The beauty of German is its “does what it says on the tin” structure. A vacuum cleaner is a Staubsauger – literally dust sucker, because that's exactly what it does. In the same vein, an airplane is a Flugzeug (a flying thing) and a lighter is a Feuerzeug (fire thing).
This directness can be pretty rib-tickling to a German learner, but it unlocks some pretty unexpected secrets in English too.
1. Donnerstag – Thursday
Mulling over the German word for Thursday while sheltering yourself from a torrential storm one morning, this one may have hit you like a bolt out of the blue.
Why on earth would Germans name the fourth day of the week the day of thunder (Donners-tag means Thunder-day)? Then you probably thought about Thursday and had that wait-a-minute moment. Thur sounds a lot like Thor, the quick-tempered Norse god who liked playing with thunder.
And you'd be right. The hammer wielding deity turned popular Marvel comic character is called “Donar” in German. So we both call it “Thor's Day”.
But it's not just us. The French, Spanish and Italians, although taking their days of the week from Latin, also named Thursday after the equivalent Roman god Jupiter, also known as Jove. That's why it's “jeudi” in French, “jueves” in Spanish, and “giovedi” in Italian.
Look a little deeper and you'll see the god theme reappear throughout the days of the week.
2. Mutterkuchen – placenta
If you have ever come across the German word for placenta, you probably had to stifle a mixture of laughter and nausea. Why on earth would Germans name the organ we feed on in the womb a cake?
Translating it literally as “mothering-cake”, it definitely conjures up a pretty strange image.
But what seems like an unflinchingly literal term reveals something pretty interesting about English. The full medical name for a placenta is “placenta uterina”, which translates from the Latin as “uterine cake”.
For the Romans a “placenta” was specifically a type of flat cake, and the organ was called a placenta due to its apparently similar shape.
3. Muttermund – cervix
Another German word that might have made you laugh is Muttermund (literally mothering mouth) for the cervix.
But the full medical name for the cervix in English is the “cervix uteri”, which means the “neck of the uterus.”
So calling the cervix a “mothering-mouth” is not really that different, it just uses a different part of eating metaphor to describe the place where the sperm travels. And when we say “cervix”, we are really just calling it a neck.
Referring to the cervix as a type of neck or mouth makes sense if you think back to your school-day biology diagrams and see that it is the gateway from the vagina to the uterus. But of course if the root is Latin, it just ain't as funny.
4. Fernseher – television
The Fernsehturm in Berlin: the television tower, or the tower where you can see far. Photo: DPA
Did you ever think about what the word television means? Well, speaking German might help you.
The German word for television is Fernseher, which literally means “far watcher”. Strange at first, but it makes sense when you think that the invention of television made it possible to watch things happening very, very far away.
In fact, the English word means exactly the same thing. But unless you studied Latin and Greek, you might never have realized this. The word comes from the Greek “tele” (far) and the Latin “visio” (sight).
5. Flusspferd – hippopotamus
Two hippopotamuses at Berlin Zoo. Photo: DPA
Hippopotamus may have been one of your favourite words as a child – it lends itself perfectly to rhymes and rythmn. But you likely never dwelled too long on its actual meaning.
The German word for the African animal is Flusspferd, which literally means “river-horse”, or Nilpferd, meaning “Nile horse”. Silly, you might think. A hippopotamus’ physical similarities to a horse are fairly limited.
But the English is actually identical. Our word comes from the ancient Greek “hippos” (horse) and “potamus” (river), meaning we actually call it a river-horse too.
In fact, when you consider that we often just refer to them as “hippos”, you realize we're really just calling them horses.
6. Durchfall – diarrhoea
The Germans don't leave much to the imagination with their word for diarrhoea, which literally translates as “through-fall”. Yuck, you may well think.
But, as you may have guessed by now, it's another word that proves we just don't know the origins of our language all that well.
Diarrhoea actually comes from the Greek “dia” meaning through and “rhein” meaning flow. It was allegedly coined by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is often referred to as the “father of modern medicine”.
7. The Strand
The Strand in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
You may be familiar with this one from the British Monopoly board. But you may not have had time to ponder why the famous London street is called the Strand while you were trying to bankrupt your sister and buy a train station off your mum.
It doesn't get much more British than The Strand, yet its roots are firmly Germanic.
The name of the street near the River Thames in London comes from the German word “Strand”, which means beach in modern German, but also once refered to river banks.
That is also why if you are left on a desert island beach helpless and alone, you would be described as “stranded”.
8. Vernichtung – annihilation
In English we have often lost touch with the different parts of words because they are Latin or Greek. But in German, they are still clear to see.
Take “Vernichtung” and “annihilation”: they have the same word in the middle. “Nicht(s)” and “nihil” mean “nothing” in German and Latin respectively. But whereas “Nichts” is one of the first words you learn in German, not so many people know the Latin.
Once we see the German word, the English also makes sense. Both words are nouns for turning something into nothing.
By Alexander Johnstone
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