Of Dolls and Tom Cats
Proverbs and idioms – no language can do without them. They impressively put things in a nutshell, make our speech lively and varied. Their origins often date back many centuries.Our language, wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, is like a rambling old town of streets, alleys and squares, old and new houses from different periods. Perhaps the most interesting “buildings” in this city, to continue Wittgenstein’s image, are proverbs and idioms. Like the façades of old houses, they are always there without our being aware of how old the walls we pass every day really are, and how many interesting stories they could tell if we were to look more closely.
Blaumachen (to skip work, take a duvet day; literally: to go blue)
The expression goes back to the free day given members of artisan associations. From the time of the late Middle Ages into the modern era, artisans could “take Monday off”. The adverb blau (blue) here has nothing to do with excessive alcohol consumption, as it does in other German idioms (for example, “total blau”, or “drunk as a lord”). There are different constructions of its origin. One of these goes back to the dyer’s craft. Wool used to be dyed blue with woad, an indigo-like dye – a lengthy process, in the course of which the wool often had to be hung out to dry in the open air all day on Monday. During this time the journeymen had nothing to do and could take Monday off, or “go blue”.
Bis in die Puppen (till all hours; literally: to go to the dolls)
In the centre of Berlin’s Tiergarten there is a square called the “Großer Stern” (Great Estoile). Today it is the location of the famous Victory Column, a landmark of the city. At the time of Prussia’s King Frederick II, however, and here lies the origin of the phrase, this area of the park was edged with double avenues and decorated with statues. In Berlin slang these were facetiously called “dolls”. Formerly, since the Großer Stern was relatively far away from the historic centre of the city, one had to take a long walk to reach the dolls. “Bis in die Puppen gehen” – literally, to go to the dolls – was initially a synonym for a long distance, and then gradually came to be a description of a very long duration.
Einen Kater haben (to be hung over; literally: to have a tomcat)
This idiom has nothing to do with the pet, but refers rather to the ancient Greek word for catarrh, which designates an unpleasant inflammation of the mucous membrane. Among university students in the nineteenth century it became common to describe a hangover after a night of drinking with the playful expression “moral catarrh”. From this then developed the “tomcat” (“Kater”, pronounced like the German “Katarrh”), or hangover, of today.
Jemandem einen Bären aufbinden (to pull someone’s leg, to feed someone a line; literally: to saddle someone with a bear)
The origin of the phrase is probably a misconstruction of the word Bär (bear) for Last (load or burden), which resulted from the Middle High German words bern (carry) and bér (hit). For a long time the phrase “to saddle with a bear” was used as a synonym for “going into debt”. In addition, the real bear played an important role in the hunters’ language of the High Middle Ages. The phrase “I’ve fettered a bear” was used as a synonym for a special exploit, which was, however, precisely because it was regarded as absurd actually to fetter a bear, probably a form of boasting.
Nur Bahnhof verstehen (It’s all Greek to me; literally: I understand only “rail station”)
The expression dates to the time of the First World War. Back then trains were the main means of transportation. They also brought soldiers home for vacations or when they were seriously wounded. The rail station (Bahnhof) therefore came to symbolize home for soldiers – and this especially towards the end of the conflict, when the initial euphoria was long gone and they were suffering severely under the rigours of war. The desire to return home safe and sound became so predominant that conversations which failed to revolve around this topic were passed over with the words: “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” – “I understand only ‘rail station’”.
Unter aller Kanone (beneath contempt; literally: beneath all canons)
The phrase evolved out of the Latin one sub omni canone, which translates roughly as “beneath all standards”. The term “canon” here refers less to its meaning as canonical or worthy of being handed down as to the eponymous evaluation system for grades common in medieval schools. If a submitted examination was extremely bad, it was “beneath all canons”. In the course of the centuries, the scholastic sense of canon changed in the vernacular into canon in the sense of artillery.
Der springende Punkt (the salient point or crux of the matter)
The idiom goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) and his treatise Historia Animalium. There he describes how in the white of a bird’s egg, the heart of the nascent bird may be observed as large as a point, blood-colour in white”. This point pulses and moves, the philosopher wrote, like a living being. The Latin translation of this reads: “Quod punctum salit iam et movetur ut animal”, which was eventually shortened to “punctum saliens”. Translated literally into German, this means “springender Punkt” or salient point.
Treulose Tomate (fair-weather friend; literally: faithless tomato)
The phrase probably has its origin in the First World War. Italy had been allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the so-called Triple Alliance since 1882 and therefore refrained from entering the conflict. But then in 1915 Italy came to a secret agreement with the Allied powers Britain, France and Russia in the London Treaty, and thereafter was seen in Germany as having broken its word. Because of Italy’s favourable climate, many tomatoes are grown and eaten there, while in Germany the vegetable used to be not so easy to cultivate and very rare: hence faithless Italy became the faithless tomato, or fair-weather friend.