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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Drinking a cyclist

When it comes to adopting words from English, German is as enthusiastic about borrowing as a teenage girl let loose on the clothes in her sister's closet. Not content with the numerous words they lift wholesale from English, Germans even make up pseudo-English words to be, well, cool (yes indeed, cool is now a German word). The classic is calling a cellphone a Handy (this was an invention of Deutsche Telekom), but my all-time favourite has to be "Das Baby-shooting" (check it out here).

There has been much less borrowing going on in the other direction, so I was quite surprised to discover that a trendy new drink in Toronto bars this summer is a "radler". Radler is the southern German and Austrian word for a mixture of beer and lemon-lime soft drink. "There's nothing radder than a good ol' radler" proclaimed a headline in the Toronto Metro this week. Radlers are now available with other citrus flavours, for instance blood orange and grapefruit.

The story behind this word is quite entertaining. In the late 19th century, shortly after bicycles were invented, Germans found that their favourite tipple (beer, naturally), downed in haste by a thirsty cyclist on an energetic outing, was a little too strong, and resulted in impaired cycling. 

Diluted half and half, though, it was refreshing and not inebriating. Well, less inebriating anyway.  In German, a bicycle is a Fahrrad, literally a "travelling/riding wheel", and a cyclist is a Radler. The word for the person became the word for the drink.

If you wish to order one of these in Northern Germany, however, they have a different name: Alsterwasser. The Alster is the lake in the centre of Hamburg. 

I suspect that the water in the Alster was not drinkable, and that this name was originally a derogatory commentary on the adulteration of pure beer.

Of course, we have a perfectly good name in English for this drink: "shandy", derived from "shandygaff", unfortunately of unknown origin.
Do not be confused by British dictionaries which describe shandy as "beer and lemonade". They are using "lemonade" not to mean this stuff:

but in the British English sense of "lemonade", i.e. 7-Up or Sprite.

Tune in next week to find out what the French call this drink (oh, ok, yes I do drink shandies everywhere I go) and what it has to do with assertiveness.

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  1. Alsterwasser reminds me of “swamp water.” This is the flavour you are drinking if you mix all the flavours from the self-serve soft-drink fountain. (At least it was, in Winnipeg in the late seventies.)

    1. Now that you mention it, I remember both the name and the phenomenon. But Alsterwasser tastes much better!

  2. In Switzerland, the drink is known as "Stange panache" (served in a bar, in a beer glass) or just "Panache" (from the store), the anticipated e-acute gone with the alcohol...

    1. good to know for my next trip to Switzerland! Is the e-acute missing in the pronunciation as well as the spelling?


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.