Posts tagged ‘foreign word’

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 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

April 20, 2011

12 things you should never do in the US …

… unless you want to get in trouble, offend people, or come across as a barbarian.

So, do NOT (in no particular order):

Unthinkable!, pic:

  • Offer somebody under 21 an alcoholic beverage – illegal
  • Be critical and confrontational, remember that many things that are acceptable in Europe are considered rude in the US – e.g. where Germans think it perfectly normal to push into you to get past you that is considered rude and aggressive in the US
  • Walk around with hairy legs and armpits (this rule, unfortunately, only applies to women)
  • Tell everybody you are an atheist and religion is a big scam – offensive to a vast majority of people, possible exception: urban areas in coastal California, maybe certain parts of New York
  • Telling everybody that the whole world believes Americans are completely ignorant – nobody likes to hear that
  • Taking your top off at the beach (only applies to women) – absolutely scandalous and woman here is defined as pretty much any female older than 8 years or so
  • Not paying extremely close attention to your personal hygiene, not showering before going to the office = unthinkable
  • Referring to American English as an accent of the proper British English.  Everybody here thinks British is an (albeit cute) accent of proper American English
  • If you are in California: smoke – anywhere for any reason.  You might get a way with smoking marijuana – but not tobacco
  • Tell a joke that makes fun of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, age group, etc – at least not in public.  Among friends it happens.
  • Start a discussion about abortion, guns, or evolution and think that it will be a friendly, inspiring chat
  • Pronounce foreign words correctly in their original language unless the foreign language is your mother tongue and everybody knows that.  It is considered quite blasé.

There are more, but these came to mind quickly.

March 3, 2011

Philosophical German words

No discussion of German loan words in English would be complete without the philosophical pair Weltanschauung and Weltschmerz.

Granted, they are neither particularly useful in everyday conversation nor easy to pronounce but nevertheless they seemed important enough and missing in the English language that they got adopted despite these shortcomings.

Jean Paul, the man we owe "Weltschmerz" to, pic:

Weltanschauung means “comprehensive world view,” a philosophy or conception of the world, universe, and human life.  It also refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts with it.

I was looking for the origin of the word or the philosopher who coined it but didn’t find anything definite.  The word is old which in the end isn’t that surprising, it is a very German concept and has probably been used for a long time.

Speaking of German concepts: Weltschmerz – “world pain,” or the melancholy over the state of the world is probably even more so typically German. Weltschmerz expresses pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom.   The expression was coined by the writer Jean Paul, who despite his French sounding name, is a German romantic writer.

Enough philosophy for one day.

March 1, 2011

Buckley’s chance

Here is an Australian expression for you.  I never heard it in the US so I recommend you not using it there if you want to be understood but since it is an interesting little story I’ll tell you anyway.

Old William looking quite adapted to live in the outback, pic:

Buckley’s chance is the Aussie equivalent of a “snowballs chance in hell”: zero, none, zilch, pretty much impossible.  The phrase originated back in the days when Australia was England’s favorite place to send their convicts to.  One of those convicts, William Buckley, managed to do the impossible: he escaped once in Australia (Melbourne area), walked for days, ended up with the Aborigines and lived with them for many years (35 is the number I heard but haven’t independently verified). In those days living with the Aborigines for such a long time, I guess, seemed just as imposible as escaping the watchful eyes of the British.

Legend has it that after his many years with the Aborigines Buckley eventually returned back to so-called civilization, gave himself up to the authorities, and was pardoned.

Instead of using the full phrase, Aussies like to abbreviate it and just say “Buckley’s” in contexts like this:

“I lent David $50,do you think I can get it back.”

“Buckley’s!  That guy is totally unreliable and probably spent you money on drugs already.”

I was introduced to this Aussie saying by Paul Anderson, of Escape Discovery Adventures during a wonderful one-day Great Ocean Road excursion.

February 16, 2011


I first encountered the word acme in Far Side cartoons where it invariably showed up as the brand name of a wide variety of fictional products and some especially inept enterprises.  So somehow I always believed acme was used for just – fictional brandnames.

An Acme Corp product at it's finest, pic:

And that is partially true, as acme – derived from the Greek acmē – made its appearances in the English language in the 1920 as the name of fictional products and companies in cartoons such as Road Runner.  Products supplied by Acme Corporation had a tendency to fail catastrophically at the worst possible time.

In real life acme means:  the highest level or degree attainable or the highest stage of development.  As such it makes sense to choose this as a brand name for your bakery or plumbing business.

Although one can think up example sentences using the word such as “His fame was at its acme” or “The acme of their soccer season was when they beat team xyz 3 :1″   nobody – in all my years in the US  – has actually ever ued that word in a complete sentence.

February 8, 2011

Yiddish words

Yiddish is a language that is used by Ashkenazi Jews that is related to German (it  also has Slavic, Hebrew, and Aramaic loan words). .  There is a good number of words that have made their way into everyday language.   Not surprisingly, many of them sound familiar to me from German and other I find onomatopoeic and keenly describing a thing or concept.

Here are a few examples and explanations:

Apparently animals can be klutzy, too. Pic:

Chutzpah – nerve, brazenness, arrogance; in English it has a connotation of courage and confidence – actually somewhat too much of it.  A real good description I found is the following: that quality of a man who, having murdered his parents pleads with the court to show him mercy because he is an orphan.

Klutz – definitely of German origin, a Klotz is a largish piece of wood – klutz refers to clumsy, awkward people who constantly knock things down, stumble over stuff, run into corners, walls, tables, etc.  The adjective is klutzy.  “Joey fell of the play structure again – is a really klutzy little guy.”

Kvetch- this is an interesting one, I had to read it out loud a few times before I got it.  Quetschen in German means to squeeze or pinch and kvetch in Yiddish originally means the same but it is used to mean complain, whine, fret, grip.  “Stop sitting around kvetching all day – do something useful!”

February 3, 2011

Another German loan word

Here is one of my favorite German loan words: “zeitgeist”.  It is in so many ways a typical German word starting with the fact that it is a composite noun to it’s somewhat abstract, philosophical meaning.

Zeitgeist of the 60s, pic:

Zeitgeist means “the spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age”.  Wiki adds: “Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and/or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.

Now, that’s a mouthful so here are some examples where the word is used in a sentence – not sure it makes the meaning any clearer, though.

“The zeitgeist of the Victorian era  is generally  seen as being prudish and increasingly industrial.”

“The zeitgeist of the 60s was one of protest.

In English the adjective “zeitgeisty” is also used.  Funnily enough, there is no German equivalent for zeitgeisty – this is a recent English addition.

January 24, 2011

German words

There are a few German words that have been adopted in the English language and have become “loan words”.  I’ll write about the most interesting ones of them in a few blog posts going forward.

perfect scenario for schadenfreude:

Let’s start with Schadenfreude.  Schadefreude is when somebody takes pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune.  The word derives from Schaden which means adversity, harm, and a bunch of other unpleasant negative things.   Freude means joy, delight, elation.

Some sources define Schadenfreude as “malicious joy” but that is overreaching somewhat.  There certainly can be malicious aspects to Schadenfreude, where it borders on the pathological but more often Schadenfreude is what one experiences when watching an episode of Tom and Jerry or some other comic where one character or another gets whacked over the head, somebody spilling a glass of coke on their white pants, or falling into the pool in an evening dress.

Though few languages other than German seem to have a specific word for Schadenfreude the concept seems rather universal, that’s why the word has become used in other languages as well.