29 January 2022
Somebody important had died. Huge crowds of people were expected for a “public viewing,” the open display of a deceased person.
But why were people so excited and upbeat about a death?
What’s more, this so-called public viewing was being held not just in one place, but at multiple venues. Several important people must have died.
A plane crash?
Hardly. It was 2006 and Germany was in the finals of the World Cup Championship. Large screens were just becoming affordable. Beer gardens and restaurants with outdoor seating invested heavily in them to attract people to come and watch their national team fight for the title in a sports bar atmosphere. These large gatherings to watch sporting events were somehow dubbed public viewings.
This initially had native English speakers baffled. How could they use an expression for such a sad, somber circumstance for the hullabaloo associated with German football games?
But come to think of it, the correct German expression for such an event would be überdimensionale öffentliche Veranstaltung mit Sitzmöglichkeit.
OK, folks, let’s stick with public viewing.
The pandemic has ushered in opportunities to coin all sorts of odd expressions using English words. In Munich there has been nonstop talk of lockdowns. But we never had a lockdown, just restrictions. Lockdowns are what they have in China when you can’t walk down the hotel hallway without being spotted by a webcam or guard – and hustled back into your room.
Speaking of lockdowns, it was footage from northern Italy at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 that scared the bejesus out of Germans. A video circulated showing a man who longed to pursue that most Italian of pursuits. No, I’m not talking about gesturing furiously while you say mamma mia!
I’m talking about going out for a coffee. This poor signore was dying to visit his favorite café but could not – since in Italy, they had a real lockdown. The man had to settle for being served an espresso by his wife through the kitchen window. The things we do for love.
Grandma shops at her peril
The adoption of English words started way before the pandemic. Go into any department store and you’ll immediately see that most of the signs are in English.
But why do German stores have Women’s and Men’s departments when Männermode and Frauenmode serve the purpose perfectly? A woman over 70 who doesn’t speak English has to bumble around for bras just to be sure she’s in the right place.
Eau de derrière
One such older woman ventured into a Munich drugstore to buy aftershave. Now this is another product that has a perfectly usable German expression, Rasierwasser, which literally translates as “shaving water” (Of course it translates literally. This is Germany after all!). This German word has presumably been around for centuries, just like the iconic Kölnisch Wasser from – yep, you guessed it: the German city of Cologne. For hundreds of years, the word Rasierwasser did its duty faithfully.
And what was its reward for this linguistic loyalty? It was summarily booted out by some marketer who had studied in an English-speaking country and was itching to use their new language skills.
Overnight, Rasierwasser became “aftershave.”
You do have to hand it to this person for pulling off this swop since the word After in German means “anus.”
So this older woman, a very proper lady who had been purchasing her husband’s toiletries her entire life, marches into her neighborhood drugstore and places her usual order.
I’d like some Rasierwasser, bitte.
Oh, you mean aftershave…
No, no, something for the face!
She thought somebody was trying to sell her butt perfume. Let’s just hope her grandchildren don’t tell her about anal tattoos.
But German words can wreak a lot of havoc in English, too. English speakers are not spared confusion when they come to Germany and think they are understanding what they read.
This can result in some rather mirthful misunderstandings.
Yiddish for the skittish
Americans have a basic grasp of many Yiddish words, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld and the rest of the Jewish-American community. But sometimes this knowledge can be more of a hindrance than a help.
My niece Sophie came for a visit a few years ago. Walking around downtown, she stopped in her tracks at the sight of a storefront sign reading Schmuck. This is a perfectly normal sign in Germany for a jewelry store. The only problem is that this word at some point entered American English from the Yiddish, where it has a completely different meaning. It is now defined as “an obnoxious or contemptible person.”
Sophie was thinking: “They sell these here?!”
The Autobahn surprise
Visitors love to roar along German Autobahns, where there are no speed limits except where otherwise indicated. As long as German car manufacturers continue to succeed in hindering a speed limit, Porsches, Ferraris and other horsepower-packed vehicles will continue hurtling down the highway.
These same visitors often wonder at one sign that keeps reappearing along the way: Ausfahrt. Could this possibly mean what I think it means, they wonder. It couldn’t possibly mean…flatulence, could it? Along the highway? Boy, these Germans really have a time and a place for everything!
It’s such a disappointment for them to learn that it just means – exit.
Not here, not there, not anywhere
Speaking of exits, this word caused me a panic attack early on during my time here. Surveying the scene in a packed, darkened concert hall, I noticed lit signs above the doorways. The signs read Notausgang.
Hmmm. I knew that Ausgang meant exit, and by adding what I guessed to be the same word in English – not – these signs seemed to be saying “Nope! Not an exit.”
OK, I thought. So this is not an exit. But where is it then? I kept looking around but kept seeing the same sign, over and over. Notausgang. Notausgang.
Not here, not there, not anywhere. This was beginning to sound like a Dr. Seuss children’s book.
Would you exit here or there?
Would you exit beneath the stair?
No, liebe Frau, nein, mein Herr
Not on the left, not on the right
No one exits here tonight!
This was scary. How the hell do you get out of this place? How totally wacked. These Germans, I tell you…labeling all the places you can’t get out and not bothering to tell you where you can!
It was a pretty upsetting situation, let me tell you. So I expressed my outrage to my German companion.
Uh, the joke was on me. N-o-t isn’t not, it’s Not – the German word for emergency.
I was looking at emergency exits.
Feeling very sheepish, I sat down and enjoyed the concert in the knowledge that exits were not far away.