Ich bin so Fame!

When English words are adopted into German, they don’t always retain their original meaning. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the word handy, which means ‘useful’ or ‘convenient’ in English, but has come to mean ‘mobile phone’ in German. In this case, the word has gone from being an adjective in English to a noun in German.

Conversely, words which are nouns in English may come to be used as adjectives in German. In the following tweet, the English noun fame is used as an adjective, even though in standard English the adjective is ‘famous’. Continue reading

‘Gap Yah’ (Gap Year)

Dieses YouTube-Video aus dem Jahr 2010 hat mir so gut gefallen, dass ich es euch nicht vorenthalten möchte. Da der englische Text einige Besonderheiten aufweist, gehe ich hier auf die wichtigsten sprachlichen Aspekte ein.

In dem Video (3:17 Minuten lang) sitzt ein junger Brite im Dschungel und telefoniert mit seinem Kumpel in London. Dabei erzählt er begeistert von seinem gap yah. Dies ist eine übertriebene Aussprache von gap year (wörtlich übersetzt ›Lückenjahr‹, sinngemäß etwa ›Auslandsjahr‹). Der offene Vokal in yah ist eine Aussprache, die in England mit einer privilegierten, bürgerlichen sozialen Schicht (der Upper Middle Class) assoziiert wird. Continue reading

I’m through / Ich bin durch

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

I’m through
Ich bin (jetzt/schon) durch

I’ve always thought of through and durch primarily as prepositions, but they can also be adverbs, and even adjectives. In the above English and German phrases they are used as adjectives – like alternatives to finished or fertig. The following two English examples are taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary1:

»  I’m not through yet. I have one more topic to discuss.
If you’re through using the phone, I’d like to use it next.  «

Growing up in the UK, I only ever heard this use of through on American TV and films, so I’ve always assumed it was an Americanism. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes this usage as ‘especially North American English’, while dict.cc has an entry for ‘Are you through with it?’, which it labels ‘[Am.] [coll.]’ (American colloquial).

As for the German equivalent, the Duden dictionary defines this usage of durch as a colloquial synonym for fertig (finished), and gives the following example:

»  mit dem Lehrbuch bin ich jetzt durch (habe es durchgearbeitet)  « 2
Translation: I’m through with the textbook now (I’ve worked my way through it)

1 Scroll down to the definition of through as an adjective and keep going until you reach the section entitled ‘Examples of THROUGH in a sentence’.

2 Duden lists this usage of durch under the category ‘Adverb’, despite defining it as a synonym of fertig, which it considers to be an ‘Adjektiv’. This may be because this usage is viewed as an element of the compound verb participle durchgearbeitet (as the above-cited example shows), and hence as an adverb.

And I don’t know what all / Und was weiß ich nicht alles

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

…and I don’t know what all
…und was weiß ich nicht alles*

I first heard the above English phrase used by my American mother-in-law. I don’t recall the context, so here’s an example I found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

»  Mr. Redmon had somebody come in from upstate New York and make him a tropical garden, had palm-trees and monkeys an’ I don’t know what all.  « 1

British English equivalents of this phrase might include: …and God knows what (else), …and whatever (else), …and whatnot, …and what have you, …and (all) that sort of thing. But only the American English phrase contains every element of its German counterpart …und was weiß ich nicht alles, albeit in a slightly different order. British writer CS Lewis comes close to using all those same elements in his 1954 novel The Horse and his Boy:

»  You talk very largely of nurture and I know not what.  « 2

But note that the all element is missing, which makes the phrase sound much more formal. In fact, it seems to be the all element that makes the American phrase sound so colloquial.

I don’t know what all doesn’t have to come at the end of a clause, as above, but can also be used at the beginning of a clause, as in the following example (also found via COCA):

»  ‘Theres some other famous people back there somewhere too – on my mothers side, said Rice. ‘I dont know what all they did, but theres good blood back there.’  « 3

Here, the meaning of the what all element equates to something like all the various things. This usage, too, is common in colloquial German: the translation of the underlined section in the above sentence would be ‘Ich weiß nicht, was sie alles gemacht haben…

* Alternatively: …und was weiß ich noch alles
1 Jan Karon, A New Song (1999) Penguin, New York
2 CS Lewis, The Horse and his Boy (1954) Puffin Books, Middlesex, 1965 edition, p. 181
3 RUNAWAYS, Saturday Evening Post (Jul/Aug 1991), vol. 263 Issue 5, pp. 28-72

Can I get…? / Ich bekomme…

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Can I get… (a coffee)?
Ich bekomme… (einen Kaffee)

When I returned to London for a year in 2001 to do my master’s degree, having been out of the UK for about five years, I was surprised to hear students ordering drinks and snacks from the canteen with the words Can I get…? The phrase was instantly familiar from American TV and movies, but I’m pretty sure I’d never heard it used in British English by the time I left the UK in mid-1996. Prior to that, the usual way for British customers to ask for food and drink had been Can/could I have…? I’ll have… or I’d like… . I’m clearly not the only one to have registered the change, as Can I get a… topped a list of 50 ‘most noted’ Americanisms in a 2011 survey by the BBC.* The perceived Americanness of this phrase among Brits has also been written about by linguists (e.g. Lynne Murphy back in 2006).

Unlike its American English (AmE) counterpart, the German example above is not phrased as a question but as a statement: Ich bekomme… . This literally means I’m getting (rather than Can I get…?) and can be compared to the English request form I’ll have… . Although I might occasionally hear the question ‘Kann ich einen Kaffee bekommen?’ (literally ‘Can I get a coffee?’), the statement form is the one I usually hear in cafés, restaurants, etc. When I do hear bekommen in a question form in these contexts, it’s usually ‘Was bekommen Sie?’, as asked by serving staff of customers. This literally means ‘What are you getting?’ but has the sense of ‘What would you like?’

Since this German use of bekommen is – as far as I am able to judge – not at all new to the language, but rather a conventional, standard form, I wonder whether it is this which gave rise to the AmE use of Can I get – via German mass migration to the US in the 19th and early 20th century. So far, I have found little evidence to support this theory. Ben Yagoda claims to have found that Can I get a… was ‘relatively uncommon for much of the 20th century’. He reports having first come across what he calls the ‘culinary application’ of the phrase (i.e. using it to ask for food or drink) in 1974 or 75. And Lynne Murphy, in the post referenced earlier, also suggests that Can I get a… might be ‘a relatively new locution’ even in the US. For my part, I have checked the Corpus of Historical American English (the search terms _Can I get a_ rather than _Can I get_ limit the number of results to 67), and although the earliest result goes back to 1817, I could not find any clear examples of the ‘culinary application’ prior to 1990. So far, then, a German connection seems unlikely, although perhaps I will have cause to revisit this question at a later date.

* Please note that I do not share the disapproving attitude to perceived Americanisms shown by the British respondents to that survey!

My eyes are yellow! / Meine Augen sind schon ganz gelb!

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

My eyes are yellow!
Meine Augen sind schon ganz gelb!

In both American English (AmE) and German, if you desperately need to urinate, you might joke that your eyes have gone yellow. It’s the kind of surreal image I associate with Tom and Jerry cartoons. I had never heard the phrase in either English or German until I asked on Twitter whether any of my followers knew a German equivalent of the British English (BrE) idiom ‘I’m busting for a slash!’

Here is my original question followed by the key reply:

Translation of my tweet: How do you say I’m busting for a slash in German? (I desperately need to pee doesn’t count – too boring.) Suggestions in dialect welcome!
Translation of reply: I have to go so badly, my eyes are already quite yellow.

Later in the same thread, after explaining the original BrE expression to someone based in the USA, I asked that person if he knew any equivalent expressions in AmE, to which he replied the following:

To verify that the ‘…eyes are yellow’ phrase really is a thing people say, I googled the group of words ‘so bad my eyes are yellow’, thus allowing for the use of various possible verbs: pee, piss, go etc. The search yielded eight results on Google (search date: 12/11/2016). All but one of these results showed clear evidence that the originator was based in the US and/or using AmE. The same search on Twitter (same date) returned 13 tweets. Of those 13 tweets, nine were from accounts which explicitly mentioned a US location in their user profile, three were from accounts which showed evidence of being US-based, while the only one which did not appear to be from a US-based account was this one:

It’s interesting that this user mentions Minnesota, as that state was an area of heavy German settlement in the late 19th century.  It’s only speculation, but this might explain how the phrase came about in AmE in the first place: as a literal translation of the German phrase by immigrants to the US.

A Google search to verify the use of the German phrase revealed this extract from the 2009 novel Mängelexemplar by German TV presenter and author, Sarah Kuttner (my translation):

»  Ich hab schon ganz gelbe Augen, so voll ist meine Blase inzwischen.  «
Translation: My bladder’s so full at this point, my eyes are already quite yellow.

I also found an entry for ‘gelbe Augen bekommen’ (to get yellow eyes) on the Mundmische website specialising in slang and idioms, where the accompanying definition clearly confirms the meaning we’ve been looking at here.

Sports fan / Sportsfreund

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Sports fan

Apart from the obvious meaning of ‘someone who is keen on sports’, the above terms have an additional usage in American English (AmE) and German which I’ve never encountered in British English (BrE). The first time I heard sports fan used in this way was in the mid-1990s, by a colleague from Buffalo, New York, who explained that it was an informal term of address used by an older man to a boy – something like ‘my lad’ in British English. This explanation is similar to the following definition of sports fan in Urban Dictionary (a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang):

»  A nickname used by working class old timers in and around the gulf coast united states. Typically used in greeting towards a younger person. […] Ironically it has absolutely nothing to do with sports or sportsmanship.
Hey ‘Sportsfan’!
Hows it going ‘Sportsfan’?  «
[Contributed by Jonathan L. on 30/04/2013; No.2-ranked definition as of 26/11/2016.]

The Duden dictionary also defines Sportsfreund as a male form of address:

»  saloppe Anrede an eine männliche Person
nicht so schüchtern, Sportsfreund!  «

Casual form of address to a male person
don’t be shy, sports fan!

But this is Duden’s second-listed definition of Sportsfreund; the primary definition refers us to the synonym Sportfreund (the same as Sportsfreund but without the linking ‘s’). Sportfreund has two meanings in Duden, the first of which is ‘Freund, Anhänger des Sports’ (fan of sports), and the second of which is ‘Sportkamerad’ (fellow sports player). It seems that Sportsfreund (with linking ‘s’) can have both of those meanings, too, but in addition it has its own unique usage as a casual form of address, which has become divorced from any real sporting context.

I speculate that this non-sporting use of Sportsfreund was what gave rise to the equivalent use of sports fan in AmE. If we imagine German immigrants* to the US encountering the term sports fan for the first time, it’s easy to understand how they might start using it not just to mean ‘someone who is keen on sports’, but also as a casual form of address – influenced by that use of the term Sportsfreund in German.

* Most German immigrants arrived in the late 19th–early 20th century, and the word Sport first appeared in the Duden German dictionary in 1887, which supports the hypothesis that Germans would already have known the term Sportsfreund when arriving in the US during the period in question.

Ghost driver / Geisterfahrer

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Ghost driver

The German word Geisterfahrer is a colloquial term for Falschfahrer (literally ‘wrong-driver’). If you look up Falschfahrer on German Wikipedia and switch to English, you’ll find an entry on wrong-way driving, which is described as ‘the act of driving a motor vehicle against the direction of traffic’. Although I’ve often come across the term Geisterfahrer since living in Germany, I’d never once encountered the phrase wrong-way driving before researching for this post. This suggests that the phenomenon is not as commonly discussed in English as it is in German (for whatever reason).

The English term ghost driver is a loan translation of Geisterfahrer, and is usually found in texts discussing wrong-way driving in Germany. In such texts it often appears in quote marks or brackets alongside the original German term (e.g. here, here and here), the assumption being that the average anglophone reader won’t understand it without further explanation.

Despite its rare usage, I have decided to include ghost driver in this series of ‘Germanisms in American English’ because it is classified in several online dictionaries as being American English. Why it should be considered American in particular, I don’t know. The Collins German Dictionary (via Free Dictionary) and dict.cc describe ghost driver as informal/colloquial American English (‘US inf’ and ‘Am. coll.’ respectively).

[To view the Free Dictionary entry in full, you may need to select ‘German / Deutsch’ from the site’s drop-down language menu. Here’s a screenshot of what you should be seeing:]


Urban Dictionary’s top definition of ghost driver does not specify the term as American English, but it is clearly written from a non-European perspective.

However, the fact that I haven’t found ghost driver in any mainstream monolingual English dictionaries, or even in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, suggests that this is at best a niche term in English (American or otherwise) – and probably only familiar to those who have spent time living in Germany.

The earliest occurrence of Geisterfahrer I could find in the German language corpus (DeReKo) of the Institut für Deutsche Sprache was in 1978; and Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the first occurrence in 1974. This suggests that ghost driver (as a loan translation of Geisterfahrer) is almost certainly a late 20th century phenomenon, and therefore unlikely to have been imported during the main period of German mass migration to the US.

Additional notes:

1)  Literal equivalents of Geisterfahrer / ghost driver exist in other languages, too, as I discovered when I found an entry for conducteur fantôme in Wiktionnaire (French Wiktionary). That entry also refers to equivalents of the term in Danish, Dutch and Swedish – which means that the German origin of ghost driver, while likely, cannot be taken for granted.

2)  My recent Google searches for ghost driver have revealed a completely different use of the term: in China, according to English language reports, ghost drivers are car drivers registered with the online transport network Uber, who scare potential customers into cancelling their rides, then pocket the cancellation fee.

Foosball / Tischfußball (Kicker)

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Foosball (table football/soccer)
Tischfußball (Kicker)

Foosball, an American English term for table football, is different from other Germanisms in this series in that its German origin is fairly conspicuous. Even the Wikipedia article on Table Football begins as follows:

»  Table football, commonly called fuzboll or foosball (as in the German Fußball ‘football’) and sometimes table soccer…  «

Although Wikipedia points out that Fußball means football, it doesn’t mention the German word for table football: Tischfußball, which is commonly known in Germany as Kicker. This makes Foosball (to denote table football) a kind of misnomer – a pseudo-Germanism, in much the same way that Handy (meaning mobile phone) is a pseudo-Anglicism in German.

According to the History section of the same Wikipedia article, table football was first patented in the UK in 1923, but didn’t really take off in the USA until…

»  American soldier Lawrence Patterson re-introduced the game in the USA after playing it while stationed in Germany in the 1960s. He brought the first Bavarian-made table to the USA in 1962. Upon doing so, he trademarked the term ‘foosball’ in both the USA and Canada, and gave his table the name ‘Foosball Match’.  «

To the best of my knowledge, the term Foosball is not used in British English. The Oxford online dictionary classifies the term as ‘North American’. In the UK, I can only imagine it being called table football; and the reason I have to imagine it is that I’ve never seen the game played in the UK or even heard it talked about. In fact, the only times I encountered table football in my youth were on family holidays to France, where it’s known as baby-foot.

As a Germanism in American English, Foosball clearly had nothing to do with late 19th–early 20th century immigration to the US. But, as I made clear in my introductory post, ‘Germanisms need not be linked to a critical period of mass migration to warrant inclusion in this blog’.