Adoption vs adaption – loanword corruption in the world of Cryptocurrency

December 1, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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Every translator understands that dictionaries have their limits when it comes to selecting the right word. A fascinating example of this cropped up recently in a piece I was working on for a German financial services company. The topic was cryptocurrencies and particularly the evolving technologies in this rapidly changing field. At one point, the text referred to the “Adaption neuer Technologien” and the context seemed to suggest that the intended meaning was the “adoption of new technologies” but the usual translation for the German word Adaption is adaptation or adaption. And that would give the text a very different meaning, suggesting the modification or adjustment of new technologies rather than their take-up or use. So I began to dig a bit deeper.

The first thing I did was to check all the dictionaries I could find to see if the German word Adaption had a less common, alternative meaning denoting adoption. None of the usual online resources (dict.cc, Linguee, Reverso, Duolingo) suggested any such additional sub-definition. So I grabbed my dusty Collins hardback off the shelves, but again the sole suggested meaning for German Adaption is the English word adaptation. This dictionary also notes the common alternative spelling Adaptation, and my edition of the monolingual German dictionary Wahrig also notes this as an alternative spelling of the same word. And once again, the explanatory definitions in German are all to do with Anpassung (adjustment) or Umarbeitung (reworking), with not a hint that the word could also have an additional meaning.

At this point, I decided that the most likely explanation for the German text was a simple typographic error. A finger fumble inserting an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’ could easily account for the appearance of Adaption rather than Adoption. But then I came across the same ‘typo’ a second time. The likelihood of an identical mistake slipping through twice in an otherwise flawless and carefully proofed document seemed remote. So I resumed my hunt for an explanation with various search strings specifically looking for uses of this term in the financial sector. This led to a somewhat helpful blog post explaining the difference between Adaption and Adoption in German, complete with references to the authoritative German dictionary Duden. The trouble is that this simply underscored the fact that these words do have different meanings in German, entirely in line with my own dictionary research.

But the fact that such an article existed to clarify the difference between these words was the first clue that there might be some confusion here. And a second article confirmed those suspicions. In the realm of cryptocurrency particularly, much of the terminology is dominated by English, including use of the word adoption to refer to the take-up or use of new technologies. Strictly speaking, German should use the same word, but perhaps the equivalent German word Adoption has stronger connotations with the sense of adopting a child. Admittedly, Duden gives a more figurative example of usage “die amerikanische Lebensform adoptieren” (adopting the American lifestyle), but perhaps such usage is relatively rare. Whatever the reason, it seems pretty clear that this particular linguistic borrowing from English is being routinely mangled in the cryptocurrency context.

All of which led to the reassuring conclusion that my initial instincts about the intended meaning of the word were correct. And strictly speaking the German text did contain an error. Perhaps at some point the error will be so widespread that dictionary definitions will be updated to reflect this new usage.

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