Language Matters: Why it’s not geil to call us Fräulein

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”.

Helga

I love Kim Hartman….

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

 

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90 thoughts on “Language Matters: Why it’s not geil to call us Fräulein

  1. bevchen

    The age of consent here is 14?!?! Really?!! I did not know that!!

    After my year abroad, I got a letter from Germany adressed to “Frau XX (my surname)”. My dad collected the mail, looked at this letter and asked me “Did you secretly get married while you were away?!”. When he was at school, they still learned that Frau means Mrs in all circumstances…

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      1. bevchen

        Umm.. in my office everyone is “per du”… but from what I gather that’s pretty unusual? Where I used to work my boss insisted in Sie, but he was also horrible in other way. Not sure what it’s like in a “real” office environment though…

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  2. Anna

    I – and I think not only I, in Russia – am having a hard time using the new (post-Soviet) official title for the…people. In USSR you usually addressed someone with ‘Comrade’ (without a gendered change) and not it’s changed to ‘Gospodin’/’Gospozha’. It’s supposed to be something like Mister/Missus, but actually is Lord/Lady, which…well, sounds very old in a country that basically had slave peasant labor 150 years ago, and where a lot of people are really poor.

    PS “das ist total geil!” – What? Four short German words when you could have used one double the length of this entire sentence? INCONCEIVABLE!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ah, yes, that must have been quite a change. When did that come in? 90s?

      Compound nouns are long, because the are… erm…compounds. That sentence did not require a noun of any kind.

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      1. Anna

        Yeah, when we stopped being USSR… now when people try to avoid the borderline inappropriate Lord/Lady (honestly it sounds RIDIC to a Russian ear bc most of the country only knew those words in the context of stories of rich and cruel barons whipping pre-teen peasant boys to death), they go with ‘young man’ or ‘young woman’ (molodoj chelovek/devushka) – to the point that my mother gets addressed as such, and she’s in her late 50s.

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      2. Anna

        It definitely is, but we (Russia; I) have failed to come up with an acceptable middle ground. I actually still use ‘comrade’ sometimes, and nobody takes the slightest offense.

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    2. Zyriacus

      We would have to go back in time some centuries, when the words “Herr” and “Frau” were the official form to address noble people – normal folks were “Kerl” and “Weib”. But the middle-class women of the 18th century were not content with that even and so they were called “Damen”.
      And re: to the lady’s comment of “geil” – we used at the relevant age to greet each other with the word “Wollust” (voluptousness) – preferably when overheard by adults, just in order to shock them. But that was way back in the late fifties.

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Yeah, I think it was the Cantonese. I believe that “old” does not have any negative connotations in Chinese, rather the contrary.
        Wasn’t there something about “devils” as well? Or is that an alternative translation to ghosts? So, is this still widely used?

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  3. TheLastWord

    Helga from ‘Allo! ‘Allo!

    I struggle with my “own” language. My own language became English many years ago….I suppose there are plenty of words that have fallen into disuse.

    Chap, Jumper (sweater).

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      1. TheLastWord

        I used to work with a Scottish lady (with a pronounced accent) and were ganging up on the locals here about herb / ‘erb, Except – she pronounced it “hairrrrb”…

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  4. Expat Eye

    Love this! I’ve never studied German but always thought fraulein was perfectly acceptable! But then I just say ‘krankenwagen’ a lot when I visit because it tickles me 😉 There’s some weird stuff going on in the UK at the moment – ‘allow’ means forget about it, ‘bare’ means a lot of… it was like a different language this year when I was there!

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  5. linnetmoss

    I love it when I learn something new about language. But the shocker was the age of consent! In the US it is typically 16 or 17, and in some states 18, though there are laws protecting partners close in age from prosecution if the activity is consensual.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, in Germany, there is some kind of upward age restriction, so a 25-year old can’t legally have sex with a 14-year old. They have a low teenage pregnancy rate, and it’s not common for 14-year-olds to engage in sexual activity. The police have better things to do than to chase after randy teenagers 😉

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  6. יונתן קסר

    I’m trying to remember where I saw it now, but Hebrew’s going through something similar in some circles – while I would address refer to my wife as “אישתי” (/eesh-tee/ – literally, “my wife”), she’d refer to me as “בעלי” (/ba’ah-lee/ – literally, “my master/owner”). There’s a movement to replace it with another term, which of course I conveniently can’t recall at the moment.

    And hey… *cough* you strangely have no skill points on Duo for this week…

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  7. Wanderlushh

    Have you read “The Years of Talking Dangerously” by Geoffrey Nunberg? If you’re interested in linguistics and language evolution it’s a great read! He talks all about how our languages shape our thoughts and how we, in turn, reshape our languages. Also, about the break down of languages through technology and how that is affecting the way we communicate.

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  8. catalinadelbosque

    I run a group of Girl Guides here in B’ham, the one I hear most is “sick” for cool. As in “I like your earrings, they’re sick!” I hate it, really really hate it.
    As far as the age of consent goes, nothing surprises me – another thing I love about living in Europe, so open minded compared to other parts of the world. It surprises me that in the US you can drive at like 15, kids are still idiots at 15 – at 17 for the UK they are still idiots but I think two years does make a difference at that period of time. I do however have a certain amount of reserve about voting at 16, from what I remember political theories weren’t taught at school, so when I turned 18 and had to vote in the 2001 general election I had no idea and just voted for who my parents vote for, I felt awful that I’d basically “thrown away” my first chance to be heard and now I always inform myself before going to the polling station – I’m not sure how many 16 year-olds would really take it seriously. But then, how many 16 year-olds would take it seriously enough to vote in the first place? Maybe this is the subject of an upcoming post on my blog… Great talking point started!

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  9. ourinheritance

    In my language (Amharic), the word “enattye” (literally “my mother”) is a term of endearment that you use for addressing a girl or a woman whose name you don’t know. It has grown in popularity throughout Ethiopia over the last ten years. Little girls and big girls and women all like it and prefer it to being call just “anchi” (you). But when recently I spoke to a woman about 40 with that word, she was offended. From that day on I am wary about calling women “enattye”.

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    1. Anna

      Oh yes, something similar is done in Russian too – really elderly men and women might be addressed as ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’ (and if you’re really young and they are REALLY old, then grandma/grandpa).

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Who’d have thought 😉
        I’ve heard it said that the Germans and the Japanese are similar with regards to their rigid conventions about politeness (especially within social/company hierarchies), and how easy it is to put your foot in by getting the smallest thing wrong.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Yes, to a very minor degree. The Portuguese were the first “western” foreigners the Japanese had contact with. The Japanese word for “thank you” is “arigatou” , derived from the Portuguese “obrigado”. And bread is “pan”. There’s plenty more examples. But apart from bits of vocab, there’s not been any influence in terms of grammar or structure.

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      3. ourinheritance

        Thank you for asking, Anna.

        Many Ethiopians believe that Alexander Pushkin’s grandfather or great grandfather is an Ethiopian.

        I have heard somebody say Ethiopian and Russian works of literature are alike in that both have “morbid interest in pain”.

        And just the day before yesterday, a friend of mine told me, reading Dostoyevsky’s “The Insulted and Humiliated” is just like reading about families in Gondar (a tribe in the north of Ethiopia whose language, Amharic, is now the official language of Ethiopia).

        I saw a video of an American comedian poking fun on the accents of different people. When he was doing the Russian accent which had the “y” sound in every word, like “Thiys trafyyk is unbelieviyable,” it sounded exactly like we imagine our people in the north would speak.

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      4. Anna

        Ugh, Dostoyevsky gives us a bad rep 😛
        This is really, really fantastic info, thanks so much!
        Re: Pushkin – yeah I think it’s pretty accepted here that he was 1/8th or so ‘African’ but there are disputes as to whether that was Maghreb or Ethiopian or some other descent.

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      5. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I get that. While in Germany, expressing undue familiarity is offensive, while keeping a distance is respectful. My mother has friends, usually former work colleagues she’s known for years and is still in touch with, and they still address each other with “Sie” (usted) instead of the familiar “Du”.

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      6. Anna

        Oh yes. I was raised very proper and it’s still jarring to me that I have to use the ‘tu’ form with my colleagues. I maintained ‘usted’ with my ex-brother in law who is 7 yrs my junior. Russia has gotten very informal…

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      7. ladyofthecakes Post author

        And more on-topic – we would never use the formal address when there’s family members involved. I think it was once the custom to address one’s mother (and other adults in the family) in the formal way, but that went out of the window a hundred years ago.

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      8. Anna

        HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
        Sometimes I love English and its simplicity.
        Was there ever a formal and an informal version of conversational ‘You’?

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      9. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Got this (off a site for kids):
        You may have been told that “thou” and “thee” were for familiar use, and “you” and “ye” were formal. This was not true originally, but it was true for about two centuries, roughly 1450-1650, including Shakespeare’s time. The previously plural “you” was used in the singular to signify politeness and respect, which left “thou” and “thee” for all the other singular uses, ranging from endearing intimacy to bitter rudeness. Eventually, the politer “you” drove out nearly all uses of “thee” and “thou”; they survived mostly in poetry and religion.

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      10. anonymous

        >The Japanese word for “thank you” is “arigatou” , derived from the Portuguese “obrigado”
        This is not actually true. The Japanese word “arigatou” is derived from the same root as the adjective “arigatai,” meaning grateful: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E3%81%82%E3%82%8A%E3%81%8C%E3%81%A8%E3%81%86#Japanese
        The idea that it’s taken from “obrigado” is a misconception based entirely on the similarity in the sounds; the Japanese have always been obsessed with politeness, so it’s a bit silly to think they’d take their word for “thank you” from a culture so uncouth that its members were often referred to as the “southern barbarians.” “Arigatou” is also always written in hiragana, which by convention would not be the case for a loanword. Besides, if “obrigado” was taken into Japanese it would likely become “oburigado;” Japanese has all of those sounds and only the consonant cluster would need to be changed.

        Sometimes words just look like other words for no reason. For example, the Japanese word for “name” is “namae,” but no one ever claims it’s derived from English despite that language’s huge influence on Japanese (in vocabulary, of course, not grammar).

        The word for bread does, however, come from Portuguese, as Japan is a rice-eating culture and so didn’t have any bread until the Portuguese brought it to them.

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    2. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Interesting! But also, I guess, we all have personal likes and dislikes. I have a (married) friend in the UK, who vehemently objects to being called Mrs (or Ms). She prefers to be just called by her name, without any title.
      Thanks for commenting, I love those little tidbits.

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  10. TBM

    You need to write books on this for people like me. I want to use the right words, but geez, it’s so hard keeping up. I also see queer a lot in older books. And I’m still getting used to hearing fag here in the UK.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes, fag! That got me into trouble once on a blog… (many years ago). Well, not really trouble, as it was clear from the context what I meant by it, but it started an interesting discussion. Now, communicating with an international audience, I avoid it, just in case. I wrote a post on cigarette smoking in Spain once, and even though I had initially included it, just to vary the vocab, I then edited it out.
      I still occasionally use queer, in its original meaning. In the UK, it’s still understood.

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      1. TBM

        I like the word queer since it’s original meaning is very apt in some cases. I actually don’t know how the meaning changed in the States. It’s a shame that there’s so much hate and discrimination in the world. Can’t we just get along.

        So if I write a book from an English perspective I can write queer? If I say it in a pub, I won’t get punched in the face?

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I think it depends on the context. The saying “(there’s nothing as) queer as folk” is still very much alive in the UK, so everybody knows the original meaning. But I guess it’s mainly older people who continue using it in that way.

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    2. Anna

      So true! Also my American friends get confused by how to address my parents. Well, my mom, really (dad’s very Americanized). Mom cringes at ‘Mrs. Belkina’ but for my friends it’s easier to cut out their tongues than pronounce ‘Lyudmila Vasiliyevna’.

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  11. barbedwords

    In Italy all this formal and informal malarky gets very confusing. If I say ‘ciao’ to someone, you can guarantee they’ll reply with ‘buongiorno’, putting me right in my place, yet if I say ‘buongiorno’, they’ll answer ‘ciao’. Grrrrr. I never know about the whole ‘lei’ and ‘tu’ thing either, I usually avoid it by speaking in incomplete sentences and always using the verb endings that go with I (basically, they’re the only ones I can remember!)

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It’s not so difficult in Spain… they have the same system, but the formal address is only used when talking to pensioners, or in formal business situations. As far as I gather.

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  12. Language Boat

    I enjoyed this tremendously! I would hope, however, that in general Germans would be somewhat forgiving to a foreigner who obviously isn’t fluent and blunders his attempt to be friendly!

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  13. Giovannoni Claudine

    Well, if you say “signorina” in Italy doesn’t make a big fuss… maybe down south people are easy going… but here in Switzerland, we have got the new habit to say “signora” “madame” or “Frau” so&so…. 😀

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  14. Rachel

    Strange thing is, I’m 18 and I think I’d feel very strange if someone addressed me as “Frau”. I agree that “Fräulein” is a bit patronising, and always puts me in mind of Maria from the Sound of Music, but “Frau”… no, that’s how someone would address my mother. If I’m going to be “du”, I shouldn’t be “Frau”, I think. No idea what I should be called, then, though. Perhaps “Rachel” shall just have to do as a form of address.

    On the matter of du/Sie, which has been discussed… I get in trouble for being overpolite sometimes. I’m not sure how this is a problem, or why I get in trouble for it, but it’s not just in German. In Gaelic, a language which still uses the polite “sibh” form for parents, I get told off for not using “thu” with complete strangers a decade or two older than me (it’s really noticeable, too. Gaelic uses prepositions all over the place instead of verbs, and all prepositions have to be conjugated into pronoun thingies. You can’t say “hello” or “goodbye” without conjugating a preposition, and I am apparently pathologically incapable of being informal in Gaelic). Maybe they don’t realise? Particularly if it’s on a forum or whatever. But it got to the point by the end of last year where my teacher told me to use “du”, and that freaked me out (and I still used “Sie”).

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  15. oleron3

    I believe zee French are debating when “Mademoiselle” is appropriate. In my opinion, it should not be used for female persons over the age of, say, 30, regardless of their marital status. When a (married) female colleague persisted in referring to me (a divorced woman, thus by vulgar definition not a virgin) as MADEMOISELLE, I switched gears and told all other colleagues they could henceforth refer to me as “Docteur.”

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Haha! It’s a tricky issue, this. Best to abolish it altogether… in German, there’s already tons of potential for putting your foot in it with regards to addressing people with “Du” or “Sie”…

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