Category Archives: What's in a Word

Etymology; definitions; borrowed words

Achtung Dachlawinen!

The signs in Berlin read “Achtung Dachlawinen” or better yet “Gefahr von Dachlawinen.”

Dachlawinen: a winter phenomenon in Germany that can be very dangerous. The signs are there to save property owners from liability. If you’re not sure what it means, looking it up in the dictionary may not help you either. The word can be broken down into two parts:

Dach + Lawinen or   roof + avalanche.

It is especially a problem this winter since Berlin was hit with significant snow in the month of December. Temperatures are now climbing and the city is experiencing a thaw. The result is roof avalanches.
Look out down below!


The long and the short of it

The German language may be (in)famous worldwide for its tendency toward extremely long words, which are known to feature only very few vowels. Take the locksmith around the corner from me in Berlin as an example. The sign above the door reads: “Sicherheitsschliessfachladen.”

And yet it is not the long words that pose the greatest problems in translation. More often, it is the short words in the German language that have even more to say and therefore are all the more challenging to translate.

doch – According to most German-English dictionaries, “doch” means “still; yet; though.” But that does not explain the German’s partiality of using the word as a complete sentence in itself – something that “still, yet or though” are not quite capable of. It is often used to make a negative positive. Just imagine someone asks you, ” You don’t speak German, do you?” and your reply may be, “oh, yes I do!” or just “doch!”

zwar – Another great single word that we do not seem to have in English. The dictionary defines “zwar” as “indeed” but I see it as much more than that. I often find myself saying “zwar” while speaking English because it is so useful. It can be used to introduce a list or an extension of an idea in the meaning of the English “namely.” The difference is that if you say “namely” in passing, you may get some strange looks since it sounds so formal but that is not the case with “zwar” in spoken German.

so – Only 2 letters and still one of the most difficult words to define, and one of the most oft-spoken words in Berlin. But the “so” heard in Germany’s capital is not the same “so” spoken in the English-speaking world. When we check the dictionary, we learn that “so” in German means “such; as; that; thus.” That may be true in some cases but it more often seems to mean “like this/that” as in “not like this, but rather like that.” In fact, the word “like” is a good comparison because the Germans seem to say the word “so” just as much as Americans say “like” to pause in thought during speech, a kind of slang that can mean almost anything and nothing at the same time.

It took me years to be confident enough with my German to use words like “doch, zwar and so” in conversation. Other words like “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft” did not pose nearly as many problems – despite appearances.

Pajamas: the most worldly of words

We spent a wonderful evening with friends in Berlin. She is from Russia; he is from former East Germany; the kids are bilingual and will soon be trilingual when they start English lessons at school. The kids speak Russian with their mom, which is why I was so surprised that I could understand what they were saying when getting ready for bed. It was all made clear in the one word I could pick out: pajamas. I never thought of ‘pajamas’ as a Russian word. Of course, it is word that can be heard not only in Russian and English, but also sounds the same in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and probably even more languages. Whether spelled pajamas, pyjamas, or pijamas, it seems to be one of the most international words there is. I’ve heard that ‘okay’ is the most widely understood word in the world, but perhaps pajamas is a close second.

Written as pajamas in the US, but quite the same thing as pyjamas in the UK, we called them pj’s at my house, but there does not seem to be an alternative in English. The question is what are the origins of this word that has been adopted around the world, that seems to have filled a gap not only in English, but in so many different languages? According to Wikipedia, the word originally derives from the Persian word پايجامه Payjama meaning “leg garment.” Thanks to the British presence in South Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, both the word and the garment have become commonplace around the world. So it seems that both the garment and the word filled a gap in cultures and languages around the world – especially for the freelance translator, who always has the option of spending the whole workday, you guessed it, in their pajamas.