Tag Archives: pronunciation

German Series : Poltergeist


This week I’m taking a brief look at a word the Germans gave us – poltergeist (pronunciation here). It’s compounded from two sources – poltern, the German verb to knock and geist which means spirit.

Thanks to horror movies galore you’re probably familiar with poltergeists moving objects, odd odours, and strange noises – quite literally things that go bump in the night, often targeting one particular living person or place. The idea is common across many cultures and are often explained by gusts of wind, earth tremors, and animal pests.

Reports of poltergeist activities date back to the 1500s but the word only entered English in 1838, probably aided by the upsurge in interest in all things occult thanks to the spiritualist movement. In German the term translates as a “rumble ghost”.

The word poltergeist appears regularly in the many writing of Martin Luther who famously started the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church in Europe. He may even have coined the word.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will be confused to hear that according to the Online Etymology Dictionary a poltergeist would be a boggart in Northern English dialect. I’m fairly sure a prank-playing poltergeist like Peeves is pretty different to the shape-changing boggart featured in the stories. They might even find it faintly ridukulus (pun intended).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Keep a close eye out for the poltergeists,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



A German word to kick off 2017 on Wordfoolery

Hello and Happy New Year,

I generally post about unusual English words but I hope you’ll excuse me if I delve into German today, it seems appropriate for this particular week.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big QI fan, the quiz show of “quite interesting” facts formerly hosted by Stephen Fry but now under the excellent captaincy of Sandi Toksvig. You can find out more about the show here. I heartily recommend the spin-off podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish” by the show’s researchers.

I found this week’s phrase in one of the QI books, “1,411 Facts to Knock you Sideways” and it is Eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Something of a mouthful even with six years of learning German behind me, I have looked around for an audio pronunciation file and can’t find one. Try it slowly with me – “air-leg-enda¬† voll-milk-sow”. Well done!

It translates literally as an egg-laying wool milk sow, a creature that gives us ham, milk, wool, and eggs. It’s the perfect farmyard beast but isn’t the result of some dodgy genetic experiment. It’s actually the term for someone who can do everything. The equivalent English term is “Jack of all trades” but it doesn’t have the whispered after note “master of none”. The German beast actually can do it all and is typically applied to the female of the human species, a wonder-woman of sorts.

This amazing creature was mentioned as early as 1959 in poetry but it’s a fairly modern word and sometimes references technical devices that promise to do it all.

This week is the one when it’s hard to avoid articles and social media items about new diets, exercise regimes, career moves, and relationship advice designed to change our lives.

Remember that the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is an imaginary beast. By all means try out something new this year. Learning keeps us engaged with life. Getting outdoors and eating well will do you no harm. But if you start laying eggs it might be time to ignore the “New Year, New You” articles and put your feet up with a good book.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


It’s the way you tell ’em

When I was growing up a favourite television comedian of my mother’s was a guy (Frank Carson?) who ended each joke with “It’s the way I tell ’em” and a broad chortle. I didn’t think he was that hilarious really, but he was right in one thing, it is always less about the story or fact you’re communicating, and much more about how you do that. Otherwise there would be no novels or plays or article because haven’t all the great plots already been used? And don’t people repeat history everyday? Well they do, but each by adding their own quirks, which is great news for writers of fiction and nonfiction alike.

This post is brought to you by the word “anxiety” which may seem an odd choice for a writer who strives to be positive. However, it’s an example of the way I tell ’em. I learnt most of my reasonably large vocabulary (and acquired the nickname “dictionary” in the process) from my crossword and reading obsessed parents (thanks guys!) but the rest of it I gathered from my own reading, often of books which were a little too old for my age. In the absence of the time to go running for a dictionary all the time and only a rudimentary knowledge of phonetics anyhow, I surmised the meanings from the context (usually correctly) and the pronunciation from the same source (sometimes very erroneously).

Which is where anxiety comes in. I knew the word anxious and said it “anx – us” so I assumed that the word anxiety would be said “anx – et – tee”. Which was fine, and I continued reading the book. Many years later I had cause to use the word in conversation with teenage peers and the entire room fell around the place laughing at my mis-pronunciation. By this time I’d swopped my dictionary nickname for “Fool” (a mark of respect for my efforts to be the joker of the pack, not an insult as could be assumed). Nonetheless I was less than impressed and still to this day pause for a millisecond before saying the word anxiety.

Which perhaps is no bad thing. We need less anxiety in this world, not more. Oh and by the way, it’s said “anx – I – et – tee” but if in doubt – just say “worry”.