One of the things I really like about learning a new language as an adult is that you spot absurdities that you don’t often see if it's your mother tongue.
As children we seem to accept ridiculous words at face value, so that by the time we've grown up we have stopped noticing their weirdness. It took a German comedian to open the eyes of the English-speaking world to just how strange the word daddy-longlegs is.
The German word that always cracked me up when I was first learning was Bock. Literally it means a ram or a buck, but you mostly hear it in the colloquial phrase hast du Bock? which means do you want to do something. If you’re turning the invitation down, the reply is nein, Ich hab keinen Bock. An invitation to the cinema sounds like it involves an ancient bartering system. ‘Got a ram for the cinema?’ ‘Sorry, I’m all out of ram today’.
There are other examples of words which Germans use without a moment’s reflection, but which still make me laugh. Their word for nipple is the incredibly unerotic Brustwarze, literally a breast wart; they make your toilet seem like a pervert by calling the part you put your bum on its Klobrille (toilet-glasses); even the word for gloves, Handschuhe (hand shoes), conjures up images of Germans scurrying around on all fours when the weather gets cold.
But taking the language literally isn’t just funny, it’s also informative. For me at least, it provides a nerdy rush of excitement when I realize the hidden meaning behind an English word.
My first eureka moment happened when I was visiting my German grandfather on a stormy winter morning several years ago.
‘Ist ja Donnerstag,’ my nonagenarian companion commented sagely, as thunder rumbled across the field.
Only after several sips of coffee did I realize what he meant. Donners-tag, the day of thunder.
“Thunder, hmmm. Thursday, hmmm.” I let my thoughts percolate.
Then it struck me, yes, like a bold out of the blue. If Thursday is thunder-day, it is surely no coincidence that Thur is one letter away from Thor, the Norse god of thunder.
Indeed, it was no coincidence. It was one of the first words in my, and every other child’s vocabulary, and I had never even realized what it meant. I soon discovered that all the days of the week except Saturday were named after Norse gods.
There have been several other moments of lucidity since. When rock climbing, I realized when my German partner kept talking about abseilen that every time we go abseiling in Britain we are using the German for 'rope down.'
One that only recently struck me was the real meaning of Austria. In a conversation of broken English with a Syrian, he told me that he’d travelled through Nimsa before coming to Germany. Eventually I figured out he was talking about Austria. A bit of googling revealed that the Arabic word is derived from the Slavic for eastern kingdom. Of course, I thought – Öster-reich, eastern realm. Apparently the name goes back to the days when Bavaria had its own kingdom and Aust-ria was a vassal state in the east. So, even if the Bavarians aren't best pleased about being taken over by Prussia in the 19th century, they can content themselves with still being masters of Austria, in name at least.
It could be that I have a deplorably unquestioning mind. Perhaps most people knew these hidden meanings all along. But learning German has often given me a geeky sense of excitement that I’m hacking into the code of the English language.
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