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 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.