Read this post in German (Deutsch)
British kids usually learn French, Spanish or German at school. I loved learning German. So much so that I studied German to A-Level and then at university. I was finally able to read Schiller, Goethe and Brecht in the authors’ own words. So imagine my disappointment when I found the language actually spoken in Germany was somewhat… familiar. Double Whopper mit leckerem Bacon und Cheddar Cheese, bitte!
And yet something was not quite right. I kind of knew what was meant with these ‘Denglish’ words, so beloved of middle management and Detlef D! Soost. Yet their German equivalents seemed easier to understand. But why? It turns out such words are almost always pseudo-anglicisms, or Scheinanglizismen.
Put simply: they are bad translations. All Germans know Handy does not mean mobile phone in English (although fewer know that handy means praktisch). But did you know that if you ordered ‘country potatoes’ to go with said Double Whopper in the UK you would be met with a blank look? Because we call them potato wedges (Kartoffelecken). My jaw dropped (mir ist der Kiefer heruntergeklappt) when an English-speaking friend invited me to watch the football at a ‘public viewing’, because I assumed someone had died and he had no shame (public viewing = die Ausstellung eines aufgebahrten Leichnams).
It seems these ‘adopted’ words almost always have a different meaning in English. So let me help you out here. At the airshow do not, for example, declare your admiration for the aeroplane that just did a ‘looping’ (it did a loop-the-loop). Neither should you ask the IT guy to set up the ‘beamer’ for your PowerPoint presentation (ask for a projector), or invite someone to go on a ‘wellness’ weekend (call it a spa weekend). English speakers may chuckle (kichern) at signs in Germany for the ‘drive-in’ restaurant (our restaurants get driven through: drive-through restaurant).
People who claim to have worn a ‘smoking’ to a glitzy event (smoking = das Rauchen; der Smoking = tux, tuxedo or dinner jacket) and Kate Moss, I assure you, has never taken part in a ‘shooting’ or the police would probably have been involved (shooting = eine Schießerei); it is more likely she took part in a photo shoot. English speakers might well go to a gym but they would never go to a ‘fitness studio’. And remember, if you ask a DJ at a wedding party to play some ‘evergreens’, he will either think you are talking about Christmas trees (evergreen = immergrüne Pflanze) or a naff (schlecht br. umgs.) song by Westlife. Try asking for some golden oldies instead. On the subject of oldies: don’t ask to take the oldtimer for a spin (durch die Gegend fahren) because in English an old-timer means alter Hase. He would probably object. You might, however, suggest taking the classic, vintage or heritage car for a drive.
But do not suppose that only Germans make the faux-pas of borrowing words incorrectly. We Brits and our American cousins will try ordering a ‘Stein’ of beer at the Oktoberfest (when we mean Maßkrug) or a glass of ‘Hock’ if we would like a glass of wine from Hochheim am Main. You might even hear the air force talking about ‘strafing’ the enemy (when they mean aus der Luft unter Beschuss nehmen). So it’s all swings and roundabouts.
Some typical German mistakes in English are examined in the interactive English course here. Have a go and good luck!
Robert Compton has lived in Berlin since 2009 and works as a translator and proofreader.