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From C Dickens A Christmas Carol:

I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

How does one say this in German, in particular, "deadest"?

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  • 1
    However, both links show the relevance of the question, as both translations of the word / sentence are wrong (in this context).
    – mtwde
    Aug 21 '20 at 18:26
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    Well, I would only go to the trouble of asking a question here if my sources, including translate.google.com, had already given me clearly incorrect advice. I thought it wast "toteste" but I could not find a reference to validate that. I could not find the superlative in Duden.
    – user44591
    Aug 21 '20 at 19:40
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    Both linke machine translations seem to translate "deadest" as "tödlichste", which is wrong. That'd be "deadliest" (superlative of "tödlich"), not "deadest" (which would need a superlative of "tot", which might not even exist in German).
    – das-g
    Aug 21 '20 at 20:28
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    I think I would go with mausetoteste. It's not actually a word in German, but then Dickens' use of the word "deadest" isn't really correct English either.
    – RDBury
    Aug 21 '20 at 20:47
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    DWDS has the superlative: dwds.de/wb/tot
    – David Vogt
    Aug 21 '20 at 21:28
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First of all let's add some context to this quote. It's from the beginning of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. The first 3 paragraphs are:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

When you look a these sentences it becomes clear, that online translators like Google and Deepl get it wrong by confusing deadest with deadliest, because

to be dead as a doornail

is an English proverb meaning:

to be clearly and obviously dead

Scrooge ponders this phrase, which makes little sense to him, because nothing is more "dead" to him than a coffin nail. (Not more deadly.)


So what does "deadest" mean? Wiktionary says it is the superlative of "dead". One may ask, why is there a superlativ of dead? Can you be deader than dead? Well, there is a German word for this kind of adjective:

Absolutadjektiv

But "Absolutadjektive" can have a superlative when used figuratively. In colloquial language these are called

Hyperlativ

So for the word dead ... it translates to "tot" in German. So deadest (deader than dead) would be

am totesten (tot. toter, am totesten)


A Christmas Charol was first published in 1843, so one can say it's language is outdated and colloquial modern translations won't get the spirit (or should I say ghost) of it.

Fortunately Dickens is a well known author and this text was published several times in German, so I will quote some translations.

Ich für meine Person wäre eher geneigt, einen Sargnagel als das toteste Stück Eisen zu betrachten, das im Handel ist.

DIE WEIHNACHTEN DES MR. SCROOGE - Carl Kolb (2011 - eISBN 978-3-458-75310-0)

Ich selbst wäre womöglich geneigt gewesen, einen Sargnagel als das toteste Stück Eisenkram überhaupt im Gewerbe anzusehen.

Der Weihnachtsabend - Eike Schönfeld (2014 eISBN 978-3-458-73902-9)

Was mich betrifft, ich möchte einen Sargnagel als das toteste Stück Eisen im Handel betrachten.

Eine Weihnachtsgeschichte - (2012 ISBN 978-3-95418-184-1)

Ich selbst möchte fast zu der Meinung neigen, daß das toteste Stück Eisen auf der Welt ein Sargnagel sei.

Weihnachtslied - urheberrechtsfreie Ausgabe


There are some variations, but you can see every time deadest is translated as "totest(e)".

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Of course, nothing can be toter/deadlier than something/someone other in reality and it's rather clear/unambiguous, that Dickens used "deadest" in this example as a rhetoric element, as a stylistic device.

A lot of examples, where this stylsitic element is used in newspapers and literature, you can find at the statistic view at dwds.de --> Statistiken --> searching for "toteste" --> choose "Korpus: Referenz- und Zeitungskorpora":

https://www.dwds.de/r/?corpus=public&q=toteste

explaining a few examples of this listing:

Die Zeit, 21.12.1990, Nr. 52
Noch immer der toteste Winkel im Ostteil der Stadt.
--> means: the most boring corner in the eastern part of the city.

Die Zeit, 05.02.2009, Nr. 07
Toteste Nebensaison.
--> means: a low season, never ever reached minimum of earnings

Berliner Zeitung, 29.01.2003
Ein Augenzeuge: "Wenn Blicke töten könnten, wäre Britney der toteste Popstar der Welt.
--> If evil eyes could kill, Britney would be the deadliest popstar of the world / the most killed popstar.

So I would recommend to translate "a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery"

ein Sargnagel als das toteste Stück Eisenware

(In a lot of automatically translations you find the suggest "Eisenwaren", but here it's used in singular, please without "-n".)

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    This was a fascinating use of the DWDS site information of which I was totally unaware. It will enhance my language learning for a long time to come.
    – user44591
    Aug 22 '20 at 9:41
  • @user44591: by using this statistic-tool I recommend to be careful, because sometimes the listings of the referred examples, the output from this searching algorithm can be inexactly (unter dem Link: "Belege für: x") - so it's necessary to verify the outputted excerpts. Aug 22 '20 at 9:51
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Traditionally, it is said that adjectives like tot should not be used in comparative or superlative, since you cannot really be deader than dead. But this is literary (metaphoric) usage, and hence we might just go with it literally.

The regular superlative of tot is, purely morphologically, totest. In a somewhat free translation I might say:

Ich selbst würde ja dazu tendieren, Sargnägel als die totesten Schmiedewaren überhaupt zu betrachten.

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  • Dass man tot ist oder nicht ist und es deshalb nicht steigern kann ist keine tradierte Betrachtung, sondern eine semantische Konsequenz. Aug 22 '20 at 23:19
  • Ich habs ja gesteigert, also kann man. Das ist zunächst eine rein morphologische Frage (sogar zB. ist morphologisch nicht steigerbar). Was "semantisch" graduierbar ist, ergibt sich aus der Sache, richtig; aber hier bezeichnet das Wort tot eben nicht das Nicht-Mehr-Leben eines belebten Objekts, sondern einen Grad der Belebtheit, der unbelebten Gegenständen metaphorisch zugewiesen wird. Aug 23 '20 at 5:27
  • Die tradierte Behauptung ist eher, ob man darf, nicht ob man kann; das muss ich noch spezifizieren. Aug 23 '20 at 5:30

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