I like to muse about language almost as much as I like to eat cake. I love how it’s not a static system, how it’s in constant flux, how the meanings of words change over time, with all the potential perils that this may pose.
Just a few weeks ago, I read an English novel written in the 1930’s, and it was liberally peppered throughout with the word “gay”, used in its original sense. Nowadays, the term can no longer be employed to mean “cheerful and carefree”, at least not without causing confusion. Today’s youth jargon has given it yet another meaning: “This is so gay” signifies that something is decidedly “naff” or “uncool”.
Talking of which, about three decades or so ago, German kids requisitioned the word “geil” to mean “cool”. Originally, “geil” meant “horny” or “randy”, and so having it suddenly flying around the playground was not well received by the elders. Which only made it even more attractive, of course. Nowadays, people about ten years younger than me will freely exclaim, “das ist total geil!”, at least in informal situations, when something rocks their boat.
And while “geil” is not a word that is widely recognised by non-German speakers, the following one surely is: “Fräulein”.
Sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? But don’t you dare use it.
Let me explain. It is, of course, the direct equivalent of the English word “Miss”. Fräulein, however, started to fall out of usage in the 1970’s. This is also happening to “Miss”, which is gradually being replaced by “Ms”, but that trend started much later.
The reason for Fräulein’s demise is fairly obvious. It is the diminutive of “Frau”, which means woman, and so a Fräulein, literally, is a female who isn’t a woman yet. In the olden days, the term was used to refer to unmarried women, and since almost every female was married off by the age of twenty, it didn’t cause much consternation.
From about the sixties onwards, social conventions started to change, and it irked grown (but unmarried) women to be referred to as “little women”. As a result, the way of addressing adult females changed; Fräulein was purged from official documents, duly replaced with the word “Frau”.
But it seems that the rest of the world didn’t get the memo. This is partly understandable – the only time the non-German speaking world is ever confronted with the language is while watching a WW2 film, and these are positively rife with flaxen-haired Fräuleins dressed in nurse uniforms operating telephone exchanges and dancing the Zwiefacher with homesick one-legged soldier boys.
The trouble starts when tourists arrive in Germany, thinking that the way to chat up a sprightly German lass is by showing off all the German words in their vocabulary (minus, perhaps, a couple that even Prince Harry by now knows to be on the dodgy side) . And what better way to get the charm ball rolling than to brandish a linguistic dinosaur at the object of his attentions by calling her a “pretty Fräulein“.
Except, he doesn’t. More often than not, he will commit the even greater faux pas of pronouncing it something like “frowline”, which, to German ears, is an even littler little woman. So, now our hapless suitor has totally maxed out the patronisation factor. Will he ever come back from that? Unlikely. He’ll be talking to the hand, and making even better friends with his own that night, if he’s still bent on getting off.
So, is it ever OK to call someone a Fräulein? Yes, sure, it is. If you happen to have invented the time machine. If you’re an actor in a period drama. Or if you’re talking to a six year old. In fact, it’s absolutely fine to inflict it on children. But watch it with teenagers. The age of consent in Germany is 14, and a girl may well consider herself a woman at that age, so it’s probably best not to risk putting your foot in it.
How about your languages? Any amusing/contentious examples of words that have completely changed their meanings during your lifetime, or have fallen out of usage?
You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com