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Word! The Language Column
Gotta Go, Buffalo!

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hasnain Kazim used to be allergic to bad puns and similar forms of cringeworthy wordplay. But he eventually succumbed, at least somewhat, to their (asinine) charm. After all, aren't many things easier to bear if you can laugh at a lame witticism at the same time? This is our columnist's final contribution on the vast subject of "Language and Coexistence".  

By Hasnain Kazim

Howdy, hiya, hi there, all y'all! We talk a lot about mindful, inclusive, correct language nowadays. About which words are appropriate and which ones we'd better not use anymore. I think thinking about language like this is basically a very good thing, even if I sometimes get the impression people are, to use a common phrase, overshooting the mark now and then, and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But some expressions really get my hackles up, make my blood boil and make me mad as a wet hen: e.g. when, instead of saying "zum Beispiel" ("for example"), people say "zum Bleistift" (lit. "to the pencil", i.e. quasi-homophonic nonsense). Or when, to say "bye", they say "Tschüssikowski" (portmanteau of Tschüss ("bye") and Tchaikovsky), "Tschüsseldorf" (portmanteau of Tschüss and Düsseldorf) or "Ciao Kakao". Or "herzlichen Glühstrumpf!" (lit. "(wishing you a) happy gas mantle!" - again, nonsensical wordplay) instead of "herzlichen Glückwünsch" ("congratulations") on your birthday, or "Stück mal 'n Rück" instead of "Rück mal 'n Stück" to mean "move over a little" on the bench. Or instead of "Prost" ("Cheers!" from the Latin "Prosit" meaning "may it be good") and "Stoss an" ("Toast!") they use silly diminutives like "Prösterchen" and "Stösschen". These folks may be quite nice "an und Pfirsich" (lit. "at and peach": another silly soramimi for "an und für sich", which means "actually" or "in and of itself/themselves"). But they drink a "Käffchen" ("a wee coffee") or "Sektchen" ("a little bubbly"), smoke a "Zigarettchen" ("ciggy"). And they say "na supi" ("lovely jubbly"), "bis danniwanni" (from "bis dann" ("see you then") and "dann und wann" ("now and then")), and "Na Bernd" (lit. "Well, Bernd") for "Guten Abend" ("Good evening"). When the phone rings, they answer the Teflon. They think everything's "wunderbärchen" (diminutive of wunderbar, but also lit. means "miraculous little bear"). But I don't! 


Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for humour and wit! Not because life itself is all that funny. On the contrary: because humour makes some things in life bearable. Humour can lend some dignity to human coexistence, even when things get pretty undignified. "Humor ist der Knopf, der verhindert, dass uns der Kragen platzt" (Humour is what keeps us from boiling over), wrote the German humourist Joachim Ringelnatz. 

But these pseudo-funny verbal contortions and diminutives really bug me, I mean get my goat, I mean get on my nerves! The more I hear or read this sort of thing, the more I can only say: "Izmir schlecht!" (i.e. "ist mir schlecht", "I feel sick").

Pseudo means: counterfeit, imitation, not the real McCoy. So pseudo-funny means: not really funny! And that's right on the money. I mean, to each little critter its own little titter, but this is beyond the pale! I would never even think of typing such pathetic pleasantries on my slaptop.

But then again…

I panned some stupid wordplay on social media and guess what happened: I was promptly deluged with stupid wordplay! No shit, Sherlock! Why'd I go ahead and shoot my mouth off - and shoot myself in the foot - like that? I should have piped down instead. Shoulda, coulda, woulda! Have a Denteley, it all backfired - and went down like a lead balloon! 

What I've learnt is that some turns of phrase are so idiotic they can actually prove amusing. And as I observed above, certain situations are easier to endure with a laugh - even if we're just laughing at inane wordplay. We need a little waggishness in between so as not to lose sight of the gravity of the situation. Hokey-dokey, I figured, that makes sinsemilla, make room on the bandwagon for me!
And lo and behold: since then, I've been scraping the mattress off my kisser in the morning and brushing my chewers, especially after eating knofi (diminutive of Knoblauch, i.e. garlic). Suchlike grandiosely asinine witticisms have become a source of constant delight for me.

I've also learnt that 12 November is Tag der schlechten Wortspiele ("Bad Puns Day"), which was started up by the cartoonist Bastian Melnyk. And that there are several types of puns: e.g. those making use of polysemy, or verbal ambiguity (e.g. Lieber arm dran als Arm ab - lit. "Better off poor than armless"); paronomasia, using phonetic similarities ("Das kann ja wohl nicht Warstein" for "…wahr sein", roughly: "Well, for flying out loud!"); and spoonerisms, i.e. transpositions of initial sounds or letters, e.g. "Pad Buns Day" for "Bad Puns Day" - which, why the bay, ought to be a bank holiday!

Let's talk it over instead of taking offence

Most importantly, though, let's give more thought to language! To the words we use. Let's re-evaluate our vocabulary, let's be respectful and considerate, think about what we say and how we say it - albeit without weighing our every word. Let's try not to offend others, on the one hand, and not to fly off the handle at others' careless words, on the other. Instead, let's talk it over. Let's talk about verbal expressions and their effect - because words do have an effect. Never underestimate the power of words. And some people do strike the wrong note or use a word that may be hurtful. It helps to talk things over.

So, Ladies and Jellybeans, I got to write six articles for the Goethe-Institut and even choose my own theme: "Language and Coexistence". Now I've reached the end of the line, time's up, game over, sorry, Charlie. Must make like a tree and leaf now. So there's nothing more for me to say, Jay, but: lanks a thought for bearing with me. So see you later, alligator. In a while, crocodile. Give a hug, ladybug. Blow a kiss, jellyfish. Toodle-oo, kangaroo. Gotta go, buffalo! Danke schön! Schittebön!

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.