabouts is defined as dancing “in a sexually provocative manner, using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance.” – Now that is a long explanation for something that everybody, who has ever seen Miley Cyrus do anything, grasps intuitively.  Welcome to official existence, twerk, you child of twisting or jerking.

One of those I stare at and wonder is “gimmick”.  It supposedly means “a night out with friends”.  I have never heard it used in that sense and maybe it just isn’t something Californians use.  The good old gimmick I know and like has the following meaning:an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal“.  How the word made it from trick to happy hour I can’t begin to explain.

One I had never heard used is “fo’ shizzle”, slang speak meaning “for sure”.  I seem to not travel in the right circles for that kind of slang.

Then there is guerrilla used in the sense of “describing activities carried out in an irregular and spontaneous way”.  Now, maybe my job has biased me but I have know and used guerrilla in this sense for years.  In fact, I probably have used it more often in this newly approved sense then the original one.  So again, welcome to the world of officially approved terms, guerrilla marketing.

Now one that I like, the somewhat childish but cute sounding look-see, pronounced “looksy”.  It means what you think it does, taking a quick look around, doing a brief inspection.  Here is an example:

“Shall we pitch our tent on this camp ground?”

“Let’s have a quick look-see first.”

What else is new? The universally used “meh” that expresses a profound lack of excitement and enthusiasm which seems to date back to the early 1990 and the Simpsons. Another popular culture addition is “Twitterati”, describing prolific users of the social networking site Twitter, plus many many more, some of which I am very unlikely to ever use. But it is good to know that there are words for things I might want to say, one day.



June 30, 2015


The other day we took a stroll through the center of the historic German town we currently live in when I stopped in my tracks.  Right in front of us was a new store I had never seen before – this might be a bit strange in such a small town but then, things change quickly and seeing  new store normally doesn’t stop me in my tracks – unless, of course, it is an Antique Store, or better yet some sort of indoor flea market type store.  With the town rapidly gentrifying tit was neither.

Friking  - a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan (c) Tina Baumgartner

Friking – a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan
(c) Tina Baumgartner

What stopped me in my tracks was the name.  The store – which sells men’s fashion – is called “Friking” – seriously? Friking? The word doesn’t mean anything in German and might be a name.  In any case it is pronounced slightly differently from the English “freaking” – but only ever so slightly.

Now, a German store owner might be forgiven for not knowing that Friking is way too close for comfort to “freaking” if they didn’t make a point of using an English slogan right under that name.  But not only that, they use a slogan that makes no sense whatsoever. The slogan, right there outside the store says “you are in the shop”

Ehm, what?  I am clearly not in the shop, I am outside looking at it in disbelief.  And even if I was in the shop, what would the slogan tell me?  I would know I am in the shop, then, I needn’t be told. I  tried to make sense of this by translating it literally into German, but it doesn’t make sense in that language either, so it isn’t a case of literally translated idiom.  Maybe the webpage holds a clue as it is a Spanish webpage ending on .es – so some Spanish store using a bad English slogan in Germany?  The headache of it all!

Another point, maybe an US vs. UK English point is the use of “shop”.  In US English one would say store rather than shop, a shop has the connotation of a small place where often services are performed such as body shop (car repair), barber shop to get a shave (do shops where people are getting shaved still exist?)

I am still scratching my head over the fact that somebody spends lots of money on merchandize, the very expensive rents in my quickly gentrifying little town, hires sales people etc. etc – but can’t be bothered to ask somebody fluent in English something along the lines of “hi, buddy, help me out here.  Does this slogan make sense?” This is a friking mess, really.

June 27, 2015

False Friends

I mentioned false friends before, words in the language you study that sound very much like words in your own language and hence one is tempted to assume they mean the same.

Two examples from the German and English languages come to mind: eventually and actually in English and eventuell and aktuell in German.  Let’s talk about and clarify both of them:

Eventually and eventuell – are very close sounding and used in similar contexts.  However, “eventually” indicates that something will happen at some non-specified time in the future.  The point is, the thing will happen, just when isn’t determined yet.  “Eventuell”, on the other hand, means that something may happen in the future, so the basic fact whether the event will happen is uncertain.

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married "eventuell/maybe."  (c) Tina Baumgartner

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married “eventuell/maybe.”
(c) Tina Baumgartner

The difference can be rather disconcerting: “eventually we’ll get married” is quite different from “maybe we’ll get married.” Hearing a college student say: “I will eventually finish my degree” is cause for concern for parents, but hearing them say “Maybe, some day, I’ll finish my degree” is way worse.   From the German’s perspective misusing the word the consequences can be dire as well: saying to your business partner “I will eventually come up with the $2M needed to keep the doors open” is telling him/her that you will get the money when what you meant to say that you “eventuell” will get the money which means potentially/maybe you somehow manage to come up with it.

Actually and aktuell are also similar sounding but have the advantage of being used in different contexts and hence it should be easier to keep them apart.  “Actually” is a frequently used word in English which is mostly used in the same contexts as the German “eigentlich”.  It is a bit of a fudge word that is hard to translate and very context dependent.  A few examples might illustrate the use best:

“Are you going to the grocery store with me?” – “Actually, I had planned on going to the gym now.” – here it is used in the sense of “well” or – since it is often used when saying no to something, it is used in the sense of “uhm, well, no”

“This is actually a good question” – here it is used in the sense of “indeed”

“How did your trip to Italy compare to the last time you were there?” – “Actually, I had never visited Italy before” – here it is used in the sense of “in fact”.

Aktuell, however, means current/up to date:  “aktuelle Nachrichten” are current news, “ist das noch aktuell?” means “is that still up to date?”

So a false friend but not as deviously false as the eventually/eventuell pair.


June 24, 2015

Of course

“Of course” in English is used to express that something is well-known and understood and not surprising.
“We loved Norway in winter, but, of course, the days were short.” Now, that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people.

“Was the food in Thailand spicy?” “Of course it was.”  At least to those of us who have traveled to Thailand this not new either.

“Of course” is one of those little phrases that Germans use a lot when they speak English and that they use slightly differently than native speakers .  And it is another of those phrases that Germans use the way they would use the literal translation “natuerlich” in German as a way to emphasize a fact or statement. They often start a sentence with “of course” to express not that what follows is a well-known fact but that what follows is a somewhat surprising or unusual fact that needs a bit of emphasis.”Of course, all our dishes come with French fries” a waiter might say, before anybody even asked whether French fries are available.

Germans use “of course” often to express that they think something is the case or to proactively confirm a not generally known fact and hence use it more in the sense of “certainly”.

The following is a bit of an overstated example to make the point:

German sales person: “Of course, the computer comes with a free ticket to Disney World and preloaded software.”

While the computer can be reasonably be expected to come with software (and hence an “of course” would be appropriate if the buyer asked “does it come with software?”) it cannot reasonably be expected to come with a free ticket to Disney World, hence the “of course” is misplaced.

Now if the company had put out an advertising campaign saying “Buy a computer get a free ticket to Disney World!” and the buyer had come in, flyer in hand and asked “does this computer come with a free ticket to Disney World?” then “of course, it does” would have been an appropriate answer.

It is a fine difference and probably not particularly relevant in many contexts but I have noticed it a number of times and in some occasions this “proactive of course” comes across as a bit unfriendly or slightly offensive.  As if the other party should have known already.  As if a generally accepted fact somehow had slipped the attention of the other person and one now has to point it out the obvious.

This is definitely American English 201 or even 301, not 101 but its best to not get into the habit of using “of course” to emphasis a fact that isn’t widely known and accepted.



June 21, 2015

He, She, It

The inappropriate use of  pronouns is one of the most common mistakes native German speakers make when they start speaking English and have progressed to the stage where they attempt conversations, even simple ones.

In German there are three definite articles “der, die, das” associated with gender: der for male, die for female, das for neuter nouns.  The process of assigning a noun and a gender and with that an article strikes many non native speakers as arbitrary and, although there are rules, that is probably at least partially true.

However random this might look to English speakers, gender and articles are deeply engrained in the German language and when Germans start speaking English they carry that notion with them.

That’s why German refer to dogs as “he” and cats as “she” despite the fact that they do not know the actual gender of the animal because in German it is “der Hund” and “die Katze”. What to make of “das Pferd” – the poor neuter horse is a different story.

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles source:

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles

In English if one uses a pronoun to replace a noun it is “it” unless we know, as in the case of animals, for certain what actual gender the animal has.  So if we know that Ginny, our friend’s dog, is a girl we refer to her as “she” and to  Rascal, our other friend’s tomcat as “he”.  The same is true for humans, that goes without saying, Fred is “he” and Sarah is “she” and Baby Caitlyn is “she”, too, not “it” as it would be – correctly stated- in German, as Little Caitlin (das Maedchen, the girl) is technical a neuter.

However, in English one never ever uses “he” or “she” to refer to an inanimate object.  So the infamous sentence “put it into she” I once heard a German visitor use when he meant to say that the other person should pour the water (das Wasser and hence “it” – which happens to be correct) into the bottle (die Flasche and hence, in German, “she”) is not only horribly incorrect but also rather unambiguous verging on the suggestive because if “she” is used the assumption is that one speaks about a woman.

An exception are engines: all sort of moving engines such as trucks and ships are referred to as “she” in casual language. I don’t know why, but my assumption is that the lone trucker out on the highways or the boat captain away from home for months likes to think about his vehicle as a woman.

Another exception is the earth, which is generally referred to as “she”, also countries can take a female pronoun.  However, assigning a female gender to these words sounds rather poetic and should only be done if that connotation is desired.

It is not intuitive to Germans to replace all their pronouns but for a few with “it” but it is also not a hard rule to learn and an easy one to remind oneself of and correct oneself – and will go a long way towards a much better command of the English language.



June 18, 2015

Literally Pesky Adverbs

Adverbs can be a bother. It starts with them being quite an idiosyncratic bunch with words thrown in that actually seem to somehow not belong anywhere – such as actually.

Let’s not worry for now, about the intricacies of classification of adverbs and similar advanced topics, much has been written about this by experts, let’s just say, they can make life hard, for the native as and especially for the non-native speaker.  Literally.

Native speakers like to misuse “literally” by using it frequently in a context where whatever they suggest should be taken literally isn’t actually true, literally.

“Oh dear, we literally shopped til we dropped when we were in Vegas.”  Unless you really collapsed on the street or in the store you didn’t literally shop til you dropped, you likely just wore yourself out.

“I literally don’t have anything to wear.”  – no comment needed

“I literally haven’t eaten ice cream in a year.” – while that could, literally, be true it most likely isn’t and the person is just trying to make a point.

So, what is a person trying to learn English supposed to do with literally? Ignore, use correctly, use casually but incorrectly just like the native speakers?  That is really a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  I use literally and I use it incorrectly at times but I do so knowingly.  If called on the topic I would concede that point and acknowledge my ungrammatical ways.  However, why be more catholic than the pope, why try and keep the language purer that the native speakers care to?

Part of becoming fluent in both business as well as casual English is to use the language just as the native speakers do (which can be very different in California and Texas, let along England or Australia) and that includes to a certain extent to adopt idiosyncratic (read: wrong) uses of words.  It’s good to know what is wrong and what is correct and it is also very important not to overdo it such as adopting a specific slang of a group one doesn’t belong to.  Ebonics sounds weird on the overwhelming majority of kids from Stuttgart, Sydney or Shanghai (and most other places).

June 14, 2015

Never ever ever …. seriously!

I said it before, I am saying it again: never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan, idiom, expression literally.  Seriously, do not do it, it will not work.

This is a fundamental truth of learning another language and it seems hard to grasp for people.  Somehow I understand, if you only ever spoke one language you might not have an appreciation for the fact that other languages and other cultures see and describe things differently, feel about things differently and hence use other expressions and mental images to talk about it.

That being the case it is critically important to accept that it is that way and that – however logical or natural an expression might seem – it is likely not appreciated in a verbatim translation.

The now infamous "Mirror Egg"I still cringe when I think of my first trip to the US, many many years ago with a couple of friends. We were ordering breakfast and my friend ordered a “mirror egg”. I can’t begin to describe the confusion on the poor waitresses face.  In German a fried egg, sunny side up is indeed referred to as “Spiegelei” which, in the literal translation is a “mirror egg”.  The expression likely stems from the fact that while the egg white is curdled the yolk is still liquid and has a shiny surface.  At that time I wasn’t an expert on American breakfast egg preparation but it was immediately obvious to me that the literal translation was disastrous.  I have no idea how we resolved that situation but I remember to this day how uncomfortable it was.

But that kid of blunder isn’t just reserved for regular people with limited English knowledge.  Even big companies do stuff like that, which is when it gets really bad.  For a long time one of Germany’s major chain of stores selling perfume used the slogan “come in and find out” to entice customers to come into the store and find out what great offerings await them inside.

This phrase has two major issues: firstly, one would never use it in English. “Find out” doesn’t stand by itself, it would need to be followed by a “what”, something that we are supposed to find out. Find out how great/cheap/well-stocked/exclusive/whatever we are.  But “find out” alone leaves me puzzled and unsatisfied.

Secondly the Germans overwhelmingly misinterpreted the sentence to mean “come in and then find a way to leave again”. The “find out” was translated literally to “herausfinden” which can mean discover but it can also mean “find your way out” – like out of a scary dark forest or a maze.  Not exactly what the message was supposed to be.

So, please, big retail store, car maker, pharma company next time you want a cool sounding English slogan ask me first.  I can fix it and save you a lot of confusion and embarrassment.


June 12, 2015

Picking up where I left off

my year by the lake

my year by the lake

I have been inactive for a long time but recently decided to do a little bit more of what I like (writing) and a little bit less of what I have to do (working on a job that by no means can be described as 9-5).  So, here are the good intentions, which – as we are all know – pave the road to hell.

I have spent the last 10 months in Germany, which is my home country.  It was an interesting experience in many ways, also from a language stand point.  Many Germans, especially the younger generation speak English, some very well, some, well, not so much.

English is in many ways pretty prevalent in Germany, of course the Germans send emails, just like the rest of the world, not ePost or eBriefe and have computers, just spelled Computers.  There is a good deal of English in music, science and as mentioned anything having to do with computers/IT and in advertising – although the trend for that latter one seems to be slowing.

Some of the things I will write about in the next few blogs are funny, weird, silly and confusing mistakes made by German natives trying their hand at English – especially if they are trying to sound cool, young and hip.  Generally it is a recipe for disaster and some general conclusions can be drawn for any non-native speaker learning English (or any other language, I suppose).  The main ones:

  • never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan literally.  It might work, in some rare cases, but in the overwhelming majority of cases nobody will understand what you mean and you’ll end out looking weird – at best
  • be aware of “false friends”- I suppose most languages have them and there are a few specifically tough ones in German-English that just keep coming up over and over again.  The most obvious example is the English “become” and the German “bekommen” – look like twins, don’t they.  Well, they aren’t.  Bekommen means “get” not “become” – endless confusion ensues.  I actually do know a Spanish false friend or rather a really devious couple of false friends: “asistir” in Spanish means attend, whereas “atender” means pay attention to, look after.  I can’t count how many times I had native Spanish speakers tell me that they will “assist” an event.
  • Adverbs matter and so does punctuation.  More on that in a later post but I’ll end with that example that has been going around on Facebook and alike:

Let’s eat Grandpa!

Let’s eat grandpa! – opps – Let’s eat, Grandpa! – better

May 18, 2011


Lemons are those yellow, tart, healthy things that taste so good with ice cubes some water, sugar and your hard liquor of choice – bit not only.  the term lemon is also used to describe severely flawed products, especially cars.

A real lemon, color and all, pic:

Generally the flaws are hidden and so people who buy the product/car think they are making a good purchase just to find out later that they – well, got a lemon.  To protect consumers against lemon cars so called lemon laws exist in all states.  The definition of what constitutes a lemon is different in different states a sort of consensus definition is: A vehicle that continues to have a defect that substantially impairs its use, value, or safety. Generally, if the car has been repaired 4 or more times for the same Defect within the Warranty Period and the Defect has not been fixed, the car qualifies as a Lemon.

The phrase dates back to the 19th century when people started to describe other people were unfriendly, not cheerful or “sour” as lemons.  From there it was but a small step to refer to broken things as lemons.