When is a car not a car?

May 18, 2012, 17 Comments

When is a car not a car? When it’s in Switzerland, of course, where it’s something else completely. As this photo shows, the parking space marked CAR is either for the longest, largest limo in the world or it’s for a Swiss car – a coach. An English friend of mine found out the hard way what happens when you park in the space marked CAR. It is the most logical place for an English speaker to park and she was quite proud to have spotted the space marked specially for car drivers. Never mind that the space was possibly a little too big for most normal cars  – she thought everyone had to park side-by-side along the marked area. All she got for her efforts was a ticket for parking in the space reserved for coaches.

The moral of the story is: never trust a false friend. Unfortunately for English speakers living abroad there many false friends tempting you to believe them. In previous posts I’ve written about Swinglish, where words such as mobbing and handy take on new meanings, or the use of almost English in everyday life, for example Bling-Bling and Glamour-Beauty, or even how mispronunciation can lead to serious embarrassment (for me and Jesus at least). But there are also countless examples of words that are totally acceptable in German but lead an English speaker up the garden path. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Gymnasium is a place of learning not exercise
  • Fotograf is the person not the picture
  • Mist is not light fog but manure
  • A Gift shop sells arsenic rather than old lace
  • The Chef doesn’t cook but runs the whole company

There are many others that always get mixed up – a sensibel person is usually not that sensible (but sensitive), and winken is to wave not to wink, while wanken is to stagger or waver not…

And other languages are not exempt either, with sensible also being a common problem in both French and Italian. When struggling to get by in Romandie, you have watch out for the likes of coin, bras, raisin, and librairie, all of which look comfortingly familiar but actually mean something else (corner, arms, grape, and bookshop respectively). Sale is a great example as it’s often used in Switzerland to get over the problem of needing ‘Sale’ signs in different languages; sadly it means dirty in French and salt in Italian. No wonder many shops just hang a big % sign instead.

So what are your pet pitfalls, either as an English speaker abroad or someone grappling with English vocabulary? Have you said that you want to ‘become a book for your birthday’? Do you think that aktuell actually means actual? Are your appointments written down in your agenda? They are mistakes we all make or hear and the only thing we can do is learn from them.

Now it’s lunchtime and I wish you a good appetite. Or something like that.



17 Comments on "When is a car not a car?"

  1. Jestyn Friday May 18th, 2012 at 12:30 PM · Reply

    Eventuell is my favourite – “Possibly” in German and French, not “Eventually”.

    I’ve seen even very senior equity analysts who write in English for a very well paid living get that one wrong.

  2. Gianluca Friday May 18th, 2012 at 01:35 PM · Reply

    After the military service, I’ll go to university in Scotland, this year. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of this misunderstandings!

  3. T Martin Lesh Friday May 18th, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Reply

    Fart – Which in German/Swedish etc translates to Speed or Fast ( as in go fast ) Try keeping a straight face the first time someone starts talking to you about his/her fartauto .

    BTW ; I sure am going thru the ringer here in the US trying to purchase your book Diccon ( from B&N ) Hopefully it’ll come sometime soon ( been waiting over a month now )

    • Martin Friday May 18th, 2012 at 04:51 PM · Reply

      There is actually no German word ‘fart’. … And how dare you to put German and Swedish into the same pot! .. Or did you actually mismatch Sweden with Switzerland!? :-O What would be the most über-american stereotype for centuries, so much that I could hardly take you seriously! Thanks for the laugh.

      • T Martin Lesh Monday May 21st, 2012 at 03:01 PM · Reply

        Ahem ! The wife my good man . Both a Linguist by trade – a German scholar ( Goethe Germany ) as well as an internationally recognized German translator . Fart most certainly does exist in the German language . Read an issue or two of SportAuto or Auto Motor und Sport . Ask a German Austrian Swiss how they denote ‘ fast ‘ when speaking of cars etc . They use it all the time . And in case you didn’t know this ….. Swedish ( as well as Norwegian Danish etc ) are all GERMANIC languages : being very linguistically related ( my linguist wife is having a real good giggle over my shoulder at your ignorance on this matter as i type this )

        • swisslady Tuesday May 22nd, 2012 at 10:09 PM · Reply

          Being swiss and have never lived anywhere outside of Switzerland I have to admit I have never in my life heard of a german word called “Fart”. Never.

        • jpr Thursday May 31st, 2012 at 12:17 AM · Reply

          As native German Speaker I would also never have heard of ‘Fart’ as individual word, nor as it being used to describe Cars.

          The first alternative I can imagine here is ‘Fahrt’ which would describe the driving around in a car (which might be slow or fast, depending on a number of other conditions).

          The original adverb your looking for anyway is ‘schnell’ which then translates into ‘fast’. So maybe we had some kind of double over here?

        • Jonas Tuesday July 24th, 2012 at 03:22 PM · Reply

          I agree with the previous two!

  4. Martin Friday May 18th, 2012 at 05:11 PM · Reply

    BTW: The German ‘Mist’, when used in its metaphorical meaning, is also the less offending usage in place of ‘Scheisse’ (English: shit). So if you want to be a bit more cultivated, you can say: “Das ist mist!” instead of “Das ist scheisse!” (used as an adjective here!), or “So ein Mist” instead of “So eine Scheisse!”, or very simple: “Mist!” instead of “Scheisse!”.
    Over the last years, some people say now “Scheibe!” (glass … in the form of a window) when they actually want to say “Scheisse!”. One reason for this is of course it looks almost the same way as the original, and (!) the ‘b’ looks almost the same way as the German sharp ‘s’: ß. And since in Swiss German the sharp S is not used at all, it is a very easy way to stay educated, when your mood is not 😉

  5. Nick Saturday May 19th, 2012 at 09:09 AM · Reply

    Beamer – it sounds English, every English speaker in a German-speaking country knows what it means and it’s so much shorter than “projector”. It’s perfectly normal for two English speakers to discuss “beamers” amongst themselves and it becomes embedded in your English. Yet if you turn up outside of the Germanosphere and speak of beamers, you’ll just get blank looks or a Star Trek joke in response.

    • T Martin Lesh Monday May 21st, 2012 at 03:04 PM · Reply

      Ahem ( again today )

      Bimmer = BMW auto
      Beemer = BMW motorcycle ( notice thats spelt with two E E’s … not ea )

      In All languages I might add

  6. Nicole Saturday May 19th, 2012 at 02:37 PM · Reply

    As one of the only anglophones at my workplace I often get asked for translations, and I am ok until it comes to French slang or expressions that just don’t translate… Today my supervisor wanted to know how to say “vous allez pédaller”, but in the sense “you will get very busy and have to work hard to keep up” but in one word… suggestions? You will pedal? And my co-workers are all looking at me expecting some brilliant answer.

    • Jonas Tuesday July 24th, 2012 at 03:26 PM · Reply

      It’s sink or swim?
      Can’t think of anything better atm…

  7. Kathy Friday May 25th, 2012 at 01:53 PM · Reply

    For “vous allez pédaller” perhaps “slammed.” As in “The dinner rush hit and the line was totally slammed.” Too slangy? Too American?

    • diccon Friday May 25th, 2012 at 04:28 PM · Reply

      Far too American. Never heard that before. Slammed meaning busy?

  8. Kathy Friday May 25th, 2012 at 01:56 PM · Reply

    re: Mist. So what’s the deal with the Mistkratzerli? Mmm. Tasty baby chicken?

  9. Alex Saturday August 29th, 2015 at 04:32 PM · Reply

    Yes, I noticed CAR outside the Neuchâtel train station. Also took a similar photo of it. But on reflection,
    it’s a French word. In Québec they say CHAR to mean car, which also translates in English as CART, as in horse and cart. (or do we say CARriage?) So who’s more bizarre?

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