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Picturesque German - German Idioms and Their Origins
Posted on Tuesday, October 02 @ 04:26:36 EDT
Topic: Terminology

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My acquaintance with German idioms and figures of speech began in one of the oldest restaurants in Berlin, when my German friends ordered an Eisbein for dinner (traditional German dish—boiled knuckle of pork with sauerkraut). I was amazed at such a funny name (the German word Eisbein means "ice leg") and I asked my friends about the origin of this name. To my disappointment nobody knew the origin and I was answered "It was always so." Only some years later did I find in a cooking book the information that people in old Germany made skates for ice skating from the knuckle bones (hence the name "ice leg"), because iron was too expensive to be used for recreation.

I often heard this answer after asking: "Why it is named so? Why very modish or chic person can be in German death chic (todschick)? Why do Germans use such comical words as Darmbremse (intestine brake) or Analgesicht (anal face) in absolutely serious contexts?"—The answer was "It was always so." Unanswered by my German friends I consulted dictionaries and figured out that there was very little special literature about the historical origin of German idioms and figures of speech. The voluminous and solid "DUDEN The Great Dictionary of the German Language" ("Das große Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache") gives the interpretation of thousands of proverbs and idioms, but little information about their historical origin. Many standard dictionaries are also short of specialized terms, which are of my interest, too.
During my translations I'm often confronted with figures of speech or specialized words, which were understandable to me in the context of the translation, but their origins were a riddle to me. I gathered such words in my glossary, which over time has grown into a large collection. My sources were not only special dictionaries and books, but also newspapers, comments of experts and even TV shows and the Internet. Some words in my glossary are known only to professionals: merchants, scientists, sportsmen and even bookkeepers, and are difficult to find in standard dictionaries.

I believe that every translator or interpreter who likes foreign languages must know the origin of idioms which he uses in his translations. It enriches the translator's language knowledge, broadens his linguistic horizon, and makes the difference between a good translator and an amateur. Together with the information about the historical roots of idioms comes information about the history, the manners, and customs of a country. So thanks to the search of historical origin of different German words, I received plenty of information about mediaeval Germany and the way of life in the Middle Ages. I think such a glossary would be interesting not only to professional translators but also to the all inquisitive people who are curious to know why the literal translation of some German idioms seems to be so comical to the uninitiated. Professionals may find new information about old meanings of well-known German words or new nuances in translation of well-known idioms. The knowledge of the origin of idioms helps translators understand and accurately interpret such figures of speech and put them in the right context.

I didn't include my glossary some well-known proverbs from the ancient world (ex. tastes differ or the sword of Damocles) or from the Bible (ex. love is patient). Such proverbs can be found in every modern language and are only more or less good translations of Latin, Greek, or Hebrew originals. I also avoided including German idioms that are similar to their English equivalents (ex. Er geht mir auf die Nerven = He's getting on my nerves). I tried to gather original German idioms and specialized words, but of course some of them have Latin or Greek roots too. I have listed the idioms and special terms alphabetically by key words in the case of idioms or by radicals in the case of special terms. English in parentheses ( ) indicates the literal translation. I hope my glossary will effectively help translators in their daily work.

By Igor Maslennikov
German interpreter and translator.
Vancouver, Canada

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