How chicken legs, triangles and sphincters will make you laugh
It’s easy to forget how funny certain expressions are in another language once you’ve mastered it. This is rarely truer than in German, a language that mirrors a love of precision and detail on the part of its speakers. While English often borrows vocabulary directly from Greek in a quest to sound sophisticated, Germans seek to be as literal as possible. With characteristic methodology, they examine the nature and purpose of an object and waste no time with verbal frippery. They cut to the chase, naming the object in an unmistakably literal way.
A crabapple tree spotted on my daily walk around the neighborhood reminded me of this. I had always imagined that the name derived from the unpleasant grimace you would surely make after taking a bite of one of these impossibly sour, hard-to-bite fruits. But the Germans outdid us here by calling it Holzapfel, wooden apple. Which is precisely what it tastes like.
I had the golden opportunity to expand my German vocabulary when my kids attended school. No matter how fluent you may be in a foreign language, it is rare to learn scientific terms and obscure biological nomenclature. What in English is obfuscatingly called a paramecium, a single-celled animal, is in German called a Pantoffeltierchen — a small slipper animal.
Why? Well, because it’s shaped like a slipper, of course. No need to waste any time finding another name for that.
Another biology word I learned was Fusswurzelknochen, “foot root bones” (actually called tarsal bones in English), a word that also handily serves as a delightful tongue twister for any unfortunate foreigner who dares cross its path or worse still, breaks that bone and finds themselves in that most awkward of places in a foreign country: a doctor’s office.
On the flip side, I relish the thought of a German trying to speak English at the doctor’s office, using google translate and saying: “Doctor, I fell off my bike and I think I’ve broken my foot root bones.” I’d pay a lot of money to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
Even more surprising was learning the German word for an isosceles triangle (see what I mean about the Greek thing?). Some bone-dry mathematician in the Middle Ages gave it a name that to foreign ears sounds like a quick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken: ein gleichschenkliges Dreieck. The actual meaning of this is a “triangle with identical sides” but since Schenkel also means thigh — and my mind being what it is — my brain immediately leaped to “same-thighed triangle” and I pictured a triangle made of chicken thighs.
I exploded into laughter upon learning this word while quizzing my daughter on geometry, eliciting one of those teenage eye rolls that adults of my silly nature pretend not to notice but secretly live for. Perhaps I shouldn’t give the Germans too much credit though, because “isosceles” derives from a Greek word that translates to “equal-legged.”
Speaking of legs, early anatomists also got in on the vocabulary game. Once the Catholic church’s ban on dissecting human bodies was lifted, it gave scientists the chance to name things more in line with their actual function, rather than continuing to call them something that an ancient Greek doctor dreamed up a millennium and a half ago. This is how the German expression for the appendix got its name, which in English derives from Latin and while unfortunately not being Greek, still fulfilled early linguists’ desire to use an obtuse word to sound educated. The German word, on the other hand, couldn’t be more literal: Blinddarm, blind or false intestine.
For a tube leading nowhere, I’d say that’s pretty fitting.
References abound to the word “mother” in German as they do in English. Muttersprache means mother tongue, just like in English. But there is also the curious Mutterleib, which means womb. The second half of that compound word is Leib — with an e — which looks suspiciously like Laib — with an a — meaning a loaf of bread. So perhaps this is the German version of the English expression sometimes used when a woman is pregnant: “a bun in the oven.” My daughter tells me it’s because Leib means body, but she’s just trying to ruin my fun. Finally, there is Muttermal, birthmark, composed of the word for mother and mark, implying that your mother intentionally labeled you somehow. I prefer to think that the Mal from this word originates from malen, to paint.
German speakers are just as full of hot air as in any other language. Except in German they are Dampfplauderer, steam chatterers. I wish people would chatter steam in English, too. It would make them much easier to identify up front and avoid altogether if they looked like little locomotives on two legs from a long way off.
Let’s not neglect other bodily orifices, either (get your mind out of the gutter). The word for sphincter, Schliessmuskel, literally means “closing muscle.” It can’t get any easier than that. Even in the most undainty of anatomical matters, the German language does not shirk its duty toward clarity.
But perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek utterance for the logical German speaker is the expression used for estimating a number: Pi mal Daumen. This means pi, the mathematical relationship between the radius and circumference of a circle, multiplied by thumb. In other words, the very exact expression of 3.14159, etc. multiplied by your thumb, as in when you hold it up and squint against something in the distance. When I learned this expression during an Excel workshop, I was forced to hide under the table to conceal a 10-minute laughing fit.
So if anyone ever tries to tell you that Germans have no sense of humor, you can safely tell them you have many counterexamples. If they want to know how many, just hold up your thumb, eyeball it and tell them “pi times thumb.”