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March 1999

Daily Doubles II: More famous linguistic pairs

An article about word pairs in both the English and German languages.

A few years ago I wrote a column about “daily doubles,” idiomatic expressions that come in pairs. Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls them “siamese twins,” because you cannot use the individual parts separately without losing or changing the meaning. Examples include “flotsam and jetsam,” “lo and behold,” etc. Fowler’s doesn’t provide a technical term, so I must assume there isn’t any. In German as well as in English, the examples abound, so I figure it is time for “Daily Doubles: The Sequel.” Often, the pairings are of words with the same or similar meaning for emphasis: auf und davon simply means “gone for good,” aus und vorbei “all over with.” Sometimes you just double up the same word, as in über und über (all over, as in covered with something) or things happening Schlag auf Schlag (in quick succession). Working hand in hand is the same in German: Hand in Hand arbeiten. Mit Herz und Hand für eine Sache einstehen (to believe in something with heart and soul) means not just gushing about a project , but working strenuously to make it happen. To say a concept das hat Hand und Fuß (this has hand and foot) is a description of something solid, that will stand up to scrutiny. You can be fire and flame for an idea (Feuer und Flamme sein) if you see its rhyme and reason (Sinn und Zweck). Ross und Reiter nennen (name horse and rider) as the expression for “naming names” makes a certain sense. But why is swearing any oath called “Stein und Bein schwören” (swear stone and bone)? This phrase conjures up a rather sinister image of shamanistic ceremonies, in which an oath is taken on an ancestor’s tombstone over his remains. Some hardy hikers like to be outside in all weathers, or in Wind und Wetter (in wind and weather). A cross-country excursion, be it on foot or on horseback is said to be over stick and stone (über Stock und Stein). Extreme cold cuts through bone and marrow (durch Mark und Bein gehen), and so may a piercing scream or noise. Himmel und Hölle in Bewegung setzen (to move Heaven and Hell ) is an apt description of what you must occasionally undertake to get things done your way. A related phrase is von Pontius zu Pilatus laufen müssen (to have to run from Pontius to Pilate). On the face of it, it’s quite nonsensical, after all Pontius and Pilate are the same person, but this is how folklore describes a fool’s errand, especially if it is bureaucracy that sends you running. A fitting reaction to this kind of treatment might be spout abuse, which in German is called Gift und Galle spucken (spitting poison and gall). This tradition of alliterative coupling is so deeply rooted in the language that the device is still used by people who are payed to coin phrases. For instance, the German TV version of the “Antiques Roadshow” is called Kunst und Krempel (art and stuff). And further back, many literary titles were constructed along the same lines, but whoever named the German version of the film “Sense and Sensibility” Sinn und Sinnlichkeit (sense and sensuality) apparently suffered from a bad case of “Dumb and dumber” syndrome!

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