• 2004-08-09

I half-misquoted Adolf Muschg in the last post; at the very least, I was being imprecise. His actual words were “[Die Rechtschreibreform] ist unnötig wie ein Kropf.” Unnötig (unnecessary), not überflüssig (superfluous). Former German federal president Roman Herzog, however, did call it “überflüssig wie ein Kropf” (as superfluous as a goiter).

Meanwhile on Language Log, Eric Bakovic examines related expressions that apply to people experiencing a certain superfluity, namely (feeling like) “the (third/fourth) fifth (sixth/seventh …) wheel”. This one translates very well into German and French if we add some sort of vehicle: “être la cinquième roue du carrosse / du char” or “das fünfte Rad am Wagen sein”.

For German, I remember the number half-jokingly being raised to six or seven, given that a typical car has a steering wheel and a spare wheel. Google hits for “das … Rad am Wagen”:

  • dritte: 334
  • vierte: 61
  • fünfte: 2,140
  • sechste: 6
  • siebte: 7
  • achte : 2
  • neunte: 2

A remark on the, to me, surprising results for numbers three and four. A lot of the examples that show up on Google refer to the idea, very common in Germany and maybe elsewhere, that you should never go out in groups of three (because one will feel left out, like the, well, it can’t be the fifth wheel, can it, if there are only two others involved); those for four often run along the lines of are you sure you are not lacking the fourth wheel of the car — a new-to-me equivalent of the English being one brick short of a load (one can short of a six pack, one station short of a tube map, two bits short of a byte … just go here for inspiration).

The missing fourth wheel image is probably a variant of ein Rad ab haben (lacking one wheel; literally, having one wheel off, but English just doesn’t do haben/have + NP + Adj/Adv/particle very well, I think). Other German equivalents are the traditional eine Schraube locker haben (having a screw loose), nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben (lacking some cups in the cupboard) etc.

French, too, admits adding a few wheels beyond five. A particularly expressive example:

  • Déjà que je me sens souvent comme la cinquième voire septième roue du carrosse, mais la c’est le summum, je me suis fait chier comme un rat mort. (link)

No, I can’t offer a good translation of this. I was bored out of my mind like a dead rat just doesn’t cut it.

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