Do You Have a 'Doppelgänger'?


03 February 2024

And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

English borrows from many other languages. And today we talk about a word that comes from German – doppelgänger.

The word "doppelgänger" comes from German folklore. The online dictionary Merriam-Webster describes the old story. All living creatures have a spirit who is invisible but exactly the same as the living person. But just because you can't see them, doppelgängers are not ghosts. They are sometimes described as "the spiritual opposite or negative of their human counterpart."

FILE - In this photo provided by Zooparc de Beauval, twin panda cubs Yuandudu and Huanlili take their first steps in public, at the Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, France, Dec. 11, 2021. (Zooparc de Beauval via AP)
FILE - In this photo provided by Zooparc de Beauval, twin panda cubs Yuandudu and Huanlili take their first steps in public, at the Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, France, Dec. 11, 2021. (Zooparc de Beauval via AP)

Even though the word comes from spiritual folklore, we use it in a very real way. When two people look very similar, we can call them doppelgängers.

English has other expressions that have a similar meaning. If someone looks like someone else, you can call them a look-alike, spitting image or mirror image.

Let's hear two friends use some of these expressions.

A: Were you at the airport yesterday?

B: No. I haven't been to the airport in over a year.

A: Are you sure about that?

B: I think I would know if I were at the airport. Why do you ask?

A: Well, if you weren't there, then I ran into your doppelgänger. She was a mirror image of you!

B: Wow, I've heard about doppelgängers. But I didn't think I really had a look-alike out there in the world.

A: Well, you do. And they are on their way to Costa Rica.

B: I wish I could trade places with my doppelgänger!

If you know someone who looks exactly like another person, you can also call them a dead ringer.

Experts say this expression comes from American horse racing, and usage began in the late 19th century.

Sometimes, racehorse owners would race a horse under a false name and pedigree. They did this to trick people who bet money on race results. These horses were called "ringers."

Here is how to use this expression in a sentence: My best friend in college is a dead ringer for George Clooney. When we're out in public, he gets asked for his autograph all the time.

In the expression "dead ringer," the word "dead" does not mean lifeless. In this case, it means exact or precise. It is a way to add emphasis, or highlight something. For example, if I am sure that my friend is right about something, I can say she is dead right. We can also say someone is "dead wrong" if they are most certainly wrong.

The next time you want to describe two people who look the same, you can choose any of these expressions.

And that's all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories. Until next time ...

I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

folklore – n. customs, beliefs, stories, and sayings of a people handed down from generation to generation

spirit – n. a force within a human being thought to give the body life, energy, and power

invisible – adj. incapable by nature of being seen: not perceptible by vision

ghost – n. the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness

negative – adj. extending or measured in a direction opposite to one chosen as positive

counterpart – n. one remarkably similar to another: a thing that fits another perfectly

pedigree – n. lineage or line of ancestors of a person or animal: purity of breed recorded by an ancestral line

precise – adj. exactly or sharply defined or stated

emphasis – n. the act or fact of giving stress to a word or syllable when speaking: special attention or importance given to something