I’m a linguistics geek.

You’ve been warned.


Languages borrow from and give back to each other in a constant ebb and flow of words and ideas that, often as not, reflect cultural shifts. 

English is, of course, a language made up of borrowed words.  It’s really a hash arising from the collision of two linguistic families – Anglo-Saxon languages descended from German and Dutch, and romance influences descended from the Norman conquest of Britain.  And American English is even more so – a melange of immigrant dialects (the southern drawl is a descendant of the Scots-Irish brogue the south’s original inhabitants brought over; the various New York and Boston dialects are combinations of Northern, Eastern and Southern European accents).

Of course, the booming success of American pop culture has meant that American English has given back to the world; the ascendancy and dominance of Americana has led to American-English words popping up in languages all over the world; “Okay” is found in a great many of the world’s languages, and considered perfectly acceptable usage, to denote that something is “Okay”; Japanese absorbed “Besoboru” and “Aisukurima” and “Disokujokii” for Baseball, Ice Cream and Disc Jockey, among many others.  This has led some nations – mainly France – to try to plug the hole in the cultural, linguistic dijk (there’s another!) to try, in vain, to “preserve” their language in its “pure” form.

Of course, American English has borrowed much in return, not just from immigration, but from its expansionist past – everything from “Boondocks” (from the Tagalog bundok, or “mountains”, brought back in the early 1900’s from the Philippines by US servicemen) to “pow-wow”, to “Jazz” among many, many others terms derived from the argot of Afro-American slaves. 

So it’s always interesting to watch new words getting borrowed. 

I started noticing the prefix “über-” popping up in my kids’ conversation four or five years ago; it is (says the guy with the undergrad German minor) a German modifying prefix meaning, roughly, “Super”.  “That was übercool!” became a common expression among the local Twilight-‘n-Jonas-Bros set.

Then, last fall, I heard it in a TV commercial for the first time, as I wrote in a piece I never got around to posting.  Which, as it turns out, is a good thing, since the piece has apparently taken the next step. 

What the “next step” exactly is, of course, is a matter for debate; it might be “on the brink of entry into the AP Style Guide”, or it might be “further proof of the decline of Journalism”.

Via Allahpundit, you be the judge:

With apologies to D.L. Hughley, it’s The One’s “Stefan Urquelle” moment.

…The president-elect, looking uber-cool  [sic] with his White Sox baseball cap on backwards, flipped the shaka to a crowd of about 30 people as he left a gym on a Marine Corps base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where he is vacationing.

AP goes on to ask: 

Does he really need the hat to attain uber-coolness [sic]? Being married to a “goddess” should be enough. And hey, nothing says creepy hip like a president who hits the gym every morning. Exit question: What other fashion conventions that have been passe for, oh, at least 20 years are we about to learn are “uber-cool”? [sic]  Obama should start wearing skinny ties just to dare the press to call him outmoded.

I’d be the last one to judge fashions, über-or-unter cool. 

But borrowing superlative modifiers from Germans?  The idea so über-fills me with angst, I’m verklemmt.

UPDATE: Viä Hässlingtön, I see I’ve förgötten certäin rüles aböüt ümläute

UPDATE 2:  Unless you are a highly-trained speaker of German or Finnish, do not try to pronounce all the words in the previous update correctly.  You could sprain your tongue.

28 thoughts on “Unterkühl

  1. If they write it as “uber,” ignore it, because (as you probably know) it means nothing.

    If, on the other hand, they write “ueber” (or, in very rare cases, manage to find a way of putting the umlaut over the “u”), I pay attention, because the person writing it seems to understand grammar and usage.

    (I write “ueber,” but then you knew that.)

    See, we can occasionally agree….

  2. I’m thinking it was a typo, Mitch, and they meant to write “looking guber-cool”; with guber simply being an text-message spelling for goober.” Spelling rules need to be relaxed in the age of txtng, OMG.

  3. heh, I just walked by a TV here, tuned to CNN, and the reporter is doing said story right now. I think he wants to hump Barry’s leg.

  4. Hass,

    You are, of course, correct. For the life of me, I can not find the ASCII alt-key combo for a capital ü, though.

     Yours in cross-cultural niggling solidarity,


  5. “You could sprain your tongue”

    And then you’d be talking like a Raving Rabbid for a few says. But that could be fun. 😉

  6. The English the Scots-Irish spoke when they arrived in the New World was the dialect spoken in the Lowlands and the Borderlands. Here’s an example from George MacDonald’s ‘Sir Gibbie”:

    “I ken no more about the w’ys o’ the place nor yersel’, Robert,
    though I’m thinkin’ they’ll be unco quaiet an’ sensible, seein’ ‘at
    a’ there maun be gentle fowk. It’s eneuch to me ‘at I’ll be i’ the
    hoose o’ my Maister’s father; an’ my Maister was weel content to
    gang to that hoose; an’ it maun be something by ordinar’ ‘at was fit
    for him. But puir simple fowk like oorsel’s ‘ill hae no need to
    hing down the heid an’ luik like gowks ‘at disna ken mainners.
    Bairns are no expeckit to ken a’ the w’ys o’ a muckle hoose ‘at
    they hae never been intil i’ their lives afore.”

  7. Terry,

    Yep. Now, wash that through 300 years of linguistic evolution, and I think you can see how it turned into the southern drawl we have today.

  8. H.L. Mencken suggested that the New England accent is closer to what the British accent was in the 17-18th centuries than today’s British accent, due to the fact that Americans are more conservative in linguistics than the Brits.

    And of course it’s written as “uber,” not “ueber.” We kids pronounce it “ooh-ber,” not with a correct u-umlaut (which I tried typing as “oorber,” but that’s not quite right) As Mitch said, attempting to pronounce an umlaut without training is dangerous.

  9. Y’all are over thinking this. Quikie pop-culture track-back of this phenom – The Dead Kennedy’s, Kalifornia Uber Alles. The kids that are using this today, the pop culture that is using this today – children of the Gen X. Gen X (also a ‘punk’ band, second wave – arguably – Generation X, Dead Kennedys putting out albums at the same time [blah blah] at least those in the disenfranchised ‘cool kid’ crowd of skaters, moshers, etc… later transforming into the ‘paloosa’ crowd once we deemed it okay to spend 20$ + on a concert ticket (as long as there were at least five bands) injected the mis-use of Uber into the contemporary American nomenclature right around 1986-ish or so. Our kids listened to us using it (with sarcasm and dread) as they sucked on their binkies (pacifiers) while we waxed nostalgic over the days of watching bootlegged copies of ‘Repo Man’ or were getting loaded listening to our tapes of ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’. Nothing complex, just the grind of intergenerational bastardization of the language. But it was cool, right? Burroughs (that old junkie beat queer)convinced us that language is viral and that cut-ups of literature (or language) is an art form.

  10. “We kids pronounce it “ooh-ber,” not with a correct u-umlaut…”

    Ah, yes…but then you put childish things away.

    I bet they got the pronunciation down perfect in the squad room these days, right stool?

  11. Yes, swiftee, all the cops speak German and are Nazis. Do you feel better now?

    Of course my point was it is generally non-German kids who are using “uber,” and therefore when describing this use it is proper to not use the u-umlaut, because those who are being referenced are not.

  12. “when describing this use it is proper to not use the u-umlaut, because those who are being referenced are not. “

    But when the kids are mispronouncing it, does that make a mis-spelling appropriate? Two wrongs doesn’t make a right.

  13. One thing to note, Mitch, is that actually the Japanese are MORE pedantic about preserving their ‘language’ than I would suppose any other language I’m familiar with – which is less than you. I’d say the Japanese are more ethno-centric linguistically, than say, France.

    Besuboru – for example, is spelled with Katakana – the Japanese alphabet for foreign words – they refuse to adapt their main alphabet Hirigana for that purpose and, L’s and V’s are NOT incorporated. They’ll take on a word that SOUNDS LIKE the foreign word, but will NOT say the word as it is written, instead modifying it using the special ‘this is a foreign word’ alphabet to denote the fact that it’s ‘gaijin’.

    That’s why elevator is Erebata – and Lobby is Roby. The desire to maintain purity extends to refusing to learn how to, or to incorporate, the L and V sounds, even in foreign words they adapt.

  14. Penigma,

    All correct as re Japanese.

    As far as incorporating L and V words – every language has sounds that make speakers of other languages scratch their heads and try to improvise. The Dutch “ui” – which has an “Aeoü” sound, like Paul Lynde with a backache – vexes Americans (as it did me, when I was trying to learn the Dutch national anthem). Americans struggle with rolling their R’s in the German style (done against the soft palate, usually, rather than with the tongue against the dental ridge, like in Mexican Spanish), or doing the palate-scraping “Ch” sound for words like “Bach”. Don’t get me started on French.

    On the other hand, trying to get Germans to pronounce a soft “v”, or the French a soft or hard “th”, makes for hours of entertainment.

  15. Tolo:

    LOL! (another one that’s hard to say with a sprained tongue)


    I believe that word is “Tykkihüöülyykäaä”

  16. Mitch advised: “I believe that word is ‘Tykkihüöülyykäaä'”

    I got me one of those at IKEA. Holds all my CDs and makes great espresso! Not sure what to do with this part, though…

    Woohoo! Bonus bidet!

  17. “Woohoo! Bonus bidet!”

    So you use your new espresso machine to wash your ass…..we’d have never guessed AC.

    Do you make chili in the crapper?


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