German word of the day: die Not

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While hanging up the laundry today, my son started singing the song “Hänsel und Gretel”.  With the Halloween season upon us, witches have been on his mind and he seems to sing it at least once a day.  Of course, I know the tale and I know the lyrics to the song, but I realized that while I understood the song, I actually didn’t really know the meaning of the word Not.

Hänsel und Gretel verliefen sich im Wald.
Es war so finster und auch so bitterkalt.
Sie kamen an ein Häuschen von Pfefferkuchen fein.
Wer mag der Herr wohl von diesem Häuschen sein?

Hu, hu, da schaut eine alte Hexe raus!
Sie lockt die Kinder ins Pfefferkuchenhaus.
Sie stellte sich gar freundlich, o Hänsel, welche Not!
Ihn wollt sie braten im Ofen braun wie Brot.

Doch als die Hexe zum Ofen schaut hinein,
ward sie gestoßen von unser’m Gretelein.
Die Hexe musste braten, die Kinder geh’n nach Haus,
nun ist das Märchen von Hans und Gretel aus.

As it turns out, die Not is a pretty complicated word!  Dict.cc has the first noun entry as “distress” and so of course several examples abound for any synonym you could think of.  But then there are others delightfully not so obvious.  I like the idioms “ohne Not”, meaning without good cause, or “zu Not” for in a pinch.  From the pleasing “Not-Aus” meaning kill switch to the strangely specific “Not-Aus-Pilzdrucktaster” meaning emergency mushroom-shaped push button to the curious “Tag der Not” meaning rainy day (which Martin has never heard of) or “Retter in der Not” for white knight.  And when you’re desperately chasing after anyone with a heartbeat, your friends might describe you as “notgeil”

I often end up learning a bit of English while looking up German words, and I discovered a gem of an English word this time around.  I learned that “in Not” could be translated into “straitened”, meaning not having enough money.  But I digress.  I decided to put my new-found knowledge to work and concocted this little tale:

Ein Tag der Not
Wir hatten mit Mühe und Not genug Geld, um ein Taxi nach Hause im stürmische Wetter nehmen.  Als wir in den Aufzug stiegen, drückte mein Sohn, ohne Not, den Not-Aus-Pilzdrucktaster.  Wir steckten für einige Zeit fest, bevor unsere Retter in der Not, der Aufzugtechniker, uns rettete.  Er sagte, dass der Tag der Not diese Verzögerung verursacht.  Zum Glück wurden wir nicht für seine Dienste berechnet, sonst wären wir wirklich in Not!

(We just barely had enough cash to take a cab home in the stormy weather.  As we got into the elevator, my son, without cause, pushed the emergency halt button.  We were stuck for sometime before our white knight, the elevator technician, rescued us.  He said that the rainy day caused his delay.  Luckily we were not charged for his services, otherwise we would have really been without money.)

And so let’s return to the song my son was singing.  By now you might see, “Welche Not!” cannot be literally translated into something like “What distress/hardship/emergency/dire strait!”.  I saw somewhere online that someone had translated it into “What trouble!” which sounds clunky in this context where we, the audience, have the feeling we should try to warn Hänsel of danger, rather than merely exclaim to our neighbor about it.

And now, my translation for Hänsel und Gretel:

Hansel and Gretel found themselves lost in the woods.
It was so dark and so bitter cold.
They come upon a little house of gingerbread so fine.
Who could be the owner of such a little house as this?

Oh look, out comes an old witch!
She beckons the children into the gingerbread house.
She seems to be quite friendly, but oh Hansel, watch out!
She would like to bake him in the oven, as brown as bread.

But as the witch looks into the oven,
Our little Gretel pushes her in.
So the witch bakes as the children go back home.
And thus ends the tale of Hansel and Gretel.

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