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February 05, 2008

Fernsehen und Baumwolle

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The title of this post, Fernsehen und Baumwolle includes two German nouns that I'll translate below.

Words are interesting. While I don't go out of my way to feast on the Oxford English Dictionary or other sources dealing with their history and usage, I do keep my eyes and ears open for interesting and amusing tidbits along those lines.

From what I read, English is a kind of giant sponge that absorbs words from other languages when its users are not busy inventing words. Take "television" for example. It uses an English word for "seeing" (itself borrowed from French) and slaps on a highfalutin' Greek prefix having to do with distance. The Germans seem to be less highfalutin' and simply tack their word for distance (fern) onto that for seeing (sehen) to create fernsehen, or television.

English is, at its core, a Germanic language. Germans love to build big, long words from two, three or more smaller ones. Other Germanic languages are less inclined to do this; a glance at a Scandinavian-language text usually reveals shorter words than typically are found in German writing. English is also less inclined to word-build than German. But plenty of example are created nevertheless: an instance being, well, "nevertheless."

I find some German built-up words rather charming. One is baumwolle in the title above. The English equivalent is "cotton." Baumwolle can be broken into its two components, baum and wolle. Baum is the German word for "tree" and wolle means "wool."

So the German word for "cotton" can be expressed as "tree wool." As I said, charming.



posted by Donald at February 5, 2008


My own little triple meter excursion into compound word origins:


Three hundred miles in an automobile
And my mind begins wandering far from the wheel:
Shouldn't we call this machine for the autobahn
An ipsomobile or an autokineticon?

Google's my answer when settling disputes
Such as "Who did this mixing of classical roots?
Joined Latin and Greek with a lexical wrench?"—
"Auto" and "mobile" are both from the French.

Posted by: Mike Snider on February 5, 2008 4:51 PM

Mark Twain wrote of The Awful German Language and of German books not being "... entirely free from attacks of the Parenthesis distemper ...."

Posted by: Dave Lull on February 5, 2008 6:10 PM

Another wonderful germanism: Glühbirne 'lightbulb', literally 'glow pear'. But then there's Haferschleim 'porridge', lit. 'oat slime' and, worst of all, Brustwarze, 'nipple', lit. 'breast wart'.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on February 5, 2008 7:05 PM

There's also Auspuff for car exhaust, which is a cute little word. And Magenschmerzen was translated by my German teacher as "belly hurt", though the direct translation is stomach ache.

To switch gears a bit, one of my favorite Italian phrases is for a bookworm, or a person who spends all his time reading. The Italians say il topo di biblioteca, which means a library mouse. Less romantic is the word il mouse for a computer mouse.

Posted by: Benito on February 5, 2008 9:30 PM

It's true, the cliche about German as a harsh language is way off. Eine Kleine Nachte Muzik -- like little tripping dance steps, charming. I probably misspelled music, but you get the idea.
I also like the sound of bustenhalter. And what it holds.

Posted by: ricpic on February 5, 2008 10:54 PM

I like the directness of German constructed words too. Comes of not having layers of highfalutin Latin, Greek and Norman French layered on top of the original Germanic vocabulary, like we have. Nasenlöcher, "nose holes", is another good one.

It can mean that one has fewer choices of ways to express things. But not always. I wrote - not uncoincidentally shortly after my son was born - about nukkeln, which is the special verb for babies hanging out on the breast for comfort purposes whilst not actually genuinely hungry (entirely understandably in my view).

Posted by: Alan Little on February 6, 2008 2:10 AM

Backward run their sentences until reels the mind.

Posted by: dearieme on February 6, 2008 1:36 PM

Maybe someone could explain the psychology behind this Scandinavian quirk-- when the Danes borrow a foreign word, they spell it exactly as they receive it. Swedes and Norwegians will mangle it into their own orthography-- e.g., "Sentrum" and "stasjon" for "center" and "station". And the Icelanders, well, they don't take in foreign words at all.

And in English? No word is foreign!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on February 7, 2008 5:13 AM

I've just remembered my favourite German compound word: fernabdonnernd, a coinage of Goethe's meaning, roughly, 'like thunder fading away in the distance'. It's more than charming, it's graceful.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on February 13, 2008 11:23 AM

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