56 posts categorized "Engrish, Denglish, and other language matters"

Ordnung ist das Halbe Leben 3

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Please insert trays CROSSWISE

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Please don't use.  It's still being tested!  Thanks!

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It is sad that in a global company we must deal with such matters, but it seems that there are always people who do not know how WC-cleaning functions. Here is a bit of help. 
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Figure 1. Totally Wrong. Figure 2. Wrong. Figure 3. Almost Right. Figure 4. Right.

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Hands Spread Disease-Causing-Germs.  Correct Washing Protects. Hold hands under running water.  Pulverise soap* (*or similar hand cleaning substance) for 20 to 30 seconds. Also between the fingers. Then thoroughly rinse.  Dry Carefully.  Brought to you by the Us Against Viruses campaign, the Robert Koch Institute, and the Federal Center for Health Instruction. 

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Please ALWAYS take a ticket or use your permanent-parker card!!  Vehicles with compressed natural gas propulsion should not be left in this garage.

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Rule: The Complexity of Instructions must be in Inverse Proportion to the Simplicity of the Object to be Operated. (see also shopping trolley instructions here)

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Respect!  No Place for Racism


English on the March: Lady

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As she has done so often in her life, Margaret Thatcher provides the exception that proves the rule.

The rule in question: Honourable Husband's #1 Law of Denglish.  No language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.

Let's look at The Iron Lady, the film in which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  In German, it's Die Eiserne Lady.

While praising Streep's performance, both sides of politics seem pissed off.  Toryblatt Daily Mail gripes that the film didn't make enough of her putative political accomplishments.  On the other hand, @piercepenniless tweets that I see the new Thatcher film doesn't start with her being sorcerously belched from the steaming tar-pits of hell.  Unaccountable oversight.  Apparently, the Russian version (title unkown) pulls no punches, either.

For the moment, we'll stick to the Deutscheausgabe and focus on the title.  Why would we use the German word for Iron, but the English word for Lady

Good question.  I asked it of a number of native German speakers. 

Most agreed that Die Eiserne Dame, the literal translation, would sound old-fashioned.  Perhaps the promoters of the film wanted to sound modern, they suggested.

Mildly convincing.  But we hear the same connotation in English.  A lady is an older, somewhat fancy woman, and using the word carries a lot of baggage.  It shows respect, perhaps even admiration for her grace and dignity.  The word Dame, borrowed from the French into both German and English, does so as well.  These terms suggest maturity, and a certain worldliness. 

A little too much worldliness, perhaps.  Feminists have long pointed out that such words for women carry a sexual charge—think ladies of the night.  Or, at the very least, they make women appear weak or dependent; ladylike is a synonym for dainty or delicate.

On that note, let's switch the language of our current discussion, just for a moment.  From Denglish to Engrish

The Iron Office Lady.

In the sixties and seventies, feverish economic growth taxed the spirit of the Japanese salaryman.  Long hours, compulsory after-hours bonhomme, and the company dormitory took a toll on his private life.  Many couldn't meet enough women to find a girlfriend, let alone a wife. 

So the curious job of office lady, or OL, was born. 

She was originally called a BG, for Business Girl, but that sounded a bit seedy.   In 1963, a magazine sponsored a competition to find a new name, and our girl became a lady in an instant.

There is a native term in Japanese for these women.  Shokuba no hana, or office flower, captures the decorative nature of her job.   What does she actually do?  She helps to make everyone feel happy  Such a job description might perplex westerners, but Japanese culture places high value on emotions—even, and especially, in business culture.  The job of making everyobody happy is an important one, and the calling is noble.

That doesn't remove the sexual agenda from her duties.  We see it loud and clear in the late-nineties sitcom, Office Lady Police

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I have a DVD of the first season, and it is one of the most treasured souvenirs of my time in Japan.  My husband—another treasured souvenir from my time in Japan—finds it insufferable trash and refuses to watch, so I can't give you an in-depth run-down.  But I'll try.

The series opens with the Ladies conducting a sting.  We see a tall, Porsche-driving hunk showering his girlfriend with expensive gifts.  But something smells fishy to our heroines.  They corner the couple, and after a quick swipe with a cotton pad and cold cream, they reveal that the woman is—shock!—actually one of those vulgar ganguro girls, with reverse-out eye shadow that makes her look like a photographic negative.  Boyfiend is devastated, since he is kind and sensitive as well as being tall and rich and driving a Porsche.  The Ladies take him off to a special Hunky Victims Unit for counselling by candlelight, over a bottle of Moët.

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The Ladies seem to spend a lot of time rescuing each other from embarassing scrapes or fending off nerdy salaryman suitors, and it leaves little scope for fighting crime. This demands excessive over-acting from their squad sergeant as he dresses them down.  If Office Lady Police were an American sitcom from 1966, rather than a Japanese sitcom from 1999, Paul Lynde would play this role.

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The Ladies keep up their energy by eating ice-cream, and dining on Italian food al fresco.  Oh, and their squad car is not the customary Suzuki Alto, but a trendy imported model—the tricky-to-pronounce Volkswagen Golf .  

Those, my English-speaking friends, are the hallmarks of a true lady

Titled Ladies

Back to Denglish.  In the course of our chat, one of my colleagues made an intriguing point.  She asked, "If you met  Silvio Berlusconi, and wanted to address him respectfully, what would you say?"

That anyone would want to address Silvio Berlusconi respectfully is a mighty big assumption, but I played along.  "I'd say, Signor Berlusconi..."

The penny dropped.  Some of the first words we learn of a foreign language, even if we don't speak it, are titles.  You might be a hardened monoglot, but you probably know the meanings of Herr and Frau, Señor and Señora, Monsieur and Madame. We'll use these words from time to time, out of respect for another's culture, or just to add local colour to an exotic character.

Shakespeare did it.  In his numerous Italian plays, he seldom uses the word Mister, preferring Signore.

When I lived in Japan, the lingua franca of our office was English. Yet we always used the suffix -san to address each other, or to refer to someone.  I knew it was a title, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it meant, and where it fit on the scale of respect. (-chan, -kun, -san, -sama, -sensei.)

We tend to understand these words only in their most basic sense, though.  And seldom do we know the ins-and-outs of their usage, like how to abbreviate them.    English speakers can readily decipher the meaning of Señora Franco, but might pause for a moment before understanding Sra. Franco. That's why Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men series becomes Mister Men in German.  This maintains a certain foreign flavour, but is easy enough for children to understand.

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Mr. Happy was lifted with love (and permission) from A Bavarian Sojourn.

Here, the German use of lady probably echoes a title, rather than a noun.  Lord and Lady, or Sir and Lady, get used in English often enough to be recognisable by German speakers.  The converse, however, doesn't hold.  Few know words like Grafin (Countess) or Herzog (Duke) simply because such titles cannot be used officially, nowadays.

(Here's an aside.  It rather surprises me, then, that in Oscar Wilde's Ernst sein ist AllesTo Be Earnest Is Everything—Lady Bracknell becomes Tante Augusta. Perhaps it harks back to an era when English was not heard so commonly east of the Rhine.)

As it turns out, the German language doesn't need the word lady.  The promoters tossed it in, because Mrs. Thatcher was, and still is, an Englishwoman. 

If they were searching for a British title, they might have noted that our Margaret Hilda actually has one.  She is Baroness Thatcher.   Now, the last time I checked, Baron was a German word, too. 

Mind you, I last checked at the age of six, in the third frame of a Snoopy cartoon.  Perhaps German has changed since then.

Special hat tip to Julia and Billy, for your crucial language input.

Copyright notice: Eiserne Lady poster sourced from distributor's website.  OL Police images from DVD PIBD-1027.  Image of Mr. Happy in German from A Bavarian Sojourn.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.


An Exotic Cuisine

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The Edeka supermarket chain proudly proclaims Wir Lieben Lebensmittel! (We Love Groceries!)   From time to time, to show their love for groceries, they scour the world for  exotic foods.  Thus, customers at the Edeka in Munich's multicultural West End enjoyed American Food Week. 

American Food Week ended some months ago, but the display remains. I suspect they still  haven't sold all the American food they had in stock.  Luckily, the art of the American chef is multi-faceted—he creates food that is not only delicious and nutritious, but durable.  It will last forever, with a minimum of maintenance.  In this, American food resembles German cars.

Among these groceries, on the top shelf to the right, we find Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. 

For locals reading this, note that Americans open the box and leave it in their refrigerators, which is surprisingly effective in removing smells.  Europeans tend not to have this problem, since we shop daily for fresh food and don't leave perishables very long.   Backpulver comes in little plastic containers that suggest it's used pretty much for baking.  This large box was a godsend, I thought, and bought one to deploy against a ripe, stinky French cheese we had stored.  The cheese won.

Ah, those French people think they know from cheese.  Pah!  American cheese not only doesn't smell, but it comes in much more convenient forms.

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A couple of shelves devoted themselves to sweet sauces.  As the All-Natural Bosco Chocolate Syrup proclaims, American food is Oh So Thick, Oh So Rich!  

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Another memo to you French people: put some sugar in your mustard.   There's a bottle labelled French's on the shelf—that means it's for you to study.  You're welcome. 

Speaking of American food named after European countries: One would have thought there would be no need to import Swiss Miss drinking chocolate, when Switzerland is right next door.  But it has a special taste to it, to do with the accompanying marshmallows. Marshmallows qualify as an exotic food here in Germany.

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Amid the root beer, Bisquick, Mac 'n' Cheese, Jiffy-Pop, peanut-butter cups and Paul Newman's Own Salad Dressing, we find All-Vegetable Crisco.  Great for those health conscious vegetarians we have here in Europe.  Messages like this Crisco label taught generations of Americans that vegetables could be viscous, and thus Ronald Reagan's statement that ketchup is a vegetable makes much more sense.

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Cue for gay men to make jokes
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Of course, American style food is available elsewhere in the supermarkt.  The Golden Toast brand of bread makes items that are distinctly not German.   In fact, the English word toast gives it away—toasting bread is a habit of Anglophone cultures.  Have you tried pumpernickel toast?  I rest my case.

Golden Toast's hamburger buns—which, of course, have nothing to do with people from Hamburg—tell us what the customers expect form American food.  The Mega-Burger on the left is extragrossen (extra large) and the standard American burger bun is an extra soft recipie.

The buns sell a little better than the spray cheese, I notice.


Denglish: Check Your Male

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This billboard, with its tantalising wisp of chest hair on a svelte torso, didn't raise too many issues of language.  At least not at first.

It's an ad for World Compact, a tabloid version of the prestigous German national daily The World.  Few know this, but the paper was founded in Hamburg by the British occupying forces, who modelled it on The Times.  Early this year, the new Welt Kompakt was hyped as a hipper, snappier version of Die Welt, with the blunt slogan Short. Different. Printed.

The headline reads: We chat on the phone with Mama and check emails at the same time. Are we ripe for a new newspaper? 

I pondered this piece as I waited for a train, and it began to fascinate,  on a number of levels.

It's Short.

First, look at all that hybrid-English!   In spite of all the Englishy words, the ad contains one of the few sentences which is longer in its English form, than in the original German.

As a language, German pursues precision.  Its grammar riddles normal conversation with redundancies and extra info—must I really specify the gender of my math teacher?   German doesn't just borrow a short Latinate word to describe an abstract concept, it must explain the idea in detail—no science, for example, but rather wissenschaft, which clarifies that science is a knowledge accomplishment.   This example turns a seven-letter word in English into a twelve character word in German, a typical margin.  Words and sentences seem to last an eternity.

Copywriters must put the maximum meaning into the shortest possible space.  The Texter(in) who wrote the billboard shows a mastery of the craft.

It's Gay.

Second, do my homosexual readers (you know who you are) detect some code?

I mean, who else but a gay guy would clutch his mother's photo to his nice-but-not-too-worked-out pectoral while (at least) half-naked?  

These clues had me looking at the model's fingers, for that foolproof sign of homosexuality—a ring finger shorter than the index finger.   Bingo!   He's family.

Let's leave aside the clear message that he's having naked phone-sex with Jocasta, and look at the word used to describe it.

He telefoniert with Mama.  He doesn't rufen her an, or as we would say in English, call her up.  (in German, he technically calls her on.)   Telefonieren refers to a discussion, an exchange that lasts a while.  In English, we're far less precise.  We neeed to use the phrase to be on the phone with someone. Or to add a clarification, like I phoned her for a long chat

The word telefonieren may sound familiar to an English ear, but it's a little more precise than we expect.

It's inboxed.

You native English speakers: what do you reckon about the word Mails?

Before the turn of the century, the word mails sounded dumb.   Grammatically, mail was a mass noun, as opposed to a count noun.   Such a noun never appears in the plural, like  traffic, Jello or pseudoephedrine.  The well-known 1998 movie is called You've Got Mail, not You've Got Mails

If you wanted to talk about pieces of mail, you might use a word like letters or postcards.  But how do you refer to a single unit of email?   No such descripive term exists, so English speakers have turned email into a count noun; e.g  I need to answer a couple of emails before I leave the office.

Germans cleverly side-stepped this minor confusion when they wrestled with what to call these new electronic messages.   No need for e-posten or e-briefe when you can just shorten the English word email to Mail and apply it—to mailen something always means to send it electronically.    The noun form started life in German as a count-noun.

The German language could have cooked the word from scratch, but it was easier to buy one ready-made. 

It's Checked.

The grammatical distinction between a mass-noun and a count-noun proved so riveting that I nearly missed the choicest morsel of English in the whole headline.  The verb checken

The Honourable Husband believes that no language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.  Especially in this case, since checken is an odd word that flaunts its English origin through spelling.   The guy on the billboard really should tschecken his mail.

So, why does German need the word check?   I answer with another question: Have you ever been checked in Germany?

Germans don't check things.  We examine things, certify things, analyse things, understand things, ensure things, rate things, measure things, record things, judge and evaluate things. The closest literal translation for check, in German, is überprüfen; literally, to over-prove.  It can be excruciating. 

Nothing over-proves this better than reality cop shows.  

Such shows reflect their cultures in distinctive ways.  Sam Richards wrote in The Guardian that American shows like COPS and Rookies "glorify police work as a flashy, heroic fight against the forces of evil".  Their British equivalents, such as Cops with Cameras or Street Wars "present a grim, ceaseless and unwinnable struggle against petty crime motivated by booze, drugs, poverty and boredom."  In Germany, the forces of evil....create disorder!

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 Mein Revier—My Beat—promises that Ordnungshüter räumen auf!   Guardians of Order Straighten Up! 

Viewers quiver with excitement as two officers help a young Kölner find his car when he's forgotten where he parked it.  Two others take care of an angry drunk until his wife can come and get him.  Viewers find polite parking inspectors worthy of note.  Next week promises that an attractive Russian woman will be caught with too many duty-free cigarettes.

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Achtung Kontrolle! (no translation necessary) focuses on first-world problems, too.  

This link shows a teenager left alone while her parents are away; her parties have caught the attention of the apartment-building super and he phones the police to check that everything's in order.  The young woman outsmarts the cops with her superior cunning; she doesn't answer the door.   

In Die Chaos RastätteThe Chaos Rest Area—we follow an Autobahn catering inspector as he ruthlessly puts a motorway caf through its paces.  Top notch toilets, but poor time-and-motion management. In order to get a Bockwurst and a latte—your standard trucker coffee break—one needs to visit every corner of the shop.  It gets  worse if the trucker decides he wants a packet of tissues.  Unacceptable!

Achtung Kontrolle! recently did a feature about when to switch on, and switch off, your rear fog light.   I was on the edge of my seat.

Lucky these guys don't have any neo-Nazi thugs left to catch.

Borrowing from necessity.

Back to the point.  The point is that German didn't have a world to describe the casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude with which a modern cyber-citizen must view his bulging e-mailbox.  So it looked to the messiest, most haphazard tongue it could find—our very own English. And they found what they sought—the word check.

So, it was with smug pride in my native language that I glanced away from the billboard.  My train had left.  Damn.  Must overproof the schedule, next time.


Youth of Germany, Try Harder This Year

Frau_jugendwortHä Jungs, pull up your Kurzstrumpfen.  What a pathetic effort!  You know what I'm talking about.  It's your 2011 Jugendwort, or German Youth Word of the Year

Every year, Munich firm Langenscheidt gathers a jury of linguists and youths to select the most important words from the Jugendslang it hears.  This year, three of the five top finalists were borrowed from English—the first time this has happened.  You lazy-tongued layabouts!   I'd call this an Epic Fail.  And so would you, since that's the 2011 Jugendwort runner-up.

The real grown-up German Word of the Year, according to the authoritative Gesellschaft der Deutschen Sprache, also borrows from English.  It's Stresstest.  Pity that wasn't the German word of the year for 1999, when the Euro was introduced.  Instead, the GdDS chose the predictable  das Millennium.  Sleeping on the job, if you ask me.

Out-Guttenberging Guttenberg.

To add insult to lethargy, the youth of Germany stole one of the finalists from the adult list and added it to their own: the verb guttenbergen

As you may have read, Baron Karl Theodore of and at (von und zu) Guttenberg was bounced from federal Cabinet this year when the press discovered he had plagiarised much of his doctorate.  Hence, to guttenbergen something is to copy it. 

Are the Louis Vuitton bags sold by street vendors in Hong Kong just a cheap guttenbergen?  Has the photocopier become a modern Guttenberg Press?  And if one wählt some text aus via Kommand-C in Mikroweich Kraftspitz, one guttenbergt it to the Zwischenablage, right?

(About that last sentence—you now understand how others feel when we force them to adopt English tech jargon.)

Übergoogled

Technology segues us into the fifth-place finalist, one of the three English words to make the cut: googeln, or to google. 

Hang bloody on.  Googling, as a verb, may be a new word, but it ain't that new.  We've been googling stuff online for at least a decade.  Much longer than we've been youtubing our children or friending our friends.

Apparently, this googeln means something different.  In German, you can now google something offline, too.  If you don't find your car keys in the hall, you can googeln them in the kitchen.  You might googeln all over the mall for the perfect pair of shoes.  Will that well-known German TV show  need to re-christen  itself Deutschland googelt ein Superstar?

Do these words have a future?  Will googeln and guttenbergen fade away once the joke wears off?   I suspect so.

Dick as a Brick

The only real German word—and the most useful—slips in at fourth place.  The marvellous Körperklaus, or body (Ni)c(ho)las.  In short, a klutz.

So why does German need a word for klutz, when they already have a word for klutz, namely klutz?  The answer: klutz isn't a German word.  It came into the American vernacular from Yiddish, based on  Klotz, hochdeutsch for a block or brick

A block or brick is nothing like a Körperklaus, and that's what makes the word so interesting.  The nation first heard Körperklaus on Germany's Next Top Model.  Not applied to some oafish meathead, oh no.  Körperklaus speaks to the manner in which some young women are so practiced in the preposterous poses of fashion models, or simply so unathletic, that they lack contol over their limbs.  Judge Heidi Klum saw one contestant dance, and summed up the result: the feet do not know what the arms are doing.  Perhaps we should replace spinning and stairmasters with, y'know, running around a bit.

By the way, if any native German speaker can say why such a young woman should be described as a Körperklaus rather than a Körpermaximillian, a Körpersebastian, a Körperwolfgang, or—why not?—a Körperheidi, please enlighten us.

The Testsieger.

Enough suspense.  What's the 2011 German Youth Word of the Year? 

It's Swag.

To have Swag labels one as effortlessly cool, and describes an enviable charisma and self-confidence.  It seems to have origins in hip-hop culture. 

The magazine Stern correctly identifies the etymology of Swag.  It comes from Soulja Boy's Turn my Swag On, a song about how he blings up to take on the world. He uses the word in its original sense; some kind of shiny treasure, perhaps stolen.  A swag was once a cloth bag which pirates and other ne'er-do-wells would use to carry loot. 

(Check out 6.15 in this video.  Monty Python was my generation's history teacher.)

Austrian rapper Money Boy translated the song as Dreh Den Swag Auf.  Though literally very far the original, the German lyrics definitely capture its spirit.  Money Boy, forgive me, is right on the money. 

How Swag made the leap from blingy to casual, relaxed and unselfconsciously cool intrigues me.  To walk with a swagger—a tempting translation—isn't quite right.   To swagger means not just to be self-confident, but to show off in some way, and that doesn't play well east of the Rhine.  I once tried to explain the concept of bling to a group of local marketers, and they met me with polite befuddlement. 

I suspect swag, in German, is a true word of youth subculture.  The tribe uses such language to define itself, with words invisible to the mainstream.  If so, Langenscheidt has proved its chops as a forensic lexicographer.

For example, contrast swag with the vocab of toney Munich broadsheet, the Suddeutsche ZeitungIt made a feature of the 2011 Jugendwort, and asked its upscale readership for an opinion.  Around two thirds had never heard the word swag, and put it in 17th place out of 25.  

Instead, they chose Zwergenadapter, or Gnome Plug  (a joky term for a baby capsule) as the SZ Jugendwort.  SZ readers install these Gnome Plugs into the second-place word, one so perfect in German that I needn't translate it.   An SUV is a Hausfrau Panzer.  This is almost as good as the Australian term: Toorak Tractor.

Honourable mention

There are plenty more interesting, amusing and usful words among those which Langenscheit collected.   Check out their youth dictionary, Hä?? Das Jugendsprache Wörterbuch.  (, you might note, is simply the German transliteration of the English word Hey.)

I've only just got through the first few entries, and my mind is boggled. 

I never knew that my grey hair made me a cemetery blonde.  Or that my bald pate made me a  roll-on deodorant-head.  Or that an actual roll-on deodorant is an underarm moped

As you would expect, young people busily invent new euphemisms for sex (extreme cuddling, anyone?). But it astonished me how much mental energy they put into new words for taking a dump.   Young people fuck more than us oldsters, but do they crap more, too?  It might hold for the heavy-drinking stage of one's life, if memory serves.

Abseilen (to abseil, or to lower a rope) and Abwursten (to sausage down) are self-explanatory metaphors for the act.  Not so self explanatory is the English translation. 

Apparently, American youth coyly tell us they're dropping the kids off at the pool, as they excuse themselves with a magazine and cigarette.  I'd never heard that one before, but then, I hang around in vulgar circles.  With their modesty, the young Americans of today set a fine example for their elders.

gives you French and Spanish translations, too.  You can buy den App for your Apfelhandy.  It's downloadbar from the Jugendwort website.

And on that note, let me submit downloadbar for consideration as 2012 German Youth Word of the Year.

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Copyright notice: Illustration sourced from Langenscheidt.de, the publisher's website.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.


The Meaning of Snot

Meaning of snot
Snot

The hashtag #dailydeutsch is a great source for learners of German who sport an English mother tongue.  It sometimes veers into philosophical issues, like whether there is an Englsih word for Schadenfreude—the conclusion was yes, and it's schadenfreude.

Thanks to Gilly in Berlin, yesterday's batch of daily Deutsch served up the word rotzfrech.  Literally, it means snot-rude, or in proper American English, snotty

Learners of German must be careful not to confuse it with kotzfrech, which if it existed, would mean puke-rude.  Vomit takes things to another level; a difference in degree which I'm sure would make a difference in kind.
  Barfout

Barf

Snot and impudence go together in both languages.  Do other cultures make the same association?

Arabic does, and the word is moukhati.  In Romanian, it's mucös.  The same goes for French, where the noun is morve, and the adjective is morveux.

Interestingly, a slang term for snot in French is caca de nez, or nose-poo.  I asked a French colleague if one might equally say merde de nez, or nose-shit.  She replied that latter would simply sound too rude.   French has many words which distinguish among degrees and types of rudeness.  (I guess it's like how Eskimos need twenty different words for snow; a response to the environment.)  One charming such expression is cucul la praline, to describe rudeness that comes from the self-absorption of the shallow; the metaphor literally means the cheesiness of the chocolate bon-bon.

Noses, and their byproducts, get a bad rap.  Poets can write volumes about beautiful eyes, but seldom do they praise a beautiful nose.  The eyes are the windows of the soul, but the nose is the catflap of the lungs.  Noses are all about ugliness; a hairy, drippy thing that you can't hide, right in the middle of your face. 

Unless you're Asian, of course.  You might wear a surgical mask when you have a cold, because then your nose is just too grody (and infectious) to bare to the world.   The Japanese find you incredibly rude if you blow your nose in public.

And why does American English conform with the rest of the world with snotty, whereas British English focuses on another bit of facial anatomy, with cheeky?

Why should we take snot as a measure of impudence, when snot could equally represent cowardice (as in snivelling), sickness or weakness?

 Humans are a fascinating species.


Bloom and Grow, Bloom and Grow

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We left Germany last month, to go to the supermarket.

It was a public holiday, you see; the twenty-first Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or Unification Day.  Stores closed in Bavaria, but across the border in Austria, businesses opened as usual.  We share most holidays with our Austrian cousins—especially the religious feasts—but Unification Day remains a strictly German affair.  The last time Austrians celebrated German unity, it didn't work out so well.

Thus, we found ourselves in Salzburg watching the Austrians go about business-as-usual, and a lot of that business involves music.  Two particular composers have enriched the city, both culturally and financially; the famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and a certain Richard Charles Rodgers.   Mozart changed the face of baroque music with a prolific output of incomparable masterpieces.  Rodgers composed The Sound of Music.

Let's be fair. Rodgers was a genius in his own field, and a prolific one. Like many geniuses, he loathed those who tampered with his vision.  Rosemary Clooney earned scorn for a swing-style Falling in Love with Love, and Rodgers wanted to sue the Marcels over their doo-wop version of  Blue Moon until Oscar Hammerstein reminded him of the royalties.  Of Peggy Lee's Lover, he moaned "I don't know why [she] picked on me. She could have fucked up Silent Night."

What would Rodgers think if he visited Salzburg today?  Specifically, if he sat in the Mirabell Gardens for a spell, listening to this tour guide sing. 

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The first word which might spring to his mind is royalty, and not because he's beside a palace.  He was leading one of the many Sound of Music tour groups which cross the city.  If you visit Salzburg, you can't miss them.

Many demand that a guide serenade his group, lending an air of authenticity to each movie location. 

And this guy wasn't bad, either.  A baritone, he put some real oomph into Edelweiss.  And he sang it with an accent.  Master Right identified this group as Korean.

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As he hit the first chorus, the group began, gently, to sway in time to the melody.  Bloom and grow, bloom and grow...and as they reached the word forever, swayed in half time for a couple of beats.

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I asked an Austrian colleague if felt uncomfortable that the Sound of Music so dominated the image of Austria in the eyes of the world.  "No, Austrians love The Sound of Music," he replied.  "When you think about it, we come off rather well, considering."

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The Danube Steamship Company Captain Can Suck It

Danube steamship
A Danube Steamship

In the course of dealing with a thousand niggling details at work this morning, an event of historic cultural importance occurred.

A friend emailed, to remind Master Right and me of a roast dinner to which we had been invited, in honour of Advent.  The subject line in his email read Adventsbrateneinladungserinnerung, or Advent roast invitation reminder.

In my RSVP, I remarked how this was one of those glorious compound words, so plentiful in German, which might nudge the record as the longest.

The host reminded me, in reply, that his orginal message was an Adventsbrateneinladungserinnerungsmail.  In itself, not quite enough for a record.

But his reply landed in my spam folder.  It made my heart race with linguistic excitement.

Our email became an Adventsbrateneinladungserinnerungsmailfehler!  An Advent roast invitation reminder mail failure!

Tradition acknowledges that longest naturally-occurring German word is Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, or a Danube steamship company captain.  This tops out at 42 letters, 43 if you use reformed German spelling that demands a tricky triple f in the middle. 

Adventsbrateneinladungserinnerungsmailfehler runs to 44.

Oh, I can hear nitpickers now.  What if the Danube ships captain's assistants dealing with electrcal matters at headquarters formed a union, and it needed an office?   Then it would be a Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaftsbüro.  But since there is no association of electrical assistants in any steamship company operating on the Danube, they don't need an office, so this isn't actually a word.  

(Hang on.  I'll need to insert a hyphen so TypePad can fit that into a column. Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhaupt-betriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaftsbüro.)

And then there's the German Word of the Year 1999, Rinderkennzeichnungs-und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.  It is a law on the books in the state of Mecklenberg-Pomerania, which has to do with the certification of British beef against Mad Cow Disease, and who may be delegated to inspect it. 

I'd quibble that it's easy to make long words in legal or technical speheres. Think about medicine, in English.  One could create a disease like Pseudometacystoblastopsychopancreatitis, and elongate it ad nauseam. But such a disease would be physically impossible to contract.

How about it, all you Deutschemuttersprachessprecher?  Have we, with the help of an over-zealous copy of Lotus Notes, stumbled onto the longest naturally-occurring word in German?

EDIT: The Danube Steamship Captain has the last laugh.  Those Pomeranians have repealed the beef inspection law. So the word referring to it no longer exists, officially. 

This post is part of the Awful German Language Blog Hop on Young GermanyServus to you, Nicolette Stewart!


Is it wrong to laugh?

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The Man with the Bassoon

EDIT at around ten minutes after publishing the post: Some readers have already indicated that yes, it is wrong to laugh at this.  Rather like calling someone a ritard, I suppose. I welcome a discussion in the comments.


What word shall we hijack next, cocksuckers?

Robbed the rainbow
It sounds preposterous.  But some actual Germans read Deutschland über Elvis.  I know this, because the fewer readers a blogger has, the more obsessively he checks his readership stats. 

If one clicks through to the entry pages from Germany, one can see that many Deutsche let Google Translate do the heavy lifting.  

But Google gets tongue-tied translating queerspeak.  Take this sentence from a recent post:

We often [do this] when we're feeling a bit gay, in the homosexual sense of the word.

The algorithm translated it as:

Wir [tun dies] oft, wenn wir ein bisschen Gefühl Homosexuell sind, in der homosexuellen Sinne des Wortes.

I played around with Google Translate for a little while.  It wouldn't translate gay as bunte, hell or frölich, meaning bright, colourful, happy or carefree, no matter what.  No, a house painted in gay colours, always becomes a house painted in homosexual colours. 

Don't write this off to the crudity of online translation.  Google had no such trouble with the word gaily; it ascribes no sexual meaning to the adverb, the same as in English.  (This might have proved tricky, since adverbs are among the few elements of English grammar more complex than the equivalent German.)  And it had no trouble with the double meaning of the word queer.   Google does not mistake a queer bar for a queer noise from your car's diff. 

You know what this means, don't you?

It means we've won. 

All those tetchy conservatives—most recently Bob Katter in Australia, but countless more—who whine about us homosexuals hijacking the word gay, have lost. 

Google doesn't pull this stuff out of its cyber-ass.  Google looks at billions of sentences every day.  This is mainstream speech.  We've got gay, dammit! 

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"Homosexuals have hijacked the word Bacardi!"

Furthermore, Google Translate made gay respectable.  It didn't use the German schwul, a mild vulgarity.  In 1914, pioneering Berlin sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld lay the seeds of the term when he repeated the old wive's tale that gay men tended to have warmer skin.  (Traditionally, a German would refer to his male lover as a "warm brother").  Schwul is a corruption of schwül, which can mean wet, close or muggy.  To use Schwul would suggest the local chapter of Moist Liberation meets in a humid bar  

What's second prize?

Yeah, we've won.  Meh.

All this moaning over the word gay belies the fact that this stupid little word sat around idle for a century.  

Nobody has talked about a nosegay for decades.  In This Joint is Jumpin', Fats Waller sang that a rent party was "ten times higher than gay".  But that was 1929.    By mid century, the word had been quarantined to campy songs in musicals, usually sung by the female juvenile lead.  Think Maria in West Side Story, or Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (Nellie Forbush. How obvious can you get?)   Some used gay to mean hedonistic, uninhibited or louche—giving it a pejorative sexual twist.  A gay house was a brothel, and a gay Lothario was a male libertine.  A tone of distaste and disapproval pushed the word onto our team, as it were.

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"Those damn homosexuals have hijacked the word
celebrate!"

Gays have rehabbed the word, and now it means...well, us.  Most people use it in a matter-of-fact way.  It's almost neutral. 

Almost.  For some, gay means sad or lame Especially to teen boys going through their anti-emo, wannabe-thug stage. 

As more gay men and women tell their stories, sadness and struggle often emerge as themes.  One could be mistaken for thinking every gay's life story contains tragedy—perhaps, in our current culture, it must.  

Look at the thoroughly admirable (and absolutely necessary) It Gets Better Project.  Storytellers know that the reason happily ever after ends tales is because happiness, while nice to experience, is pretty dull to watch.  The Better bits, with the best will in the world, don't grab you like the bits describing how it was worse.  

Frankly, that's unavoidable.  Physical and psychological brutality against gay men and lesbians is so commonplace that it must feature in recounting our experiences.  Besides, the only way we will rally the indifferent mainstream into active support is through arousing their emotions. 

But all this tugging at the heartstrings might make us seem, as the youngsters say, gay.  In our culture, powerful and angry earns more followers than powerless and sad.  Dan Savage, founder the It Gets Better Project, manages this aspect carefully.  In his public statements, he guides our response toward action, away from pity.

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"Those damn homsexuals have hijacked the word latte!"

And even those who use the word as an everyday term for homosexual can't quite shake some of the baggage.  To me, gay still holds echoes of flippant, unimportant, silly, immature, fluffy

As I've said before, I'd rather be thought unimportant than immoral.   And with all its faults, I'd rather be a gay man than a faggot, fruit, pillow-biter, Mary, nellie, pansy, nancy, sissy, turd-burglar, shirt-lifter, cock-, ass- or butt-pirate.

Of course, we can make all those terms neutral through usage, too.   When will we remove the stigma attached to effeminacy, and ditch the assumptions we make about masculinity?   When will words like cocksucker and sodomite be simple descriptions of behaviour rather than a condemnation of one's character? 

(As I reflect on the last couple of paragraphs, I'm warming to the term -pirate.  It's suggests an all-male environment.  There's a sense of being an outsider, thumbing your nose at authority.  Yet a pirate remains morally in the right, somehow—one becomes a thief out of desperation or wickedness, but piracy is a calling.  Pirates act butch, but ain't afraid to wear earrings—their deportment drips with sexual transgression.  Gay men of my generation claimed the pirate shirt and fulsome moustache as their own. Everybody loves pirates. Swab the dicks, me hearties!)

Stealing Pride

The hijacking of gay causes outrage, but pride slipped through the cracks.

Like gay, pride was a word that lounged around with its feet up until homosexuals took it out for a run.  Pride smacks of immodesty; the correct response to someone complimenting you on an achievement is oh, it's nothing.  It's uncool to try too hard.  Proud people just stroke their own egoes.

Religious circles roundly condemn the word, since (at least on paper) "pride" is a sin.  Fundies seem confused by the term gay pride. Why should we want to claim a sin as a virtue?

Even sympathetic straights get their knickers in a twist. "If you were born gay," they reason, "it's no achievement.  There's no such thing as straight pride. Why are you proud to be gay?"

"Are you ashamed to be straight," I ask?

"No," they say.

"Precisely", I reply. 

If one earns the right to pride only from personal accomplishments, then to be an open happy homosexual man or woman surely qualifies.  It's easier than it was, but it still ain't a picnic. 

In my own coming out, I experienced little resistance or condemnation, but it still took work.  Work, inside my own head and heart.  Work that took a long, long time.  Courage?  Maybe, maybe not.  But certainly effort; effort which improved my character.  Can I be proud?  I leave that for others to judge.  But, yeah.  I feel proud of making that journey.

Lexical Larceny

Let's get down to brass tacks.  Right now, we need a new gay word. 

Repetition of a word is not just a rhetorical device, it's a psychological tactic.  If we use positive language around being gay, and don't allow ourselves to be trapped in the habit of irony, we can do our cause some good.

It's time we stole a word that the language hasn't orphaned already.  One which the straight world values, and must sacrifice as a gesture of goodwill.

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"Those damn homsexuals have hijacked porn!"

Here's the need.   More jurisdictions recognise gay rights than ever before.  Many, however, have moved in the opposite direction.  How do we describe the difference between the two?

It should be an adjective.   Since authorities may recognise more rights, or fewer, the adjective must be capable of degree.  (Unlike, say, unique, dead or pregnant.)

You need to use the word in a sentence like this:

"Since it passed the gay marriage law, New York is much more "——" than Alabama."

Terms like just or progressive are too broad.   Phrases like "gay-friendly" are both awkward and weak.  This is more than just casual friendliness we're talking about.  

It would be tempting to do a Santorum, another Savage invention.  Can we take a homophobe's name and repurpose it, to make a point?  But the point, then, is about the homophobe, not the cause.  Not right.  

Same goes for destigmatising an existing word.  The point of this exercise is to take a new, baggage-free word and convert it to gay use.   We clutch at bad words, simply because nobody else wants them.  Let's stop that.

We need to adopt a word that's powerful.  Is New York more juggernaut, high-caliber, horsepower, avalanche or Red Bull than Alabama?

We need to adopt a word that's righteous.  Is New York more solar, low-emission, responsible, or Nelson Mandela than Alabama?

We need to adopt a word that's heroic.  Is New York more freedom, Everest, liberation, or Wolverine than Alabama?

Perhaps we might adopt a word that refers to something everyone in the world likes.  Is New York more sushi, pandas, Mad Men or brown-paper-packages-tied-up-in-string than Alabama?

I look forward to your suggestions.

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"Those damn homsexuals have hijacked the word love!"  But maybe they had a claim to it, already.  

*   *   *   *   *

The gay knitting wool ad was lifted from a post by Dr. Gloria Brame at the Bilerico Project—many thanks, Gloria!  All others were taken at New York Pride in 2003.