German lexicographic richness

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A Mad Magazine cartoon by Peter Kuper:

Why is this cartoon funny?

Is there a linguistic verity behind it?

"Some German words are so long that they have a perspective."
— Mark Twain

Selected reading

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Monscampus said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 11:23 pm

    It isn't funny. Shit happens in every language. There seems to be a proverb in so many languages describing such situations,

    Why do non-Germans find this funny then?

  2. Steve Jones said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 2:05 am

    Following Mark Twain, I did a little post on "tapeworm words" in German:

  3. raempftl said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 2:45 am

    @ Monscampus
    This isn’t about German having a word for shit happening but German having a word for EVERYTHING. And far as I know this is only a meme in the English speaking world.

  4. AG said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 2:48 am

    Monscampus –

    Other people might be able to explain this better, but I'll try – the humor lies (for English speakers) in the fact that the German language is closely related to English, so its vocabulary and grammar are often oddly familiar, but German combines multiple smaller words to make a longer compound word in many more situations.

    For example, the word "Handschuh" is intrinsically funny to English speakers, because we have the word "hand", and we have the word "shoe", but we would never put them together, since we have the word "glove".

    This aspect of German has become famous as a source of humor in English, the idea being that there is a single (very long) German word for literally anything you can think of.

    The actual clown etc. in the cartoon are irrelevant.

  5. AntC said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 6:04 am

    The German word that's hanging unsaid in the cartoon is schadenfreude. I am apparently suffering a recency/frequency illusion, because my impression is that word has become over-used in English in the past (say) five years, as political commentary on some English-speaking countries.

    But wikipedia tells it appeared in English texts from late C19th. " no commonly-used precise English single-word equivalent."

    So the conceit in the cartoon is that English wouldn't have a single word for such a clownshowtragedy, but German would. Google translate alleges 'Clownshow-Katastrophe'. Can anyone confirm? Does German not have its own word for 'clown' or 'clownshow'?

  6. R. Fenwick said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 6:16 am


    In seriousness now, @Monscampus, what AG said above is right: this is about the stereotype in the English-speaking world that German can provide a single orthographic word for referring to any idea at all. This is no doubt only reinforced by the common use of German compound nouns for quite specific concepts in the written English of a variety of specialist fields. From linguistics in particular, examples include Ausbausprache, Winkelhaken, Wanderwort, Suffixaufnahme, Urheimat, and Sprachbund; notable examples from other fields are Weltschmerz, Fingerfehler, Bildungsroman, Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, Festschrift, Realpolitik, Sprachgefühl, Entscheidungsproblem, and Götterdämmerung.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 6:17 am

    German has indeed borrowed Clown*, but has borrowed neither the word nor the concept of clown show… but it has borrowed Show, so *Clownshow would immediately be understood.

    * So has French, long enough ago that the ow is interpreted as ou and consequently pronounced /u/.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 6:27 am

    …It's interesting that Google rendered tragedy/i> as Katastrophe and not as Tragödie; but in this case that's actually a good thing, because Tragödie would be interpreted as a longer story – a sequence of events, not just a single one.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 7:35 am

    "Clownshow-Katastrophe" is way too short, plus the hyphen makes it less visually daunting. R. Fenwick's proposal is much more like what one would expect although maybe the morphemes could be reordered to make it even more challenging to parse at first glance?

  10. Roscoe said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    @AntC – "Schadenfreude" was also the basis for a similar joke in a 1991 "Simpsons" episode, where Lisa chides Homer for making fun of Ned Flanders' unsuccessful new store:

    LISA: Dad, do you know what schadenfreude is?

    HOMER: No, I do not know what "shaden-frawde" is. Please tell me, because I’m dying to know.

    LISA: It’s a German term for “shameful joy,” taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

    HOMER: Oh, come on, Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt. He’s usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel. … What’s the opposite of that "shameful joy" thing of yours?

    LISA: Sour grapes.

    HOMER: Boy, those Germans have a word for everything!

  11. Christine Bothmann said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 9:25 am

    The german word that comes to my mind is actually "Slapstick". Also "Overkill".

  12. Robert Coren said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 10:33 am

    @David Marjanović: Are you saying that the French now pronounce "clown show" as /klunˑʃu/?

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 11:12 am

    R. Fenwick: I agree with your analysis, but is it possible that the cartoon illustrates Zirkusclownsbananenausrutschergeldschrankschlagkatastrophenschadenfreude? Maybe the facial expressions aren't right.

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 11:24 am

    @J. W. Brewer: I confess I'm no competent speaker of German, so my compound is completely confected, and innocent of whatever native intuitions there are about appropriate order of elements in a compound. I'd be interested to hear native speakers' thoughts on this matter.

    Though intriguingly, it turns out there actually is a single Google hit for German Bananenausrutsch "banana tripping, slipping on a banana", from this posting in a manga fan forum:

    Allerdings mochte ich schon seit meiner Kindheit diese Bananenausrutsch und Lochgrab Geschichten nicht.
    "However, even during childhood I already didn't like these [kinds of] banana-tripping and hole-digging stories."

    A fun example of how German compounding can quite easily be productively deployed on the fly!

  15. KevinM said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 11:38 am

    @AG: In the Definitive Biography of PDQ Bach, organists practice playing the pedals with specialized Fusshandschuhe.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 11:47 am

    Slightly worried that, until I read the comments, I had mentally classified the figure on whom the safe was about to fall as an alien rather than a clown. Are aliens, even if non-existent, now more frequently depicted than clowns, and did anyone else mis-identify the figure in the same way ?

  17. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 12:24 pm

    Philip Taylor – not I (or me?) – but to me the costume looks more like a court jester's than a clown's.

    It was probably "Schadenfreude" that really got the ball rolling with these jokes about the German language, and the word became so much a part of English, whence the old joke "what's the German for 'schadenfreude'?".

    Let's not forget the positive borrowings from German : kindergarten springs immediately to mind, but kursaal, mangelworzel are not seen much nowadays.

  18. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 12:28 pm

    ..along the lines of Handschuh and Fusshandschuh, there's also Fingerhut.

  19. SlideSF said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 1:04 pm

    Another German word that comes to mind in this context is Gemütlichkeit, which was popularised (at least in my memory) in the US during the 1970s by a Blue Nun ad campaign. Blue Nun was a popular brand of, well, liebfraumilch.

  20. François DEMAY said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 2:20 pm

    @ Robert Coren :
    The French prononciation for SHOW is ʃo

    Petit Robert
    show [ʃo] n. m.

    • 1930; « exhibition » fin XIXe; mot angl. « spectacle » 

    See also

  21. R. said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 4:01 pm

    I understood the point of Professor Mair's second question to be whether German lives up to its popular reputation for having a larger inventory of words (especially nouns), that tend to encode more specific concepts, than other languages.

  22. AntC said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    the costume looks more like a court jester's than a clown's.

    That's a jester's cap; but whiteface and gloves like Pierrot. The big red nose, rictus grin and exaggerated Fusshandschuhe can only be a clown, surely?

  23. Joe Fineman said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 5:12 pm

    My favorite is "Besserwisserei" — the habit of claiming or insinuating or (God forbid!) proving that you know better.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 5:22 pm

    Verschlimmbesserung—a supposed improvement that makes things worse.

  25. Batchman said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

    @Roscoe: If Lisa Simpson meant "sour grapes" to mean unhappiness at another's good fortune (which would be the opposite of schadenfreude), then she is making the same mistake that most users of the phrase do. The expression "sour grapes" refers to professing not to want something that one cannot have, from the Aesop's Fable "The Fox and the Grapes," not mere displeasure or envy.

  26. Gokul Madhavan said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 6:44 pm

    As it so happens, there is a word in Sanskrit to describe a similar situation: kākatālīya. A literal translation would be “crow-palm(nut)-esque”, but the actual sense is something like “remarkable coincidence”.

    Jayāditya and Vāmana’s Kāśikā commentary on Pāṇini’s sūtra 5.3.106 tells us the underlying scenario: A crow happens to alight under a palm tree at the very same time that a palm nut happens to fall from the tree at that very spot. The palm nut happens to hit the crow and kill it. (A different version of the story ends more happily: the nut cracks and the crow enjoys its otherwise-inaccessible soft interior.)

    This kind of word is explained in the Pāṇinian grammatical tradition as a secondary derivative (taddhita) of a two-member coordinate compound (dvandva-samāsa):
    1. We take the two elements, kāka "crow" and tāla "palm (nut)" in this case
    2. We form the coordinate compound, in this case kāka-tāla “crow-palm”
    3. We then construct the secondary derivative by adding the -īya suffix, yielding in this case kākatālīya

    When used to describe a situation, the word kākatālīya must thus convey a two-level comparison: First, two entities must come together in a coincidental fashion. Second, their coincidence must yield a fruitful interaction (whether negative or positive).

  27. John Swindle said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 10:40 pm

    We have to account for at least a clown, a falling safe, and a slip on a banana peel. But what's that thing that he's dropped?

  28. R. Fenwick said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 10:55 pm

    @R.: I understood the point of Professor Mair's second question to be whether German lives up to its popular reputation for having a larger inventory of words (especially nouns), that tend to encode more specific concepts, than other languages.

    The problem is that it's difficult to make such a count in German. The productivity of German noun compounding combined with the orthographic omission of any separator between one element and the next makes it very complicated to determine whether or not to count a "word" in the lexicon. For instance, does Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih "floor sanding machine rental", famously used in the wild on a machine rental shop in Hamburg, belong in a lexical list? I posted in a previous comment (which I believe is awaiting moderation due to an included link) that, although my Zirkusclownsbananenaustruchergeldschrankschlagkatastrophe above was facetiously concocted, the compound Bananenaustruch "banana-trip, slipping on a banana" actually has been used independently.

    It also seems clear that at least some Germans gladly lean into the humour of building unnecessarily complex compounds for simpler concepts. There's a couple of bike racks (Fahrradständer) in Berlin, for example, which have signs marking them as Klimaschutzumsetzungsgerätfestmachstelle "mooring station for climate protection implementation devices".

  29. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2021 @ 11:35 pm

    Sign on a building in Hamburg, Germany:

    "Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät" = "Law Faculty" or "Faculty of Law"

    See "Long words" (6/25/18)

  30. Hans Adler said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 1:43 am

    Even recognizing that it's intentional hyperbole, the idea that German has a word for everything is weird to most of us native German speakers because there is no real difference in this respect between German and English. To the limited extent that there is, English probably has more words.

    I think there are two characteristics of German that contribute to this myth.

    The first contributing factor is the continuing effects of (circa 19th century) German linguistic purism. It was primarily directed against the spread of French words in German. Efforts to replace foreign words or even loanwords by purely Germanic constructions were often partially successful, made it into dictionaries ('Wörterbücher' = 'wordbooks') and enriched the German vocabulary ('Wortschatz' = 'wordhoard'). For example, 'Rendezvous' was translated literally to 'Stelldichein'. This isn't directly translatable to English, but the word has a similar feel to that of a hypothetical English word 'meetmethere'. Consequently, it never really replaced the original word, but it can still be used in humorous contexts to evoke the connotations of German romantic literature. 'Komposition' was replaced very successfully by 'Zusammensetzung' (literally 'together-setting') in its generic sense. Nowadays we only use the original word in artistic contexts.

    Apart from directly enriching the language, these efforts also reinvigorated the existing methods for ad hoc word composition. It is now a little less likely for German speakers than for English speakers to prefer an alternative strategy to noun composition.

    The second contributing factor is simply an accident of spelling. There is very little difference in ad hoc word composition between English and German. However, where English spelling rules require that the components of ad hoc composed words are written as separate words, German spelling rules require that they are spelled as a single word. (Hyphens may be used to improve legibility.) For example, I am certainly not the first person to use the word 'word composition', and it may in fact appear in dictionaries. But I just made it up for one-time use in this post and don't care about whether it can be found in dictionaries. If this post were in German, I would have spelled the word 'Wortkomposition'. Or rather, 'Wortzusammensetzung'.

    This spelling accident can influence lexicographers. From a quick googling, I am getting the impression that 'Wortzusammensetzung' is more likely to appear in a German dictionary than 'word composition' is to appear in an English dictionary. But that's not a difference in expressibility, it's just a superficial difference in spelling and lexicographic practices. (By the way, one of the reasons to include 'Wortzusammensetzung' in a dictionary is to point out that a synonym for it is 'Komposition'.)

    In any case, just like English texts are full of ad hoc composed nouns such as 'income tax rebate application form', German texts are full of the exactly corresponding ad hoc composed nouns such as 'Einkommensteuerermäßigungsantragsformular', less comically spelled 'Einkommensteuerermäßigungs-Antragsformular'. Although Germans are more likely to put it this way: 'Antragsformular für die Einkommensteuerermäßigung'. Which is another effect of writing everything together and of the fact that equivalent German words are longer on average.

  31. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 3:37 am

    Victor Mair

    "Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät"

    wouldn't "Faculty of Jurisprudence" be a fairer translation?

  32. Rakau said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 4:55 am

    Long compounds are a source of humour amongst Germans as well as the English speaking world. A German friend who is from Sachsen (Saxony) has shown me German cartoons making fun of Sachsische (German spoken in Sachsen). The cartoons were about ridiciculously long words used in Sachsen as compared with other German states.

  33. Mike Grubb said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 8:47 am

    @ John Swindle — My assumption was that the clown is dropping an old-fashioned bicycle horn, which Google Translate suggests would be "Fahrradhupe" auf Deutsche.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    You can construct funnier English words by calquing the German component morphemes into their English cognates while disregarding semantic and/or idiomaticity differences that have arisen among the cognates over the millennia. Thus, z.B., "rechstswissenschaftliche" = "rightswittingshiply."

    As to Peter Grubtal's question, you can argue whether "jurisprudence" is the optimal translation of "Rechtswissenschaft" in isolation,* but idiomatically the analogous sub-part of an Anglophone university is more typically called the university's "School of Law." Many universities in Hispanophone nations have a sub-part called "Faculdad de Jurisprudencia," and the same issue of literal-v-idiomatic translation will arise.

    *The relevant sense here is what this online dictionary entry gives as sense 1, but in my experience what the same entry gives as sense 2.b, which would probably be something else in German, is by far the most commonly-used sense of the word in current AmEng.

  35. AG said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 12:06 pm

    I wonder why "Stelldichein" is singular/casual where "rendezvous" is plural/formal. Seems clumsy to me.

  36. JS said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 2:13 pm

    I was a chemist once. Chemical nomenclature works much the same way as German: long names aggregated from fairly short elements. Many of these names are easy to read no matter how long, once you get the hang of it.

    But then again, German is the ur-language of chemistry.

  37. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 5:52 pm

    @Gokul Madhavan: Further references in Colonel G. A. Jacob, A Handful of Popular Maxims, repr. Delhi, Chaukhamba, 2004, I, p. 17.

  38. MattF said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 6:02 pm

    It’s a common joke… but it’s not ridiculous:

  39. R. Fenwick said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 11:55 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: You can construct funnier English words by calquing the German component morphemes into their English cognates while disregarding semantic and/or idiomaticity differences that have arisen among the cognates over the millennia. Thus, z.B., "rechstswissenschaftliche" = "rightswittingshiply."

    I don't know if you know of Uncleftish Beholding, a fun essay by sci-fi author Poul Anderson that explains atomic theory using a hypothetical English heavily purged of non-Germanic stems; it's laden with just such calques. An excerpt:

    …Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff.

  40. R. Fenwick said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 12:23 am

    @MattF: perhaps true for some of the ideas in that article, but at least Erbsenzähler has an excellent single-word English equivalent – nitpicker – whose etymology is equally specialised.

    Also, two of the nouns the article gives are reasonably well-rendered by English adjectives: a Pantoffelheld is basically henpecked or (pussy-)whipped, and a Backpfeifengesicht is widely said in colloquial English to be punchable. The derived attributive noun punchability also exists:

    "We’re merely here to marvel at the sheer punchability actor Josh O’Connor manages to convey as the fictional Prince of Wales on Peter Morgan’s work of fiction, The Crown." (, 25 November 2020)
    "…he of high punchability often has a look that somehow scans as extra-privileged, a mouth seemingly born with a silver spoon in it." (, 11 July 2017)
    "…convergence about which figures are punchable is the pattern we’d expect if punchability displays some of the hallmarks of objectivity." (The Decadent Review, 13 March 2020)

  41. John Swindle said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    @Mike Grubb: I see! Thanks.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:57 am

    From Michael Witzel:

    Mark Twain also described German nominal compounds with the crossing of a mountain range: once you have crossed a range, the next one looms…

    NB: the same is of course true for Sanskrit compounds. Once I read one that covered a whole page, and a South Indian pandit/priest who visited our Dept. some 20 years ago, described a town in Sanskrit, its harbor etc. — in one long compound that lasted for 5 minutes, to our growing amusement, — ending with: iti Boston-ākhyānagaram, “this is the town called Boston”. Same type of compounds of course in Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Victor surely has a number of officialese ones at hand, of the type ”China-People's [Republic's] TV…"

    The Danube Steamship example:
    though a possible compound, –see the Hamburg shop’s sign– looks like a joke formation to me. I know it as (with hyphens inserted by me):


    “Form for the claim of pension by a widow of a captain of the Upper Danube Steamship Company."

    Happy composing!

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    One can't expect that much quality control in a slapdash "listicle" like the one Matt F. linked to but Geisterbahnhöfe not only has an English equivalent, that equivalent ("ghost stations") is the most obvious literal equivalent of the German. To be fair, the earliest usage of "ghost station(s)" I was able to find in the google books corpus referring to abandoned stations in the NYC subway system did not predate the emergence of the Geisterbahnhöfe phenomenon in Berlin's subway system during the Cold War.

  44. Scott P. said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 10:58 am

    Coincidentally, just last week I was asking a group of friends, one of which was a native German speaker, whether there was a German word for a concept that I have never seen a formal term for, but which I sometimes call prenostalgia — the wistful recollection of something that hasn't happened yet. For example, looking forward to a vacation leads to thinking about coming back from the vacation, and anticipating the sadness one will feel when it has ended, before one has even gotten on the plane.

    Also thought I should mention the other language that has the same reputation for lexical richness, at least among Classicists: Ancient Greek, which also 'has a word for everything,' at least compared to other ancient languages such as Latin.

  45. David Marjanović said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:30 pm

    Though intriguingly, it turns out there actually is a single Google hit for German Bananenausrutsch "banana tripping, slipping on a banana", from this posting in a manga fan forum:

    No, the author just couldn't find the hyphen key on the keyboard; the existence of Bananenausrutsch- und Lochgrab-Geschichten does not imply the existence of a noun *Bananenausrutsch, or indeed of *Ausrutsch which doesn't exist either; neither does it imply the existence of a noun *Lochgrab, which would after all have to mean "hole grave"/"hole tomb". These ad-hoc compound nouns are based directly on the verbs ausrutschen "slip & fall" and graben "dig".

    Your translation of the sentence as a whole is accurate, however.

    wouldn't "Faculty of Jurisprudence" be a fairer translation?

    What's really going on here is that "science", Wissenschaft*, is never restricted to just the natural sciences in German. The humanities, for example comparative literature (vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft), are Geisteswissenschaften, "mind sciences": you make and test hypotheses in the humanities, so of course they're sciences. The same holds for the study of law.

    * literally "knowledgeship"…

  46. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 8:29 pm

    Ralph Rosen, professor of ancient Greek, couldn't think of a word for "prenostalgia" in that language.

    Joe Farrell comments:

    I can't think of a word for "prenostalgia," either, but I wonder if there is a word for the general phenomenon of not being able to fully appreciate something (like one's home) because one knows that it won't endure (because one will have to leave home someday).

    Some of the Greeks are actually celebrated for their appreciation of the transience of certain conditions or experiences, which may be a species of the above.

    On the "restored" pronunciation of Latin in England, here is a paper that might be interesting. I have read somewhere that some felt that the character of ancient Latin poetry especially couldn't be properly appreciated if one didn't pronounce it more or less as the author did. When the English became aware that Shakespeare's English didn't sound like Oxbridge or the BBC, I don't know.

  47. David Marjanović said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 3:36 am

    here is a paper

    The link got lost.

  48. Tom Dawkes said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 7:29 am

    @Joe Farrell. The pioneering phonetician Daniel Jones has a Shakespeare text in reconstructed Elizabethan pronunciation in one of his books published in the 1950s (I read it as a schoolboy in the early 1960s) and David Crystal has investigated Elizabethan pronunciation for publication and for performance, with his 'The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation'.

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 7:53 am

    I have a feeling that this is the book of which you are thinking, Tom — could you confirm or deny, please ?

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 15, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    In regard to Joe Farrell's comment: It's also sometimes said that knowing something won't endure makes one appreciate it more instead of taking it for granted.

    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

    Not being a classicist, I don't know a locus classicus for either view.

  51. Hans Adler said,

    October 18, 2021 @ 9:03 am


    "I wonder why 'Stelldichein' is singular/casual where "rendezvous" is plural/formal. Seems clumsy to me."

    I guess the main reason is that "Stelldichein", like the original "rendez-vous", has three syllables. Translating the phrase more pedantically as "stellen Sie sich ein" would have resulted in the unwieldy five-syllable word "Stellensiesichein". Google actually found this word in Ferdinand Kleophas' 1843 book "Schauernovellen", in a story called "Die neue Griseldis". All other Google hits for this word are technical artifacts.

    I would also guess that already in the 19th century, when two German speakers had a rendez-vous, they were likely to have switched to the informal mode of address already — at least when speaking under four eyes. The decline of the formal mode of address has been slower in German than in Dutch or the Scandinavian languages, but probably still faster than in French.

  52. Philip Taylor said,

    October 18, 2021 @ 10:49 am

    "when speaking under four eyes" — this is, I assume, a direct translation of a common German phrase which has no direct English equivalent. Would I be correct in thinking that it means (effectively) "when unobserved" ?

  53. Hans Adler said,

    October 19, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Yes, "unter vier Augen" (under four eyes) is a German idiom used for private conversations involving only 2 people (hence 4 eyes). It seems I am getting negligent about avoiding Germanisms when writing in English. For some reason I thought English has the same idiom. Thanks!

    In my defence, Spanish has "ante cuatro ojos", Italian has "a quattrocchi", Polish has "w cztery oczy" and French and Portuguese have precisely equivalent phrases built differently ("seul[e] à seul[e]" and "a dois"). So I could pretend that I was trying to fix a deficit of English…

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