Posts tagged ‘foreign word’

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.

January 6, 2011


With Davis Square in Somerville, MA, it is quite difficult to find the kitty-corner, pic:

I explained this word to my son recently who thought it was very funny (he is six so cracking up over words like kitty-corner is okay).  It is a bit of a strange, funny word but also very useful so here is what a kitty-corner (or catty-corner) is:

It is the corner which is diagonally opposite to the point of reference.  So if you are standing at the south-east corner of a plaza or an intersection then the north-west corner would be the kitty-corner.

For example:

“Do you know where Jane’s bakery is?”

“Sure, it is on Main St and First, on the kitty-corner of the public library.”

Although the words brings to mind little cats and raises the question what they have to do with anything, the little fur-balls have nothing to do with the origin of the word.  It seems to derive from misspelling in English of the French word quatre (“four”) prefixed to “corner.”

Sometimes misspellings result in funny expressions.

December 23, 2010

Funny word – Smorgasbord

it looks Scandinavian and it is – only that in Swedish this word would be spelled like so: Smörgåsbord

A real smorgasbord -yum! pic:

In Sweden a Smörgåsbord is a meal served buffet-style with many dishes of various types of foods on a table.  Smörgåsbord came to the new world and was transformed into  Smorgasbord in 1939 when it was served in the Swedish pavilion during the New York World fair.

Since then the word has considerably broadened its meaning in English and now is used to describe a large heterogeneous mixture of almost anything.   Here are a couple of examples:

Tourist after a visit in an all-inclusive resort: “Every day we could choose from a smorgasbord of different activities.  It was great.”

HR person at a company meeting: “as you can see, we offer a smorgasbord of different benefits for you to choose from.”

Smorgasboard is one of the few Swedish words that have found their way – minus a few dots and circles – into the English language.


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