Delightful turns of phrase

February 9, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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Delightful German turns of phrase

One of the greatest pleasures in working with language every day is the appreciation you develop for neat turns of phrase or vocabulary possibilities in your non-native language, so this week’s blog brings you a little collection of “Germanisms” that have recently brought me delight.

We begin with the application of “Wolf” as a suffix in various contexts, usually denoting some kind of machine presumably attributed with wolflike properties and engaging in wolfish tasks. Where an English office might be equipped with a mundane paper shredder, its equivalent in Germany offers up a Reißwolf, Papierwolf or Aktenwolf (literally, a ripping, paper or document wolf), although a less a dramatic option is also available to Germans in the form of the prosaic Aktenvernichter (document destroyer). In the kitchen, you might find yourself using a Fleischwolf (meat wolf): how infinitely more exciting than deploying a mincer to shred the beef for your lasagne or burger. And if we head out to a construction site in Germany, there might be the need for a Steinwolf (stone wolf), used to lift and move heavy stones into position, and referred to somewhat mysteriously in English as a lewis.

As well as granting lupine characteristics to various bits of equipment, German gives us the incredibly vivid Hautwolf (skin wolf) to refer to skin chafing. And, although not a standard dictionary entry, I enjoyed the image conjured up by Sofawolf — to refer to a dog with a tendency to be something of a couch potato. By contrast, the German Leitwolf (lead wolf) is a common term for the leader of the pack, not just out in the wilderness but also more figuratively in sporting jargon when referring to an alpha leader. And taking us full circle to combine sport and machinery, the top hit if you enter Leitwolf in a search engine is a massive snow machine, which in turn lead to the discovery of the hitherto unknown to me English terms snow groomer and piste basher. Once you start looking, there are lexical delights to be discovered everywhere!

On other occasions, the pleasure to be found in particular turns of phrase is derived from the gap they highlight in your own language’s lexical possibilities. Why doesn’t English have an equivalent to drehfreudig (turn + happy) to conjure up the joy of being able to execute turns, rotations or other twisting movements? In the text I happened to be working on, this word was neatly deployed to describe the delightful manoeuvrability of a “turn-happy” surfboard. Despite my best efforts, the English translation was nowhere near as pithy or evocative.

Similarly, I found myself marvelling at German kurzweilig (short + while), another of my favourite turns of phrase, which means entertaining or amusing, because of the way it contrasts so beautifully with its antonym langweilig (long + while), meaning boring. Nothing in English quite so neatly captures the way time flies when you are having fun and drags when life is dull. This also reminded me of the time my brother was staying with a German exchange family and, while urging them to speak more slowly so that he had some hope of following the conversation, muddled the German for slow (langsam) with the word for boring (langweilig) and spent an evening repeatedly telling his bemused hosts that they were langweilig. It’s a good job he didn’t go into the diplomatic service.


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