Thursday, March 22, 2012

Über and Other German Loanwords

"Oprah is so über rich!"
"Those boots are über-hot!"
"My car is über fast, not to mention über sleek."
"What an über-difficult exam that was!"

Outside of Germany, the word "über" has been used more than enough times in the media and by teenagers, young adults and those wanting to be part of the hip and in crowd. What does the word über mean and where did it come from?

Über is a loanword from the German language. It is both a prefix and a word in its own right. The letter "u" has an umlaut (two dots above the letter) when spelled. As a loanword in English, über is most often used to emphasize something, to say that something is big, superior or over the top, among other things. It über denotes an increase in quantity or elevation. Über can also mean elite, superior, predominant, over, and something in excess. The actual meaning of the word über will always depend on the context in which the word is used.  It is a widely used loanword in pop culture that is sometimes spelled in English as "uber" or "ueber" and appended to a word either with or without a dash.

Über's entrance into the English language

Credit is often given to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, for the introduction of the German term über into popular culture. Nietzsche used the word "Übermensch" in one of his philosophical writings in order to describe the more elevated state of being that men should aspire for in life. This was back in 1883. English playwright George Bernard Shaw, imported the term via his play Man and Superman (1903); the word "superman" being used at times as a translation for Nietzsche's "Übermensch."

Adolf Hitler was said to have used Nietzsche's "Übermensch" to describe the Aryan master race. Jewish American Jerry Siegel, a comic book creator, picked up the term and used it in "The Reign of the Super-Man," a short story he wrote in 1933. In Siegel's story, Superman was not yet a champion of good but an evil mastermind." Joseph Shuster, the man who illustrated Siegel's short story, worked with Siegel to revamp the Superman character. Finally, in June1938, the superhero Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics as a champion for peace and justice.

One Internet source attributes the entrance of über into the English language to a punk band in the 80s called Dead Kennedys. One of their songs is entitled "California Uber Alles." Another source credits the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer with popularizing the word über among the younger generation. The title character of the series, Buffy, together with her friends, had to fight Turok-Han vampires, nicknamed übervamps, in the final last season of the widely popular series. Print media outside of Germany have been using the word über for many years. Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stones and various fashion magazines have at one time or another used über in their articles. It was not uncommon to hear media-hungry American celebrity wannabes spewing über once in a while.

Is über über used?

The word über has evolved in its usage beyond Nietzsche's original intention. Unfortunately, borrowed words more often than not do not retain their subtleties when used within another language. The original word's real purpose is not fulfilled when transported to a different language.

From movies to television to newspapers and magazines, when people want to refer to something of great quantity, superiority or excess, they would at times use the word über. Some like to use the word über in place of the word super, hyper or mega. Constant use of über can become irritating. For example, hearing teens and young adults saying something is "über hot," "über fun," or "über cute" annoy a lot of people who believe that there are better words in the English language to use instead of the German über.

In fact, in 2005, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) included über in its Banished Words List for that year. Every year since 1976, LSSU comes out with a List of Banished Words. The words that make it to this infamous list are words that have been overused in media and elsewhere. People have been voting for the banishment of über for many years already. But it was only in 2005 that the German import landed on the Banished Words List. It seemed that people were just over the whole "replace all words synonymous to super, big, superior, and amazing with über."

Other German loanwords

Über is not the only German word that has crept into the English language. There are others that you may be using without knowing that it is part of the language from Deutschland.

Why borrow words? For the simple reason that some words in one language do not have an exact translation in another language. English borrows a lot of words from different languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. English, which is a Germanic language, borrowed quite a number of German words, mostly nouns, verbs and adjectives.

Some of the loanwords from the German language used in English communication today are:

Angst - anxiety or deep fear within one's self

Blitzkrieg - "lightning war" is the literal translation but used to mean fast strategy or swift offensive in English

Bratwurst - type of sausage

Delikatessen - shop selling prepared or ready-to-eat foods

Doppelgänger - a look-alike of another person

Frankfurter - another type of sausage

Gestalt - literally means "shape or form" but the word is used in psychology as well as philosophy to refer to wholeness as a result of individual concepts coming together

Gesundheit - translated as "health" but used instead of the phrase "bless you!" after a person sneezes

Kaputt - means broken

Kitsch - describes an item that is gaudy, cheap or sentimental

Kindergarten - translation is "children garden" but used in English to refer to a place or educational institution where young children begin their education

Poltergeist - a ghost that is noisy and disruptive ghost

Pretzel - salty food made from baked dough

Sauerkraut - a boiled cabbage dish

Wanderlust - a person's yearning to go places or travel

Zeitgeist - literal translation is "time ghost" but is used in English to describe the prevailing political and cultural trends of a particular time in history

These are but a few of the borrowed words from the German language. Borrowing words will continue to be the norm especially as the world grows smaller and smaller due to globalization and the Internet. Know which words in your language are borrowed and learn how to use them properly. That way, you neither misuse words nor über use them.


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