Expressions worth speaking about: spoken for and bespoke

Today I’m writing about two interesting expressions derived from the verb to speak that you may not have encountered before.

First, spoken for is an adjective that means “already claimed or being kept for somebody” according to the OED. In particular, spoken for is an old-fashioned but still used synonym for married, although the times when married woman were literally spoken for by their husbands are fortunately long gone in most parts of our world. For other meanings and examples see here.

Second, bespoke is a synonym for tailor-made or custom-made, referring to a product or service designed according to the specific needs or wishes of the customer in mind. A good example is a bespoke suit, which is a suit made to fit a particular person by a bespoke tailor. The expression most certainly derives from the fact that the two parties speak about the product requirements beforehand. Further examples can be found here. For the differences between bespoke and made-to-measure, see here.




While reading an article about BMW’s Harald Krũger, who apparently fainted on stage at the Frankfurt Auto show but is OK, I noticed that BMW cited “circulation problems” as the cause. The term is a translation of the German expression Kreislaufprobleme. However, circulation problems in English refer to a serious and often lethal condition caused by blood clots. In contrast, Kreislaufprobleme is a German expression for various forms of not feeling well. According to the discussion here, it may be thought of as the German version of the British “back problems”, often invoked in order to have a reason not to attend an unpleasant activity (work, family affairs). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans has this to say (the quote is also mentioned in the hilarious discussion here):

[…] the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness that doesn’t exist, the notorious Kreislaufstörung. While the rest of us go to meet our maker once our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. […]

Concerned with vs. concerned about

In several talks at this week’s conference, I heard the speaker say “concerned about” instead of “concerned with”. The difference in meaning is quite dramatic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “concerned about” means “worried and feeling concern about something“, whereas “concerned with” means “interested in something“. Hence, when you say you are concerned about a certain topic of research, you risk confusing your audience. For another dangerous confusion of prepositions, see this post.

The German Yo

Yo is certainly one of the most unusual words I come across as an Austrian in Germany. In fact, I am not even sure how it is spelled, because the Duden has nothing to say about either Yo or Jo, and I did not find it in any other dictionaries either. The spelling Yo chosen here is motivated by the fact that the English word Yo (extensively used by Jesse in Breaking Bad) is pronounced exactly as Yo in German, see here. Whether or not the German Yo comes from English I do not know yet. More information about the English Yo can be found here.

While little information about Yo is available in books or online, it is very commonly used by German (but not Austrian or Swiss) native speakers. In English, Yo is used by certain (young) people as a greeting, see here and here. In contrast, in German, Yo seems to be used to either express agreement (instead of Ja, Jawohl) or simply as a filler between or at the beginning of sentences (similar to Na gut, Gut, Okay).

Perhaps this post can inspire a discussion that sheds some more light on the origin, spelling and use of this word in Germany.

discreet vs. discrete

The adjectives discreet and discrete can easily be confused in writing, for various reasons. First, when typing quickly, the second e may just slip in before the t. Because both words exist, this mistake will not be detected by the spell checker. However, in addition, the pronunciation of discreet and discrete is identical, see here and here, so many people may just be unaware of the very different meanings. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary provides the following explanations:

discreet: careful in what you say or do, in order to keep something secret or to avoid causing embarrassment or difficulty for somebody

discrete: independent of other things of the same type

An example for the use of discreet is given by the sentence

“I discreetly glanced at my watch during the meeting”,

meaning that I looked at my watch in a way so as to hide my action from people around me. Similarly, you can be discreet about a love affair, or a bill.

On the other hand, the use of discrete can be illustrated by the sentence

“Cats and dogs are discrete species”.

In mathematics, discrete is the opposite of continuous. For example, the set of integer numbers is discrete (there are no numbers between 1 and 2), whereas the set of real numbers is continuous.



Price vs. prize

The words price [praɪs] (listen here) and prize [praɪz] (listen here) sound and look quite similar, but have very different meanings. Therefore, make sure that you do not confuse them when writing about any prestigious prizes you won, for example, in a cover letter for a job application. Since both words exist in the English language, your spell checker will most likely not flag the mistake.

A prize is an award given to someone in recognition of an achievement. In contrast, a price is an amount of money (or some other currency) that you pay to obtain ownership of something. Once again, this mistake is quite common among German native speakers because in German, the word Preis encompasses both meanings.

It is also important to get the pronunciation right, in order to make it clear to your listeners whether you mean price or prize.