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... und du tauchst jetzt auf? Das nenn ich mal einen Zufall ...

To express the idea of "(Now) that's what I call X" -- said ironically or not -- I seem to notice that the adverb "mal" is often added. Which seems like a more idiomatic phrasing than the version without it.

What is its function here? Is it close to the 2nd definition: "zum Ausdruck der Verbindlichkeit" -- in the sense of "That's what I have to call X"?

  • 1
    Using mal marks this as an exceptional, or extraodinary event. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 20 at 16:02
  • @πάνταῥεῖ So is it close to the fundamental meaning of "einmal"? "That's what I call a coincidence for once", "This is a coincidence for once" – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jul 20 at 16:06
  • Yes, exactly. One could also say "Das ist aber einmal ein Zufall ..." But the short form is usually perferred in colloquial language. I'll leave that for someone else to write a complete answer. I am just a bit too busy to do that now. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 20 at 16:09
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In your example sentence, the "mal" is more tongue-in-cheek, almost sarcastic:

... and now you show up? Now that's what I call a coincidence.

Often, "mal" as a shortened "einmal" is used to lessen the commitment:

Ich muss den Keller aufräumen.

I have to clean up the basement.

compared to

Ich muss mal den Keller aufräumen.

I have to clean up the basement someday. (with an implied "or maybe never")

Another example,

Ich drücke mal auf diesen Knopf.

has quite a vibe of "I have no clue whether it will solve the problem we're having, or even make it worse, don't hold me accountable afterwards, I'm just taking a stab at it".

So I'd disagree with the explanation you found in Larousse.

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The adverb mal is the colloquial form of einmal and it means once. But

That's want I once call a coincidence.

doesn't make much sense.

This is, because in »Das nenn ich mal einen Zufall« the word mal is not an adverb!

It is a modal particle. English Wikipedia has a very good article about those beasts (the German version is even more detailed)). German (especially colloquial german) is full of modal particles, and they hide in plain sight, because every modal particle is a homonym of another word that belongs to another part of speech.

Modal particles are very often used in colloquial German, but the do not exist in most other languages. English is a language without modal particles. This means: There are no direct translations for those words. There simply are no counterparts for German modal particles in English language.

What do they mean?
They mean nothing. (In more scientific terms: Modal particles do not add anything to the proposition of a sentence.) They just add a vague emotion to the sentence. And this is the reason why they are so hard to translate into other languages. In any other language than German you have to describe the emotion in longer phrases. German has simple words for this purpose. The simplest way to deal with them if you want to translate them into english is to ignore them.

So, when you translate a German sentence containing modal particles into English, and translate this English sentence back to German, in most cases you wil get a German sentence without those modal particles.

So, the best way to translate the sentence is this:

German original:
Das nenn' ich mal einen Zufall.

English translation: (two versions)
1. I call this a coincidence. (literal translation, but low quality style)
2. That's what I call a coincidence. (free translation, but better style)

Back to German: (three versions)
1. Das ist, was ich einen Zufall nenne. (matches with Engl. #2, but its bad style in german)
2. Ich nenne das einen Zufall. (matches with Engl. #1, but sounds boring)
3. Das nenne ich einen Zufall. (also matches with Engl. #1, but has a different word order which is much better style in german)

As you can see, there is no mal in the German back-translation. Like all modal particles it became lost in translation.

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