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When Richard Wagner wrote the last great scene of Lohengrin singing his farewell to the swan, the composer did not know that he had been creating a colloquial phrase as strong and lasting as his music. Once in a while, everybody of German tongue says the phrase mein lieber Schwan. People show with mein lieber Schwan either surprise or an indignation they do not mean really seriously.

“Mein lieber Schwan! Das hast du aber gut gemacht!” (I did not really expect that you did so well; aber is here an intensifier.)

“Mein lieber Schwan! Du kommst heute das dritte Mal zu spät.” (Oh my, today you are late the third time in the row.)

In the opera the swan becomes Gottfried. In the German language the swan becomes the verb schwanen. We use it in dative. The synonym may be ahnen, a word for forebode or to have a premonition.

“Mir schwant Böses.”

“Mir schwant, dass er morgen das vierte Mal zu spät kommt.”

However, the verb schwanen is older than the opera. The Grimm brothers wrote about it decades before “Lohengrin” was created. In ancient fables and myths mysterious and prophetic women often appear in the guise of a swan. Usually, they do not tell things one can look forward to. They predict bad things. So, be aware: If someone utters the verb mir schwant followed by dass du or dass Sie, you better run without listening to the end of the sentence. You will know enough that your future does not look good.

From: Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing.

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