Monday, March 10, 2008

The Top 10 Greatest German Loanwords

I was pulling my hair out recently trying to spell "schadenfreude" correctly, despite having used it in an early blog post here. (This eventually lead me to the Wikipedia article on Avenue Q, which lead me to YouTube, which consequently ended with me going around all day whilst humming, "Didja ever clap when a waitress falls / and drops a tray of glasses...") It occured to me as I did this quite how many words English barrows from its close linguistic cousin, German. (Although many dictionaries and similar sources will call English and German brothers, due to the high number of common English words that come from Germanic sources, English's own origins are more Gaelic than Gothic.)

So, for absolutely no reason at all, I present to you my top 10 favorite German loanwords in English. Enjoy!

10. Doppelgänger

Noun. A double, especially of a person. Literally means "double walker." Comes from the myth of the Doppelgänger, a ghostly spirit that follows behind all people and mimics their every move. Can only be seen by the person who possesses them, but because they move in exact time with a person's actions and are always directally behind them, catching a glimpse of one's Doppelgänger is difficult. To see it is seen as a sign of death.

Outside of morbid mythology, it's an exceptionally useful way to describe a lookalike or double without having to resort to--well, to "lookalike" or "double." And it's so much more evocative than "evil twin!"

9. Blitz

Noun; sometimes verb. A powerful or unexpected attack or burst of movement; to move or attack in a manner characteristic of a blitz. Literally means "lightning." (Occasionally you'll get an RPG spell or two that uses it in the literal sense.)

Aside from being a great way to describe someone going reallyreallyfast (how do you say "greased" in German?), this word seems to have wormed its way into a number of absurdly catchy rock songs. Although it seems that not many are familiar with Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz," I know of very few human beings who will not respond (if perhaps negatively) to a rousing cry of "Hi! Ho! Let's go! Hi! Ho! Let's go!"

8. Zeitgeist

Noun. Those artifacts, mindsets, attitudes, and social constructs indicative of a certain era in time. Literally means "spirit of the time."

In case that definition left you more puzzled than elucidated, allow me to expand. It essentially means something which you associate with a specific era in time. Mullets, bad clothes, cheesy cartoons, and disco-esque pop music despite the mentality that disco is dead? That's the Zeitgeist of the 80's. The consistant fear of nuclear attack and the desire to prepare for such? That's a more serious example of 50's Zeitgeist. This is one of those words that I like simply because trying to describe the same concept in English is clunky.

7. Wunderkind

Noun. A prodigy; an exceptionally talented child. Literally means "wonder child."

Like doppelgänger, this word is so much more enjoyable to say than its English counterpart that I end up using it far more than any other. Although "prodigy" means nothing to someone simply seeing the word for the first time, "wunderkind" is immediately understandable--being that "wonder" and "wunder" are cognates, and plenty of people are familiar with "kind" for "child" from fellow loanword "kindergarten." I suppose this concept also has the term "phenom" attached to it, but for some reason, I can't hear it without thinking of surfers...

6. Dreck

Noun. Something awful or terrible. Literally means "dirt."

Incredibly emphatic. It spits so wonderfully off the tongue! Calling something rotten or no-good is satisfying, but but there's something so fulfilling about calling it "utter dreck" that no other word can provide. A properly-placed tongue even sends a little spray of spittle flying after the final phoneme, in a final insult to whatever deserved the dreck-ing.

5. Über

Prefix; sometimes noun. Has a similar meaning to "super"--above, greater than, extremely, etc. Literally means "over; above;" as a single word it can mean "about."

Oh, über. Or "uber," as the laymen spell it. Where would the online gaming scene be without you? We would have no way to describe ridiculously powerful characters! We would have to resort to "very" for emphasis! I'm only being half sarcastic, of course--although we anglophiles tend to misuse über somewhat, it is a handy way of describing something "to the extreme."

4. Kaput

Adjective. Out of order; not working. Literally means "not working."

Falling apart. No life left in it. A goner. It done broke. Although not a proper ideophone, there's no denying that kaput sounds an awful lot like what it means. Although originally German, it probably came to English through Yiddish. However it got here, though, there's no denying the popularity it's enjoyed since then--especially in this electric, mechanized age, where there are more and more things to go kaput on us.

3. Schadenfreude

Noun. A feeling of happiness derived from seeing others' failure or pain. Literally, "joy of pain."

Another wonderful case of us stealing a word for a feeling which we have no name for, schadenfreude is that wonderful feeling that you get when other people mess up worse than you do. Skateboarders falling on their faces, comedians corpsing their acts, anyone anywhere getting hit in the groin--it's hard not to laugh, thanks to that pesky human nature.

It also inspired the decidedly-not-safe-for-work ditty I found myself humming recently. "Schaaaadenfreude--people taking pleasure in your paaaain!"

2. Angst

Noun. A feeling of depression or anxiety. Literally, "fear of nothing."

Quite possibly the single most useful word on the Internet, this single term sums up half the population of MySpace, one-third of the population of Livejournal, and one Potter Puppet Pals video. Describing the way every teenager has ever felt ever--usually to the consternation of everyone who reads their online ramblings--the word "angst" is so singularly handy I don't know how the language ever survived without it. How on earth did people complain about their 15-year-olds before then?

1. Earworm

Noun. A tune or piece of music that one subconsciously repeats. Comes from the German "ohrwurm," literally meaning "ear worm."

The definition of earworm is the Russian folk tune "Korobeiniki."

What you probably know this song as:

You're welcome.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On the Pronunciation of Internet Acronyms

The above YouTube video serves two purposes as the introduction to my post. Its first purpose is to help illustrate precisely what I mean when I talk about the pronunciation of Internet acronyms. The second is to inflict upon you a merciless earworm that will continue to torment you long after you depart my blog.

As I hail from a group of exceedingly nerdy friends, and tend to associate with websites and online communities were geekiness is reveled in (not against, as I hasten to note), I have come across real-life (or, in a tone befitting this post, IRL) pronunciations of acronyms coined mostly for ease of communication online. Among these: LOL (Laughing Out Loud), ROFL (Rolling On Floor Laughing), LMAO (Laughing My @$$ Off), and PWN (Not technically an acronym, but likely derived from a typographical error in the spelling of "owned." It has the same meaning). The Internet literati seem to be of two minds concerning such spoken cultural allusions. Some treat them as pure acronyms and speak each individual letter. LOL is Ell Oh Ell; ROFL is Are Oh Eff Ell. Others turn them into words, slurring their individual letter sounds together and creating neologisms. LOL is Lawl, ROFL is Rawful. The above video is an example of the latter, though it does take it to a slight extreme. It takes some terms and phrases generally only spoken in letter form (such as DM--Dee Em--and WTF--Doubleyou Tee Eff) and tries to sound them out phonetically, despite their derth of vowels.

I've noticed a few oddities and idosyncracies in these pronunciations, however. Certain acronym phrases, especially those consisting of three words or letters, tend to have spoken equivalents that are neither phonetic aproximations or letter-by-letter re-spellings. Instead, they're something... else.

Take the example video above. One of the terms it uses is OMG, short for Oh My (insert your favorite expression of shock that begins with a G here--Goodness, Gosh, God, Gadzooks, et cetra). Two common real-world pronunciations of OMG exist--Oh Em Gee, and "ohmig." In my experience, Oh Em Gee is the more common of the two. However, seemingly more prevalent than "ohmig" is the phrasing used in the video above: "Oh muh guh." This pronunciation actually appears to be a form of the full phrase (most likely "Oh My God" in this particular case) in which the syllables of the second two words have become slurred and assimilated with those of the first, resulting in a kind of "half-spoken" version of the full phrase.

Other phrases this tends to happen to (as demonstrated in the above) are FTW (For The Win) and WTF (What The... well, I'm sure you can guess). It is slightly more difficult to make the "assimilation" argument for FTW, as a true assimilative version of FTW would probaly sound more like "Fer Ter Wer" as opposed to "Fuh Tuh Wuh." Instead, the spoken form of FTW sounds more like a reversed version of WTF's: "Wuh Tuh Fuh." (For WTF, one could possibly make the case for abreviation as well).

I wonder what causes these pronunciations to come out like they do? I'm not sure--it's not like I've done research on this sort of thing--but I can say that it does seem to have some common mental genesis for all of the geeks who use Internet acronyms in their everyday speech. I know that I was mentally pronouncing "WTF" as "Wuh Tuh Fuh" long before I ever heard it out loud, and I wasn't the least bit shocked when I finally did that my suspicions were confirmed.