Mein lieber Schwan!

What Does the Swan Do in Our Premonitions?

When Richard Wagner wrote the last scene of Lohengrin singing farewell to the swan, the composer did not know that he had created 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 opera the swan becomes Gottfried. In the German language the swan becomes the verb schwanen. We use it with the dative. The synonym is 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 that your future does not hold good things for you.

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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