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Ich habe eine halbe Ewigkeit damit zugebracht, (X) etwas zu tun. Wofür war denn das?

Ich bin um die halbe Welt gereist, (X) um etwas zu tun. Wofür war denn das?

In English, a similar idea is usually phrased as "It took me eons / ages / forever / an eternity to ..." without a word like "halb". As for French, the idea of a long period of time that seems like an eternity is further emphasised with the intensifier "beau": "Ça fait belle lurette que ...".

I've always wondered why German often uses "halb" in hyperbolic expressions like these. There may well be other similar instances where "halb" is used in the same manner. What is the function of "halb" here?

  1. Does it serve to play down hyperbole? Sort of an understatement?
  2. Or is this simply considered an idiomatic phrasing?
  3. Or for some other reason?
  • 3
    The Duden lists as one of the usages of "halb" to express "fast [ganz], beinahe, so gut wie" ("almost completely, nearly, as good as"). With that, "um die halbe Welt" would mean something like "it wasn't literally around the whole world, but it sure felt like it". – Henning Kockerbeck Jul 20 '19 at 13:56
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    There is another idom the other way round "ewig und drei Tage" meaning something like "forever and a day" – mtwde Jul 20 '19 at 13:56
  • To me, “wofür war das denn” is the more interesting part ;) – Carsten S Jul 21 '19 at 9:26
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    I consider the English phrase better part of [e.g. an hour, but works equally for eternity] quite close. My suspicion is, that the additional syllables are mostly present to have more occasions to emphasize... – guidot Jul 21 '19 at 20:18
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According to Rudolf Hildebrand (Vom deutschen Sprachunterricht in der Schule, verone, 2016 (reprint of the 1910 original), p. 125, google books), in these cases, hyperbole touches humor:

Noch kühner im Verdruß oder Ärger der Ungeduld, man sagt z. B. zu einem Dienstboten, der ausgeschickt war: du bist ja ewig ausgeblieben, du kommst ja ewig nicht wieder! Es ist vielleicht eine Stunde gewesen, der Ärger der Ungeduld spitzt sein Denken noch schärfer zu, als die Sehnsucht und greift ins Ungeheure, um sich genug zu tun. Daß das am Humor hinstreift oder halbbewusst in sein Gebiet hinübertritt, zeigt z. B., daß man auch von einer halben Ewigkeit spricht, es kam mir wie eine halbe Ewigkeit vor, u. ä., das Unendliche, das ja kein Maß hat, halbiert! Und noch spaßhafter ewig und drei Jahre, im Volksmund [...].

Same is probably true for "halbe Welt", which would not have made that much difference back then, and is still quite a long trip today.

The anger and frustration are so much that you do not just use hyperbole, you even add humor (maybe half-consciously) to add to the absurdity. It doesn't really downplay the hyperbole (half the eternity is still eternity).

| improve this answer | |
  • +1, but no, half of eternity is not eternity. Constant factors don't fade away when calculating with infinity. This is different from eternity minus one day, which is eternity. – Janka Jul 20 '19 at 20:21
  • At least for countable infinite sets constant factors don't change infinity. For example when the factor is 2, multiply every natural number by 2. Now you have only even numbers, so there is only half as numbers as before, yet the number of numbers is still the same. – RHa Jul 20 '19 at 21:43

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