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Misappropriation

Kombischild-Foto-Handy-verbotenIn summer 2012 my mother-in-law, a daughter of the German industrial heartland, mentioned plans for the afternoon that had her very excited: She was headed to a public viewing. It  wasn’t morbid curiosity—some sort of Teutonic necrophilia—that had her raring to go. In Germany, a viewing has nothing to do with open caskets. Rather, it’s the public screening of a film or a televised event—in this case, the London Olympics.

She couldn’t hide her annoyance at my confusion. It was an English phrase, after all, untranslated. As she’d put it, “Ich gehe zu einem Public Viewing.” What, exactly, didn’t I understand?

There’s been a storm this year among linguistically minded Germans over the new edition of the Duden, the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has added a clutch of words to its 26th edition that are adopted from English: die App, der Eurobond, das Crossdressing, to name a few. But in my experience, for every English word or phrase that Germans borrow directly, there’s another they redefine entirely, leaving us native speakers stumped.

At a public viewing, the organizers use a Beamer to screen the show. It’s not that BMWs have special features over here; I’m talking about a projector. Who attends these screenings anyway? Mostly twens. Who? You know, twens, the people who were teens a few years back. Oh … twenty-somethings.

Germans aren’t the only nationality to misappropriate English words. But they fall into a sweet spot for this sort of thing. The average German boasts better English than the average Frenchman, and what’s more, he’s eager to practice it. And outward-looking Germans often like to show off their linguistic and cultural fluency—like  newly worldwise American undergraduates (though they’re not the only ones) spotting their “doppelgänger,” or speaking “entre nous.”

And yet the average German’s English is not nearly as good as, say, the average Dane’s, in part because English-language television shows and movies here are usually dubbed, whereas in Nordic countries they’re screened in the original language (with subtitles). This means self-correction of misappropriations happens less frequently.

The most famous example  is the “handy.” My German friends, family, and students at the two universities where I teach, know by now that in the English-speaking world, they should say “mobile phone” or “cell,” but they’re still vaguely incredulous that they’ve gone to the bother of adopting our terminology only to get laughed at when they use it.

Sometimes the more appropriate reaction is alarm. My husband was witness to a shooting yesterday. How awful!  That sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in civilized, gun-controlled Europe. Indeed: It was a photo shoot.  Meanwhile, poor little Johannes is getting mobbed  at school. That’s nice—it’s fun to be popular. No, no, what his worried mother means to say is that he’s being bullied.

As I struggle to learn German, pointing out my German peers’ misappropriations offers me momentary (if spiteful) relief from my ever-present low-level shame at being so bad at their language when they’re so good at mine. My next-door neighbor, who hasn’t taken a language class since high school, might ask me off-the-cuff and in beautiful English, “What do you think of Beyoncé using Playback for the national anthem?” Doesn’t he mean, “Beyoncé  lip-synching the national anthem”? Ha! I got him there.

Anyway, it’s flattering. Sure, the polite request that I pass the “Philadelphia-Käse” has me scouring the table for … what, some sort of extra-sharp, mid-Atlantic cheddar? But maybe I ought to be proud that, from the Elbe to the Rhine, Kraft has done to Frischkäse what Scotch did to translucent tape.

And frankly, we ought to consider the merits of some of these newly defined words and phrases. I rather like Pullunder—for what Americans call a sweater vest or sleeveless sweater. It’s the opposite of a pullover, you see.

We’re already starting to adapt. Academics in the English-speaking world use “to mob” in the German sense. And these days, American “twens” would more likely associate a public viewing with what it means in German than with a last chance to see a deceased friend or relative. I recently admitted as much to my mother-in-law.  She was delighted.

Rose Jacobs, a guest blogger, is a journalist who teaches English at the University of Augsburg and the Technical University of Munich.

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