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In German there is the word Spielraum which literally translated means "space available for limited movement" and is used for example to describe a limited location/angle tolerance in mechanical bearings or joints and the like, more often however it's used figuratively to describe the range of tolerable actions an individual can take in order to reach certain goals.

The dictionary translates elbowroom (among other things) to Spielraum and I'd like to know whether it is fine to use it in the same way for describing the range of actions someone is able to take.

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You might also look at wiggle room. –  Robusto Apr 27 '12 at 12:26
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Yes, to give someone elbow room figuratively means to give someone space. A similar idiom is "breathing room".

elbow room

space to move around in: We were tightly squashed in at dinner, with very little elbow room.

freedom to do what you want: At first the management gave the new director plenty of elbow room.

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Haven't heard of "breathing room" but "elbow room" is correct. The German Spielraum literally means "space to play" and that fits the English idiom: "At first the management gave the new director plenty of space to do what he wanted." –  Andrew Leach Apr 27 '12 at 8:46
    
and is it elbow room or elbowroom? i can find both in my online dictionary –  Mat Apr 27 '12 at 9:25
    
@AndrewLeach: Breathing room works, too; both are in use in the U.S. Interesting how breathing room seems slower to catch on in the U.K. than in the U.S.. –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 9:30
    
@Mat: I guess it can be written either way, though I've usually seen it as two words. –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 9:36
    
UK English would use breathing space, though illogically often in reference to time. –  Henry Apr 27 '12 at 13:38
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The literal sense (i.e. - freedom of movement in a joint/bearing) is often called "slack", or "play".

Slack (not play) is used figuratively for people - but mainly in the idiom cut someone some slack, where it usually has the sense of excusing someone from the consequences of bad choice/action, rather than giving authority to make choices.

To describe, for example, a junior manager's freedom to take decisions without seeking authority from senior management, we often say he "has [considerable] latitude" or leeway.

Elbow room (normally two words, or hyphenated) is used figuratively, but my impression is that, for example, "plenty of elbow room" usually refers to physical space to move freely.

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spiel = play IIRC. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 27 '12 at 18:30
    
@cornbread ninja: I didn't realise that. So apparently we have pretty much the same idiomatic use of the word for "play" in the first place (a certain amount of freedom of physical movement), but it seems to me (and Kris, I think) that the extension to "making free choices" seems less pronounced in English. –  FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 19:06
    
According to ngrams for some bearing combinations and joint combinations, such use of slack is negligible, such use depending instead on play and looseness. Ngrams with linkage, drive, etc. are similar. –  jwpat7 Apr 28 '12 at 16:05
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Per your explanation, Spielraum is the 'range of permitted actions'. However, elbowroom is more literal -- meaning the space for manouvre rather than the actions in the space. By an extended inference, both may imply the same in a metaphorical sense.

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Per the O.P.'s explanation, spielraum refers literally to space, and figuratively to actions. –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 11:26
    
Per explanation, it is otherwise -- pl check again. –  Kris Apr 27 '12 at 11:52
    
okay, I'll check again... (directly posted from the O.P.) the word Spielraum which literally translated means "space available for limited movement" and is used for example to describe a limited location/angle tolerance in mechanical bearings or joints and the like –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 13:03
    
Good. Now read my answer. –  Kris Apr 27 '12 at 14:01
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@J.R.: I'm not quite sure what you mean there, but I think Kris is saying that elbow-room is less amenable to figurative extension into "freedom of action" than spielraum. I don't know German, but whilst I agree the English term can be used that way, I don't think it's particularly common compared to spatial senses such as "It's a big car, so there's plenty of elbow-room" - or more figuratively "It's a big house, so we have plenty of elbow-room". –  FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 17:26
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