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German and English are cousin languages; they both are Germanic. Many similarities exist among these two languages. However, there are certain words which are untranslatable. One example from a previous blog is Schwarzfahrer (fare dodger).
The German word Ohrwurm is another example of a word without an English equivalent. Ear worm is the literal translation of the word Ohrwurm, however, Ear worm is a serious slant away from the real meaning, which is ‘catchy tune.’ Even this still lacks hues of connotation. If I was to express the echt (real, true) meaning of Ohrwurm auf Englisch (catchy tune in English), I would describe it like this: I have a song that’s stuck in my head and I can’t get it out. Some would argue that I just described what a catchy tune is. But, I would contradict- ‘catchy tune’ is missing a further meaning, which my long winded sentence better articulates. Sure, a song stuck in your head is a catchy; however, ‘catchy tune’ implies having a melody and/or a fast dance rift. You don’t necessarily get stuck singing one of these kinds of songs. No, Ohrwurm bores into your mind until it gets stuck and stays for a long while.
Schadenfreude is yet another word which has no English equivalent. A quick Google search results in a few übersetzungen (translations): mischievous joy or spitefulness. However, this definition lacks substance and therefore does not fully explain the meaning of the word. Schadenfreude is a compound noun. This means that two words were put together to create a new word. Schaden alone means ‘harmful’ or ‘damage.’ Freude means ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment.’ In order for English to retain its full meaning of the word, it was integrated.
Imagine sitting on a park bench. You just bought a chocolate ice cream cone. As you eat, you take notice of the other people relaxing and eating cones. When, out of the corner of your eye, the man sitting next to you drops his ice cream on his lap. And suddenly, from somewhere, comes a subtle and meaningful laugh over what you just witnessed. That is Schadenfreude.
Other common examples of German words in English are: Zeitgeist (Spirit of the time), Gesundheit (health) Kindergarten, Blitz (lightening) and Ersatz (substitute). The latter, like Schadenfreude is not commonly used on the streets in America and is frequently found in writing.
Furthermore, there are many words in English and German that have the same spelling but slightly different meanings.
Handy is such an interesting word. In Germany, das Handy means cell phone. However, it has quite a different meaning in English. Handy is used to describe someone who has the gumption and the know-how to work with their hands. A handy man is someone who can fix just about anything put in front of him/her.
Spiel means game and comes from the German verb spielen (to play). But, spiel in English means to talk, and to give the low down, as in this sentence: What is your spiel. Here it does not mean what is your game. It means, what are you about, or what are your motives.
Über (about, above, over) is the most interesting of all the words which have made it into the English language. I didn’t start to recognize the use of it in English idiomatic expressions until a few years ago when a friend of mine said, “Texting and driving is über dangerous.” You see, unlike German when über is used as preposition, it has taken on a new meaning and a new part of speech in English. Über is now an intensifier. An intensifier does just that, intensifies the meaning of a word. Other intensifiers in English are ‘wicked’ which is used on the East Coast and ‘hella’ which is used on the West Coast. To say, that a movie you recently watched was wicked awesome, implies it was a good movie and you enjoyed it. The definition is reverse for ‘the movie was wicked bad.’ Über, though meaning about, over or above, works the same way. I suppose über has kept some of its meaning in English. For something to be above or over cool and likewise bad, über is definitely über appropriate to use.
Einschlafen is to fall asleep. A good friend of mine said, “there is no such word in German ‘to fall asleep.’” If we break down the word into its basic parts, my friend was correct in his utterance. Ein is equivalent to meaning ‘one’ or ‘in,’ and schlafen means to sleep. So, literally einschlafen would mean ‘into sleep.’ Einschlafen (to fall asleep) is a word the represents the logic of the German language. Why would anyone one fall asleep?
Perhaps, the most common example of English and German crossing vocabulary tracks is IT jargon. Here is an example of English in German:
Ich musste den Computer booten / rebooten, weil die Software gecrasht ist (I had to reboot the computer because the software crashed). I understand how language evolves and thus am not a language purist. However, when I see sentences like this, my stomach tightens and the wind gets knocked out of me—very much as if someone punched me in the gut. As a personal preference I will always use the correct German: Ich musste den Compurter hochfahren, weil die Software abgestürtzt ist
There are many other words which have the same quality and idiosyncrasies. Have you ever heard or read of any other words in English or German which do not have an easy translation or, are homonyms equally in both languages?
Der Schwarzfahrer-far dodger
Der Ohrwurm – ear worm, or catchy tune
Ohrwurm auf Englisch-Ohrwurm in English
Schadenfreude-pleasure from other people pain
Das Schaden – Damage, harm
Die Freud-Joy, pleasure
Das Handy-Cell phone
Über-about, above, over
Die Zeitgeist –Spirit of the Time
Die Gesundheit-health, used in English for God bless you
Schlafen- to sleep
Einschlafen-to fall asleep
Müssen -to have to