What can "Das war ja toll!" mean?
February 25, 2008 8:58 PM   Subscribe

Scientific History Filter / Native German Speaker Filter. What did Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's 1985 exclamation, "Das war ja toll!" mean?

Toll was the name given to one of the genes in Drosophila identified by Kathryn Anderson and (Nobel Laureate) Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard in the mid 1980s. According to this review (discovered through wikipedia, of all places), she saw a weird-looking fly larva, and her spontaneous comment was "Das war ja toll!" meaning "That was weird!"

But I can't find a further reference for this, and I thought the translation would be "that was amazing!" (unless spoken sarcastically, which I think can be ruled out) or "that was crazy!" Furthermore, the review says that she saw the fly in 1985, when the mutation was in fact published in 1984 (Nature. 311(5983):223-7), which makes me think the information is poorly sourced.

Does anybody know where this anecdote comes from? I've searched through the web (although not exhaustively), but to no avail :-(

Alternatively, does the "weird" translation for "toll" as quoted fit to any native speakers? Leo says no, but leo doesn't know everything.
posted by kisch mokusch to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've never heard toll used to mean "weird" in a pejorative sense — I would think the translation is probably more along the lines of "(unusual and therefore) excitingly wonderful".
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:31 PM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: I'm not a native speaker, but I lived in Germany and spoke German fluently. I would guess that the "That was weird!" translation was either a poor one, or an effort to convey the sentiment moreso than the actual meaning. I would translate "Das war ja toll!" to "Wow, that was cool!".

That's all I got, but no one else was answering. Hopefully some others will pop on in.
posted by !Jim at 9:31 PM on February 25, 2008

Weird is a bit of a loose translation, but not without merit. The word "toll" is very common and broadly applicable in German. The closest parallel in English may actually be "cool".
posted by Capostrophe at 9:36 PM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: Non-native speaker, but I lived in Germany for a total of five years. I've never used the word "toll" (or heard the word used, for that matter) to mean weird or odd. "Cool" and "Awesome" are much closer to the mark, though "toll" lends itself much better to sarcasm than either of its English equivalents, for some reason. "Das ist aber toll." Maybe it's just German.
posted by Phire at 10:05 PM on February 25, 2008

Yeah, I've seen it used in a manner similar to that. Beolingus even gives "mad" as a valid translation for "toll" and specifically "Das war aber toll."
posted by atomly at 11:15 PM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: Native speaker here. The other posters are right, toll means amazing or cool. I've never heard it being used meaning "weird". As phire mentioned above, it's often used sarcastically, when something has gone wrong. Na toll! or Das ist ja toll!

Toll used to mean crazy or insane (Er gebärdete sich wie toll), but nowadays you don't find it used in that way any more.
posted by amf at 11:49 PM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

amf, FTW.
posted by chillmost at 12:23 AM on February 26, 2008

Response by poster: Definitely looks like "weird" doesn't fit then!

Like amf and Phire, I'd only ever heard it in the negative sense. "We have to wait even longer? Toll." But this was a big discovery. It would only have been met with enthusiasm, although the mutant embryo itself probably could've been described as weird.

Further googling found a different account, that fits better with the answers here (although it's still not sourced):

Colleagues recount how biologist Christiane Nusslein-Volhard exclaimed “toll”--German slang, meaning “fantastic”--while marveling in 1980 over a Drosophila mutant that proved fruitful for explaining fly embryogenesis.

Thank you all for the replies, I'm continuously impressed by the breadth of knowledge here.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:35 AM on February 26, 2008

amf, FTW.

Is there a glossary of MetaFilter abbreviations?
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:26 AM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

JimN2TAW, the first three letters refer to my username, and the Urban Dictionary tells me that FTW means "for the win".
posted by amf at 10:24 AM on February 26, 2008

Also, JimN2TAW, a lot of the lingo can be found in the MeFi Wiki.
posted by Phire at 12:39 PM on February 26, 2008

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