What does "FER-MAY-GHEN" mean?
February 19, 2011 5:47 PM   Subscribe

German speakers, please tell me what this word means (and how it's actually spelled).

My father's parents were German immigrants in St. Louis, and he spoke German as a child before learning English in school. When I was growing up, my father used a lot of German words and phrases that we called "Mirtsching (our surname) words."

For instance, "Jahrmarkt," meaning an annual market or fair, referred to something crowded and full of people that was more trouble than it was worth -- "Ach, that place is such a Jahrmarkt, I'd rather stay home."

The word we pronounced "fer-may-ghen" referred to my father's workbench in the garage. We expanded it to mean anybody's particular place where they worked or made things, like my mother's sewing room. "Safety pins? Probably in mom's fermayghen."

Do you know the proper spelling of the word or phrase? And what does it really mean?
posted by Srudolph to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing I can come up with is Vermögen, which means fortune (like, lots of money) but also asset. A bit of a stretch, but family words do that for you, right?
posted by Namlit at 6:00 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was going to say the Same Thing. Maybe it was a word in Low German or some local dialect?
posted by chillmost at 6:05 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds really, really Yiddish to me. That would also explain why it would be hard to look up, because of the alphabet. But I assume you would have mentioned if your family spoke Yiddish as well?

I will ask family members who speak Yiddish.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:11 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

It wasn't Vermogen, as the middle syllable was pronounced "may." Not Yiddish, either -- my family is Lutheran.
posted by Srudolph at 6:31 PM on February 19, 2011

fur machen means "for making", which would make sense with the workbench, but it is pronounced differently (pretty much how it is spelled).
posted by misha at 6:43 PM on February 19, 2011

vermögen (fehr-mergen) - property?
posted by zippy at 6:46 PM on February 19, 2011

ach, should have previewed
posted by zippy at 6:46 PM on February 19, 2011

If it's regular German, the 'may' sound would be 'mä' as in mädchen (maiden)
posted by zippy at 6:49 PM on February 19, 2011

Um, might it be "Werkbank"? (Or even Werkbänke?)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:29 PM on February 19, 2011

"Werkbank" doesn't fit the pronunciation. It's pronounced with a 'v' sound, not an 'f,' and it rhymes with 'ankh' not the English 'bank.'

Just transliterating it would be something like "vermägen," but that's not a word. Neither is "mägen" by itself, so that rules out "für mägen" or the like.

fur machen means "for making"

That would be "für machen" although the grammar there is a bit questionable. I could see that if his dialect or pronunciation were a kind of German/English blend with "machen" pronounced more like "making" with the -g cut off.
posted by jedicus at 7:52 PM on February 19, 2011

The word appears four times in this Google Books version of Fritz Reuter's collected works, vols. 10-12.

The wikipedia article on Reuter states that anything he wrote that was not in standard German was written in Low German or Plattdeutsch.

So I think it is Plattdeutsch for the standard "Vermögen," based on how I presume it is used on the page I linked to:

"Dat 'ch ahn Vermägen starben möt"

Which I take to mean something like "Dass ich ohne Vermögen starben möchte," or: "that I might die without possessions."

If your grandparents were from northern Germany, this seems like a likely dialectical origin and translation (although I cannot personally rule out other dialects in other regions using the same pronunciation).
posted by edguardo at 9:14 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and for the record: Mägen is the plural of Magen.

So considering the delightful versatility of the "ver" prefix, "vermägen" could be re-purposed to mean any number of interesting gastrointestinal group activities.
posted by edguardo at 9:25 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where did your parents come from? In some German dialects, the ö is pronounced suspiciously like 'long a' in English. For those speakers, Vermögen would be pronounced pretty close to the way an English speaker would pronounce fer-MAY-gen.

(And if I recall, the ö='long a' dialects fall more in the Lutheran parts of the German-speaking world, so it's at least plausible.)
posted by flug at 9:34 PM on February 19, 2011

Maybe "vermeiden" - to avoid? Maybe others were supposed to avoid dad's workbench?
posted by plantbot at 9:52 PM on February 19, 2011

This isn't going anywhere. Let's start from a different angle: where was your dad from? Any residues of a local accent you know of?

Other than that, "fer-may-ghen" is really difficult to break down into much else in German than what's been done here:

First one would need to know if you still used the German der/die/das before fermayghen, or "the".

Other than that, fer could be "ver", "fer", if lengthened "fehr" or "fähr"; perhaps vier. (note that the letter "v" in all these examples is pronounced like "f"). Any possible mis-hearing, or mis-remembering would here probably influence the "r" which could be an "l" instead. Doesn't strike me as an option, though.

may is difficult because the precise perception of vowels across the languages is always problematic, and because any dialect would probably strike here most of all. So perhaps "mö", "mä", "mei" "mai" [both pronounced in the same way], "meh", "mäh", but I really have no clue. In some dialects, the pronunciation might go toward "may" in "Vermögen". Perhaps I'm wrong, but I'm thinking of East Prussian accents.

Now,"gen" is a very frequent German last syllable, pronounced something like ghen, so I see no problem here.

A cow, has four stomachs, vier Mägen. But what difference does that make...
posted by Namlit at 1:46 AM on February 20, 2011

I think edguardo is onto something. Also, my smarter-than-me German girlfriend says he's probably right.

Many Germany speakers use a few low German words here and there in the everyday language. Up north we all say "moin" (Good morning or hello). People in your parents generation may have used more because just because it was more common.
posted by chillmost at 2:45 AM on February 20, 2011

(just 2 minor non-essential corrections to edguardo's thoughts. First, Plattdeutsch "möt" means "muß", must. And second: that versatility of "ver" stops pretty much when it is combined with nouns that can't be turned into verbs. So, Wurst could be turned into wursten. Verwursten, turn into sausage meat, is okay. Magen can't be turned into a verb that illustrates what a stomach does, or what is done to a stomach. That would be verdauen, digest, instead, but not vermägen. Sorry.)
posted by Namlit at 3:09 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just asked my German ex, who's from Bavaria, and his thought is also that it's related to "Vermögen" as a noun (a person's assets or estate), and/or "vermögen" as a verb ("to be capable of"). He adds that "für machen" -- "(in order) to make" -- might be a Northern variant of "zu machen."

Being Jewish myself, and having lived in Munich for 3 1/2 years and seeing how language gets pulled and stretched like taffee (into Yiddish as well as Bavarian), my guess, along with that of others here, is that it's a variant of Vermögen, with the ö sound (say the letter "e" but shape your mouth like an "o") stretched out into an ä sound (similar to how we say the letter "a").

I also agree that finding out exactly where your grandparents were from would help you get to the bottom of this.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 5:18 AM on February 20, 2011

THis is terrific! Thank you all.

@edguardo, we never used the article; just "dad's fermayghen." My grandmother was born in a small town called Indija, about 45 minutes northwest of Belgrade. Her people were German speaking, and immigrated to the states when she was 12. I remember my father saying that her family made a point of their name being von Germaty, implying aristocratic pretentions, though he believed they had been more or less peasants. She spoke idiomatic, unaccented English as an adult, though she always pronounced "sink" as "zink," and referred to hair in the plural.

I don't know exactly where in Germany my grandfather's people came from, though it was probably what later became East Germany. His grandfather had immigrated to the US in, I believe, the 1880s. My father applied in the 1950s for some government position that required a security clearance, but was turned down because he had second or third cousins in East Germany (whom he didn't know).

@plantbot, as kids we were, indeed, under orders to keep out of daddy's fermayghen. The phrase used, in fact, was "Botcha veck!" meaning "Hands off!" Other Mirtsching words and phrases (given phonetically):

"Shtay-burr" (to rummage around in, or be occupied with something, as in "Where's dad?" "I think he's out shtaybering in his fermayghen.")

"Burr-sharen" (the ceremony of opening presents at birthdays and Christmas)

"Way-way" (a child's small injury, like "boo-boo")

"Ronker-ronker" (gentle rough-housing, as when a father is on his hands and knees on the living room rug, and his three little kids climb all over him)

"Gunkz" ("u" as in "put," ungentle rough-housing, as in "You kids quit that gunkzing up there!" yelled from the bottom of the stairs)

"Sarma feer dee arma" (a broth soup served with boiled potatoes, noodles, rice, and barley)

"Geltshizer" (somebody wasteful of money)

"Fuschy" ("u" as in "put," messy or dirty)

"Flawden" (a small crumb or piece of lint, as in "Wait -- you've got a flawden on your chin.")

"Frupm" ("u" as in "put," the "m" pronounced as a glottal stop; meaning a small protuberance on something, as in "What's this frupm here?")

"Futzla" (my father's endearment for my sister as a small child)

"Klexie" (a smear of dirt or unauthorized substance, as in "You washed this fork? Then what's this klexie here?")
posted by Srudolph at 6:23 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I particularly like his use of "Geldscheisser" = someone who shits money.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:33 AM on February 20, 2011

Stöbern is to rummage. So that seems to suggest a transformation of ö to ay, i.e. Vermögen becomes Vermaygen. Geltshizer would be Geldscheisser. I don't recognize any of those other words. I'm also at a loss to say how exactly Vermögen relates to a work-bench. And unfortunately Grimm's Dictionary seems to be having server problems at the moment.
posted by creasy boy at 8:33 AM on February 20, 2011

Botsha = Patscher = dialect for clumsy hands (more like paws)

Klecks = a spot (of food or paint or something)

Weh-weh is indeed a boo boo!
posted by Omnomnom at 8:39 AM on February 20, 2011

Oh and "burr sharen" = die Bescherung in high German and means exactly what you said: the gift opening ceremony. The verb is bescheren.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:45 AM on February 20, 2011

Native German here. I don't know if it will help at all, but I can decipher some of these Mirtsching words:
"Shtay-burr" - stöbern has not quite the same meaning, it's more like to rummage.
"Burr-sharen" - bescheren
"Way-way" - Wehweh is used similarly to ouchie, especially with children.
"Ronker-ronker" - ???
"Gunkz" - ???
"Sarma feer dee arma" - Samen (?) für die Armen, meaning seeds (referring to the barley?) for the poor
"Geltshizer" - Geldscheißer, literally someone who sh*ts money.
"Fuschy" - ???
"Flawden" - sounds like Fladen, flat cake, but that doesn't make sense. A better-fitting word would be Flusen, which is lint.
"Frupm" - ???
"Futzla" - ???
"Klexie" - maybe from Klecks, smudge, splodge?

On preview I see that some of these have already been dealt with, sorry.
posted by amf at 8:55 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

P.S.: "Botcha veck!" - Patscher weg!
posted by amf at 8:56 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

amf gets exactly as far as I got here on my bit of paper. Great. Flawden could also be mis-remembered Faden, which is lint as well. Otherwise some of these terms might be Family terms to begin with, and unfamiliar to other Germans anyhow.

This all sounds like Saxonian to me, which would indeed explain fermayghen/Vermeegen/Vermögen. It now all depends on how much stuff your granddad had when he emigrated, and whether the workbench was a handed-down item. Just thinking, if that was the only real thing he brought with him, that's a Vermögen right there.

(...that "für machen" -- "(in order) to make" -- might be a Northern variant of "zu machen." .
Not as far as I know. I'm from Bremen, Northern enough for most people.)
posted by Namlit at 9:55 AM on February 20, 2011

Vormagen, which could be pronounced fer-may-ghen with a little drift, means "omasum", which is the third stomach compartment of ruminants. Which seems an unlikely way to refer to a workbench, but there you are. My dictionary notes that this is a techical word used in zoology.

I never realized how many possible ways there are to spell the "fer" sound in German before.
posted by Adridne at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2011

"Fuschy" sounds like it might be derived from "futschen" or "Futschig". Futschen sort of means to do a half-assed or sloppy job of something. Or you can say "Futscharbeit", Sloppy work. For example, Did the landlord fix the toilet? Ja, aber totale Futscharbeit. or "Das hat er gefutscht"
posted by chillmost at 2:30 AM on February 22, 2011

Officially spelled "pfuschen" "Pfuscharbeit", though.
posted by Namlit at 3:41 AM on February 22, 2011

« Older What would you ask your dog's birth mom?   |   What should she be when she grows up? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.