Category Archives: etymology


The term Lohndumping (“wage dumping”) has become widely used in Germany over the past few years. Like many political buzzwords, it’s hard to define precisely: It refers in a general sense to the act of offering excessively low wages; accusations of “Lohndumping” are regularly voiced in low-wage sectors to highlight the ostensibly exploitive behavior of employers. Regardless of whether this term is useful and appropriate for drawing attention to unjust wage arrangements, I’ve always been uncomfortable with it sheerly on account of its etymology as a pseudo-English permutation of “price dumping.” “Price dumping,” of course, refers to a form of predatory behavior in which products manufactured cheaply in one market are “dumped” en masse onto another market, thereby depressing the price and running out the domestic competition. The term “Lohndumping” therefore strikes the native speaker of English as peculiar, for wages cannot be “dumped” in a figurative sense as products can. As a neologism that appears to have its origins in a misunderstanding of English, it’s highly disconcerting when prominent German politicians and economists employ the term “wage dumping” in English press conferences, unaware that the term simply doesn’t exist. The translators at Der Spiegel also seem to be in the dark, using “wage dumping” without explanation in the English version of a current article on the Greek debt crisis. A gloss is clearly needed here, as is recognized by the New York Times (note that the term “wage dumping” has only appeared 6 times in the history of the NYT’s publication, and in all instances to refer to statements made by a German politician or intellectual).


“As” is an interesting word. Ever looked it up in the dictionary? Mine contains 43 different definitions for the term. “As” can be used in so many different contexts it almost eludes definition. Yet in its multipurpose utility, this tiny, seemingly irrelevant grammatical particle serves an essential linguistic function. As an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, or preposition, “as”  plays many roles, interlinking parts of speech and giving sentences form. One could describe it as the glue that holds the language together.

Needless to say, the German word “als” is not directly equivalent to its English counterpart. Like “as,” it is used as a comparative particle (diese Schuhe sind bequemer als die anderen) and conjunction (ich war froh, als sie endlich anriefen), but on the whole, it is used less frequently and has a much more restrictive range of use. However, “als” does take on a particular function that “as” lacks. The differences are subtle at first glance. Take the following sentence as an example: Die Beamten sind als Vetreter das öffentliche Gesicht der Verwaltung (“The officials are as representatives the public face of local government”). Here “als” is used to set up an equivalance between two things; the “officials” are in effect stated to be the equivelent of “representatives.” The direct English translation is acceptable and fairly clear, but rings a little bit strange. Why is this? In English, “as” is also used as a preposition to set up an equivalence, but this equivalence is a relative one, and usually does not have the 1:1 substitutional meaning found in many German constructions. For example: Der Auftragnehmer übernimmt die Aufbereitung am Standort X als technischer Betriebsführer für die Auftraggeberin als Betreiber (“The contracted party assumes responsibility for processing at location X as the technical manager for the contracting party as operator”). Translated directly, this sentence is somewhat confusing in English. What is meant by the “contracting party as operator”? “As” in English lacks the rigorous 1:1 substitutional equivalence implied by “als” in the German source sentence. A more readable translation would simply read: “for the contracting party, who is the operator.”

This is actually a fairly common problem when translating from German to English. An awareness for the non-compatability of “als” and “as” in certain contexts can help one to identify why the target sentence is not working and how it can be fixed.

False friends

False friends – that is, apparent cognates in two languages that actually have quite different meanings – are often a source of difficulty for the foreign language learner. I’ve been shocked to realize on several occasions that my understanding of specific German terms –  the definitions of which seemed secure in my internal lexicon – had in fact been distorted by their putative English equivalents. When the error concerns a word for which one has a certain fondness, the experience is all the most disconcerting. Just yesterday I learned that, while the term “latent” can certainly have the exact same meaning in both languages,  it tends in German to designate a “hidden” but “constantly present” thing – in English, by contrast,  the term in everyday usage refers to a hidden potential which has not yet manifested itself. This is a key distinction: is the thing being described active or not? I had muttered quite a bit of invective under my breath at the author of the text I was translating for his ostensible misuse of the term before consulting with a German native speaker, who disabused me of my misconception.

For me, in the end, this was a harmless error. A young girl who lives on the ground floor of our building wasn’t as lucky when she unwittingly stumbled into the snares of an embarrassing false cognate the other week. The girl in question, who on occassion attempts to showcase her English skills in my presence, announced during a brief exchange in the stairwell that she had “not douched today” – in German, “duschen” means “to shower,” but the word has quite a different meaning in English. This was a bit of personal trivia which I would have gladly been spared.


Pseudo-anglicisms, that is, words borrowed from English and invested with new meaning in another language, are particularly abundant in German marketing texts. PR and communications agencies in Germany regularly employ mountains of English marketing jargon in their client presentations. Frequently, highly specialized terms are employed incorrectly; in other cases, one encounters pseudo-English terminology that has been codified with new definitions. A harrowing job for the translator. I was working on a Power Point presentation yesterday in which a list of proposed marketing activities appeared; one bullet point read: “Claim als Crowner.” I found this rather funny – two putatively English words side-by-side that an English speaker would not understand. The term “Claim” is quite common and used in German to mean “slogan.” I had to do some research on “Crowner,” however, which turns out to be an advertising sticker on a display case (a riff on Krönung, perhaps?). I’m often curious as to origin of these terms, which, in many instances, seemed to be rooted in a misunderstanding of English. The term “claim,” of course, can be used in English to indicate an argument made about the merits of a product. I would suppose it was simply misinterpreted some decades ago by an exchange student who went on to become an influential marketing guru in Germany. “Crowner,” on the other hand, has clearly been spun from whole cloth, much like the German marketing terms “BlowUp” (for an extremely large billboard) and “Sell-Out-Unterstützung” (the meaning of which I am still trying to ascertain).

Proper names that aren’t so proper

There’s a gym near our apartment in Berlin that advertises itself as a “health and fitness club” on a sign above the main entrance. I walked past the gym regularly for weeks and always thought to myself, “Now, what’s the actual name of this place? They should display the name more prominently.” This morning my patience was finally exhausted. Determined to identify the gym’s name, I stopped to inspect the sign and peer through the windows. Lo and behold: the place is simply called “Health and Fitness Club.”

Proper names based on everyday English words are actually not that rare in Germany, and I find them to be highly annoying. In Stuttgart, for example, there’s a company called “Financial Consulting,” a business name you could never actual register in the U.S., because it fails to identify the business uniquely. (I can just imagine the founder filling out the registration papers: Name of business? Financial consulting. Type of business? Financial consulting…).

Loanwords and misnomers

English loanwords are proliferate in the German language, and new words are adopted on a daily basis. Borrowing is particularly pronounced in the business world, where mastery of English neologisms carries a certain cachet. Scores of English words invariably crop up in German marketing texts. Take the following extreme example, which I came across recently: “Last not least sorgen unter anderem vier Bands mit heißem Sound für eine tolle Stimmung und echtes Partyfeeling.”

The particular problem for the translator—which the above sentence demonstrates fairly well—relates to the way in which borrowed words are often invested with new meaning in German. “Partyfeeling” is of course an invented compound which only the most foolhardy would dare to transcribe directly. Yet the most probable renderings—“party atmosphere,” or similar, are also fraught with the potential for inaccuracy, as the term “Party” in German can be an acceptable designation for a rather staid corporate reception—which is not the case in English.

False cognates await the unwary translator in a myriad of seemingly innocuous contexts. In German, for example, the term “Trailer” designates all manner of short promotional videos. In English, however, a “trailer” is specifically a promotional clip for a feature film—an unawareness of this fact can lead to a serious error in the translation. In a similar vein, the term “Headline” is used in German to indicate the heading of any document; in English, by contrast, we only speak of headlines in the newspaper. An even stranger example is the German use of the term “Wording,” which refers generally to a company’s internal language—“wording” in English, of course, merely refers to the way something is phrased.

The German use of the word “team” in business contexts is also a source of particular frustration for the translator. In Germany the staff of any company is often referred to as the “team”; in English, by contrast, the term is used much more sparingly to designate an inter-organizational group with a specific task—if it is used at all. Confronted with the term in many contexts the translator may feel compelled to select a substitute, yet he can only do so at the risk of arousing the resistance of the client, for whom “team” is the firmly established designation.

Round squares

I encountered a rather amusing translation problem the other day working on a text that discussed various models of urban development. The text spoke of a crescent-shaped housing block (the Royal Crescent in Bath, England) wrapping around a “kreisförmiger Platz.” Now, in English the term Platz means “square,” as in “city square,” which leads one to initially go about translating the above as “circular square” – a wonderful piece of nonsense.“Circular plaza” is a fitting alternative, but one is still left wondering why a city square is necessarily square shaped to begin with. The answer obviously lies in the geometric rigidities of the modern city, as squares in ancient cities are often irregularly shaped. The original Greek word for a city square, in fact, was plateia, from which the German term Platz, Spanish plaza and English “place” were all derived. Square à la city square is of modern origin.