Two Dictionaries: Roommates, Texting, and Werewolves in German and English

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On my desk right now are two dictionaries that I use for my translating work. The first, its dust jacket long missing, is a hardbound Oxford-Duden German Dictionary which, published in 2005, features German to English entries in the front, English to German in the back, and between them a set of appendices. I also use an English dictionary, a likewise jacket-less volume of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition, published in 1996, in which word definitions are supplemented with root language of origin as well as synonyms and antonyms, and which, like the Oxford Duden, also features a number of appendices.

The appendices of the English dictionary have an encyclopedic sheen to them that I find kind of inspiring. Appendix 12 is a list of all the countries in the world; Appendix 9 gives weights and measures in both Standard and Metric, common temperatures in Celsius and Fahrenheit, and a selection of geometric formulas, such as the formula for finding the volume of a right circular cone: V = 1/3πr2h. Appendix 14 lists, in order, all the presidents of the United States, with place of birth, party, and term, from George Washington, 1732–99, to William J. Clinton 1946-.

My favorite is Appendix 11, Architecture, which begins with a diagram of a Greek Doric temple with all its structural features labeled, from architrave to tympanum. Below it, on the same page, are diagrams of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. The page opposite is given over to cathedrals. There are diagrams of five different periods of window, from Norman, 12th c., to Perpendicular tracery, 15th c.; below these are three kinds of vaults — groined, ribbed, and fan — and one diagram of a Hammer-beam roof. In the top left hand corner is a detail of the side of a gothic cathedral, with a cutaway of the interior showing aisle, nave, spandrel, triforium, and clerestory. On the church’s exterior there are only two features indicated: A bridge-like form, level on top with an arced underside, dropping diagonally from the main body of the structure to an outer vertical support, which is called a flying buttress; and, further down, a small indistinct protrusion, a tiny rough outline, really just a squiggle of ink in the diagram — this is labeled “gargoyle.”

There’s an appendix on musical notation, an appendix of selected proverbs, and an appendix that lists the books of the Bible, complete with apocrypha. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that the makers of the Oxford Dictionary have made an attempt to condense the main pillars of Western knowledge into the volume’s back pages. It’s a Quixotic pursuit, and the effect is charming. By comparison, the appendices of the Oxford Duden seem far more practical in intent. They are given in the form of instructions and examples, those for English-speakers printed on the lefthand side of the page, those for German-speakers on the right, and have to do mainly with quotidian matters, such as how you might write a résumé or apply for a job.

I wouldn’t expect the German dictionary’s appendices to try and tackle grand themes; day-to-day exchange between languages is hard enough. Still, some of the Oxford-Duden entries are so specific and mundane that the effect is baffling. You learn how to book not only a hotel room, but also a campsite; you also learn, on the next page, how to cancel these reservations. In the section headed “The world of work,” in addition to examples of résumés and job applications, there are separate form letters for “asking for work to be undertaken” and, just to cover all bases, “complaining about quality of work.”

Of all these appendices, my favorite is towards the end. Its header, in English, is “SMS (electronic text messaging).” The appendix contains two lists, one in English and one in German, of common abbreviations used in text messaging. When I first encountered the lists, the English entries were in many respects just as illuminating as the German. I learned, for example, that (in 2005 at least) “lol” could mean both “laughing out loud” and “lots of luck.” “Gal” meant “get a life”; “imho” meant “in my humble opinion”; “xlnt” meant “excellent”; “3sum” meant “threesome” — this last being a bit more salacious than I’d expected to get from the staff at Oxford-Duden. As for the German, the entries were by turns logical, odd, and unsettling. The first entry, for example, “8ung”, meaning Achtung, made perfect sense — and made me think of the song “Sk8er boi” by Avril Lavigne. This was followed, however, by the mildly disturbing “ads,” meaning alles deine Schuld — “it’s all your fault.” Certain of the entries simply chopped words in half and put strings of them together to form an uncanny pidgin with no apparent relation to the language I’d learned: “mamima”; “lidumino”; “mumidire”; “ko5mispä.” Just imagine being the poor middle schooler who can’t decipher this digital pig latin.

The German surrounding cellphone communications has always struck me as being, well, goofy. The clunky “SMS,” short for “Short Message Service,” which English speakers ditched early on in favor of “text message” or now simply “text,” was still in currency when I lived in Germany a few years ago. Ich schicke dir ein SMS, I’ll send you an SMS, was a commonplace, though to be fair I have heard the less clunky Nachricht — message — as well. The common German word for cellphone, Handy, is also a bit on the funny side. It seems to have derived from “handheld” or some other word referencing “hand,” but it’s spoken aloud as it would be in English, rhyming with “dandy,” not like the German Hand, where the vowel sound is more like the short o in “bond.” There are other explanations for where Handy came from, but it seems clear that it belongs to that group of orphaned words that derive from a foreign language but that aren’t actually used by native speakers of the language from which they are derived.

Not that I mean to rag on speakers of German. There are of course plenty of converse examples, too. To pick one that’s especially widespread: “Beer Stein,” which English speakers use in referring to the large mugs Germans drink beer out of, isn’t, ahem, “actually” German. Native speakers would say either Krug or Glas, or maybe Bierkrug or Bierglas, depending on which Biergarten or Bierkeller they happened to be sitting in, since some will serve their beer in porcelain vessels, while others opt for glass. (The kind of beer ordered can also determine the container in which it arrives.) One colorful theory for the word’s emergence is that American soldiers stationed in Germany after World War II mistook the material of the mugs they were drinking out of — and here I assume they would have to have been the porcelain kind — for stone, and because Stein is German for “stone,” and these soldiers were perhaps attempting to charm their hosts by making an effort to speak their language, the malapropism was born. Returning home to the U.S. with a few of these “Steins” in their duffel bags to display on shelves in basement rec rooms across the country, these soldiers secured a place for the word in English. And today, to complete the loop, you can find shops in Munich and throughout the German-speaking world with signs, in English, hawking ornate “Beer Steins” to tourists.

But the back-and-forth between languages needn’t always be so thorny. In the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein, there’s a short bit that hinges on a pun on the word “Werewolf.” The scene goes like this: Dr. Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder, and Inga, the love interest, played by Teri Garr, are riding near the castle in a hay cart driven by Igor, the hunchback, who’s played by Marty Feldman. There’s a howl offscreen. Inga says, darkly:


“Werewolf?” Frankenstein replies, and Igor, driving the cart, says:

“There,” pointing first to his right, “there wolf,” and then up ahead, “there castle.”

I like to think the joke would still work in translation. The German word for werewolf is Werwolf — you drop an e and say the w’s like v’s, but it’s basically the same. The English word derives, so explains my 1996 Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition, from the Old English werewulf, were meaning “man” and wulf meaning, well, “wolf”; presumably that root is common to the German word as well. Similar to English, in which “were-” is a homonym of the interrogative pronoun “where,” Wer- in German is orthographically identical to the interrogative pronoun for “who.” So, if Inga — who in the movie, incidentally, is German — were to say, speaking German:


And young Frankenstein were to say:

“Werwolf?” in reply, then Igor, taking their meaning to be “who wolf?”, could conceivably say:

“Der. Der Wolf. Der Palast.” and could mean either “The wolf. The castle”; or, and this would of course be necessary to make the joke actually function, could reply using der not as a direct article, but rather, as is not uncommonly the case in German usage, as a pronoun, so that his answer to Wilder’s “Who wolf?” would be, roughly:

“Him. Him wolf. Him castle.”

Granted, the standard choice for “castle” would be das Schloss, and the whole thing’s agrammatical, but then for that matter so is “there wolf,” and at any rate, in both cases it would make sense for Frankenstein, confused, to then ask, as he does in the film:

“Why are you talking like that?”

Sadly it doesn’t always work out so tidily. Not long ago I was struggling with a story that featured characters living in an apartment together who are not related to one another — so they’re roommates, basically. The German word for this arrangement is Wohngemeinschaft, or WG. More than once in the story the characters are said to eine WG gründen or eine WG aufschlagen — roughly, they found or they start up a WG.

It would seem that — syntactically, at least — Germans place great importance on their shared living situations. The concept doesn’t quite line up in English. We live in apartments, we have roommates, but there’s not really a tidy noun we use to refer to the arrangement — houseshare, maybe, but it smacks a little of affectation, and also kind of calls to mind timeshare, which is way off. What’s more, we’d never say of an apartment-where-we-live-with-roommates that we “started it up” or “founded it.” The situation is born of economic necessity and brokered by Craigslist. It would be hard to imagine placing on it the implicit stamp of approval that an action verb confers. In my translation, I had to find a passive approximation.

And yet, later on, I was speaking with a former roommate and I happened to mention the difficulties I had had with this translation. This former roommate, who is from New Zealand, informed me that a verb for living-in-an-apartment-with-roommates does, in fact, exist, or it does in New Zealand, anyway. There, they call it “flatting.”

I thought of this former roommate recently when looking up a word in my (English) dictionary. As sometimes happens, in flipping through to find one entry, my eye was drawn to another. This chance entry was for “Strine,” which can refer to either “a comic transliteration of Australian speech, e.g. Emma chissitt = ‘How much is it?’ ” or “(esp. uneducated) Australian English.” The word derives from the speech to which it refers: “Strine” is what “Australian” becomes in the mouth of someone speaking Strine. Here is an English word, meant to describe a corrupted form of spoken English, that is itself an instance of that corruption. Sitting alone at my desk, I said Emma chissitt out loud and chuckled. At that moment it wasn’t lost on me that my Kiwi former roommate would likely not have been too pleased with my thinking of her in conjunction with Australian speech. Clearly I’ve got a few beer steins of my own, sitting there in the rec room of my mind, collecting dust.

When all of this cultural and linguistic overlap gets to be too much, I like to turn back to the Oxford-Duden appendix on text messaging. Alongside the list of common abbreviations, there is another list — much shorter, only 20 entries — of emoticons. There are weird differences here, too, of course. The German entry for Kuss, or kiss, gives two emoticons, :-* or :-x. Both of these appear on the English side as well, but the entry is labeled, with confusing hyperbole, “big kiss!” Further, there is no German equivalent for X=, which apparently means “fingers crossed,” because this expression, and the hand gesture to which it refers, doesn’t have that same meaning for German speakers. There is a rough equivalent: you can say in German, Ich drücke dir die Daumen, or, literally, “I’ll tuck my thumbs in for you,” which conveys the same I-hope-you-succeed-in-your-endeavor meaning as saying to someone “I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” Unlike the English expression, though, it doesn’t have the secondary meaning of schoolyard insincerity. You can’t have your thumbs tucked behind your back and expect to get out of that foursquare game you’d agreed to play in. And if there’s an emoticon for thumb-tucking, it’s not listed here.

Happily, the final entry is identical on both sides of the page. This is true even though, at seven characters, it is the most complicated by far of all the emoticons given, and also, since it doesn’t convey an actual emotion, it’s not really, technically, an emoticon at all. Whatever you want to call it, it appears in the dictionary as follows: @}-,-‘-. A rose, the dictionary seems to tell us, by any other name, is still as sw33t.

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