Germans are falling for the same trap as the Japanese: Importing words from English and changing the meaning, but the Germans do it even though the words didn't need to be imported at all

Raymond Chen

Languages borrow from each other all the time. English has historically been a happy perpetrator of word-theft, but in recent decades, it has been serving as the source for a lot of theft, too. What I find particularly interesting, though, is when a word is borrowed and given a meaning in its new language different from its meaning in the source language. Japanese is famous for this, For example, they take the English phrase white shirt and import it as waishatsu, which means not white shirt but dress shirt. In Swedish, the phenomenon of importing English into Swedish is known as svengelska, a blend of svenska and engelska. The Swedes use the faux-English term service-mind to mean dedication to customer service. I find this interesting because they just took some English words and combined them in a way not used in English at all. And as you can see from the citation, it seems that there are some who are under the mistaken impression that we use the word in English, too. One thing that disturbs me is when a word is imported into a language even though there is already a perfectly good word for the concept. Many years ago, my aunt (who at the time was a Japanese teacher) went to Japan and sat down in a restaurant. She looked over the menu looking for the beverages and couldn’t find it. She asked the waiter where the beverage section was, and the waiter directed her to the section titled dorinku. The Japanese have imported the word dorinku from the English word drink, displacing the traditional Japanese word (which I believe is nomimono, but I could be wrong). My aunt was looking for the traditional Japanese word and couldn’t find it. The award, however, for using faux English terms, goes to the Germans and Denglisch, the term for the blending of Deutsch and Englisch. Unsatisfied with the perfectly good German word Rucksack, which means backpack, some marketing geniuses decided to adopted the English word body bag instead. This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, it’s the phenomenon of replacing a perfectly good native word with a loanword. Second, the English language imported the word rucksack from German. We borrowed the word from you. Feel free to borrow it back; it was yours originally! And third, the import is disturbingly incorrect. In English, a body bag is a bag for carrying corpses, what in German would be called a Leichensack. This is a rather long and tedious set-up for my recent discovery. Apparently in Switzerland, the term for a light truck—not a semi-trailer but something that a family might own—is a Pickup, even though in English, the term pick-up is used only for a particular type of small truck.

Mind you, the English language is hardly innocent in the matter of importing a word while changing its meaning. For example, the prefix über- (or simply uber-) is used in English to mean ultimate or super. As a random example, I produce this citation for the word ubermom. Of course, this prefix is nonsensical to native speakers of German, since über merely means over or on top of. The German word Übermensch, was originally translated into English as superman, leading to the widespread misconception that Über must mean super.


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