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There is a word in German, ausgezeichnet which vaguely sounds like the English phrase "out of sight" but that is usually translated as "excellent". I could see some non-German speaker hearing it and, knowing that it meant "very good" from context, deciding to use it and approximating its sound with "out of sight".

Note that I am interested in whether the German word and the phrase are related, not the general history of "Out of Sight"

Is there any evidence to support this etymology?

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    For information: As others have pointed out, "ausgezeichnet" is typically translated into English as "excellent" (e.g. Collins Klett German-English Dictionary). The word itself is the past particple form of "auszeichnen", which the same dictionary translates as 1. to mark / mark up, 2. to honour, 3. to distinguish (from others) / to stand out.
    – Shoe
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:12
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    @reseseabe --given that your edit indicated that the "On the Road" material was not relevant, and distracted from the main thrust of your question, I simply excised it entirely. Nov 8, 2023 at 21:35
  • I am confused by this question. Are there English dialects where "out of sight" means "excellent"? Nov 9, 2023 at 2:56

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Yes, out of sight may be connected to ausgezeichnet, though whether it is directly connected or a folk etymology isn't clear. [Note: this is a downgrade of my previous confidence due to new evidence and further thought.]

Using the general information from TimR's answer, I did a few searches for "out of sight" and "ausgezeichnet" at the turn of the 20th century to see whether results connecting the two would turn up. I shall divide this answer into two parts: the case suggesting a connection and the room for doubt.

Tying "Out of Sight" to German Ausgezeichnet in English Writing

In the Macon Telegraph, 4 March 1902, p. 4, a very short piece directly ties the German term to the expression "out of sight":

Those who know Prince Henry [likely Prince Henry of Prussia] will say that as a sailor and good fellow he is positively ausgezeichnet, the American adaptation of which ponderous term is "out of sight." (Readex: America's Historical Newspapers; may be paywalled)

The word and claimed etymology also appear in a 1907 novel:

And then we shall be all ass happy ass. It will be ausgezeich-out-out-of-sight-"

[Note] This philological curiosity was given to me by the Rev. Hobart B. Whitney of St. John's Parish, Essex, N.Y. It is a very logical development of English slang from a German word, so familiar to the Second Avenue section of the East Side in New York. -D.B. (Dolores Bacon. In High Places. 1907, p.330. Google Books)

Finally, "out of sight" is attributed to ausgezeichnet by etymological experts from the first half of the 20th century:

Of German origin also are probably such words as [...] out of sight (German ausgezeichnet) (George Harley McKnight. English Words and Their Background. 1923, p.26. Google Books)

German in origin are, most probably, [...] out of sight, a mistranslation of German ausgezeichnet (Eric Partridge, The World of Words. 2015 (orig. 1938). p. 84. Google Books.)

The last one in particular highlights how the translation here can't be literal. Partridge identifies what both the question asker and answerer sisee identify: this would be a mistranslation of ausgezeichnet. If we then go back to Dolores Bacon, it's possible the text is pairing ausgezeich and out of sight as similar-sounding terms or near rhymes: "ausgezeich-out-out-of-sight-"

But Maybe the Connection Is Less Direct Than They Thought

One of the challenges to the previous answer is that the connection to ausgezeichnet is folk etymology, that is, what a few quotes allege about the origin of the word only proves what people guessed, and they do not document where the word comes from. Indeed, that is a firm constraint on being certain of the origin of ausgezeichnet. Maybe "out of sight" already meant excellent before ausgezeichnet was connected to it.

So I want to offer two quotes that highlight the ambiguity of this connection between the two words. The first comes from "A Thousand Miles Afoot in the Tyrol and Switzerland" by Henry Pelouze de Forest, in Travel, Jan. 1896 (Google Books). Pelouze de Forest describes crossing a chasm via riding rails as a long human chain. He describes people fearful, anxious, and glad to have crossed. He then summarizes the experience of the tourists:

The general verdict was "ausgezeichnet," which is the nearest approach to "out of sight" in the language.

This claim is fascinating because the phrasing isn't that "out of sight" comes from ausgezeichnet but almost vice versa: ausgezeichnet approaches "out of sight." In other words, it sounds like Pelouze de Forest offers ausgezeichnet as a German translation of an already-existing sense of out of sight: "excellent" or "impressive." So it's possible that, for this speaker, "out of sight" did not come from German at all.

The only earlier entry that would still suggest a connection to ausgezeichnet is in the June 18, 1891 edition of Forest and Stream, in "The Possum Club Banquet" (Google Books). The following is an excerpt from a description of events:

Mr. Chas Kern was called on for a song and gave one. This was a chef d'œu·vre. It was ausgezeichnet. But Mr. Von Leugerke sang a Platt-deutsch song soon after which was out of sight.

The pairing of three words from three languages suggests some connection: chef d'œu·vre (French for a masterpiece), ausgezeichnet (German for excellent), and out of sight (English for excellent). But it's not clear how firm that connection is. Could out of sight be the Platt-deutsch Anglicization of ausgezeichnet based on sound? Yes. Could this just be three similar words meaning excellent? Also yes.

Hope you don't mind me adding another attestation, this one from from the Shoe and Leather Reporter, August 1894:

The Paragon Needle Co of Boston head [sic] an advertisement with the German word "Ausgezeichnet" the English equivalent of which may be said to be "out of sight". They say: "This refers to our McKay needles. It may be slang, but if you have tried these needles, you will appreciate its full force, for they are "

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    Well… how confident can we be that the writer published in the Macon Telegraph or the Rev. Hobart B. Whitney of St. John's Parish, Essex, N.Y. was any kind of scrupulous student of etymology? That sources are old, and even contemporaneous with relevant events, is independent of their authoritativeness. Folks way back then were just as prone to folk etymology as we today. Nov 8, 2023 at 17:18
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    @PaulTanenbaum There is always a risk of folk etymology, and I acknowledge that's possible. But clearly contemporary speakers believed it was based in German, as did at least a couple scrupulous students of etymology. Nov 8, 2023 at 17:46
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    Partridge has to be taken with a grain of salz. He attributes American English "dumb" (lacking in smarts) to the Germans in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries but the word dumb has had that meaning since the 13th century.
    – TimR
    Nov 8, 2023 at 18:28
  • Though this sounds plausible (that the US word come from the German one), can you reconcile your answer with the answer in the duplicate that says 'no'? Which makes me wonder, how likely do foreign words/phrases get -naturally- mondegreened into English? ie there are lots of borrowings that become new things in English, but are there common examples of where they become existing English words?
    – Mitch
    Nov 8, 2023 at 20:08
  • The important information is by Partridge: "German in origin are, most probably, [...] out of sight, a mistranslation of German ausgezeichnet (Eric Partridge, The World of Words. 2015. p. 84. Google Books.)
    – Greybeard
    Nov 9, 2023 at 20:03
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James Main Dixon glosses out of sight as "incomparably; beyond comparison" in his Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases (London, Edinburgh, and New York, 1891), offering this attestation:

She was walking back through the quiet streets of the old- fashioned market-town to the Bank House, with its peculiar importance and dignity, out of sight the best house in Newton. - SARAH TYTLER.

In the preface he writes:

The author received in its compilation valuable help from eminent American scholars, and its definitions and examples are excellent. The objections to the work are, first, that British, as distinguished from American phrases, are conspicuous by their absence ; ...

Here's another attestation:

BRIDGET: Did ye hear of Katy Brennan over the way lighting her fire wid kerosene yisterday?
MARY ANN: Oi did not. How did it wurruk?
BRIDGET: (who is up to the latest slang) Out of sight.

-- America: A Journal for Americans, vol 4, no 3, April 1890.

I think far and away is a close cousin, semantically.

P.S. ausgezeichnet is used as a term of approbation and means "excellent, superb, magnificent" and so semantically it is not far afield from "out of sight" in the sense of "beyond comparison". But without some evidence of the connection, it must remain a conjectural explanation.

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  • But the possible German connection? Nov 8, 2023 at 14:59
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    I responded to that conjecture in a comment. I will import the comment so you can sleep easy tonight.
    – TimR
    Nov 8, 2023 at 15:20
  • Answers which are essentially 'I've found no evidence to support this theory' rarely satisfy. Nov 8, 2023 at 15:47
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    @EdwinAshworth When the origin of the expression is unknown (which is hardly unusual) what can be shown is that it did have the meaning OP says it has in the London piece, and had been used that way since before 1891. I will have to see if the German-origin theory has any merit. They could be folk etymologies.
    – TimR
    Nov 8, 2023 at 18:15
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As a German native speaker, I cannot agree.

As Shoe has already stated in a comment, "ausgezeichnet" is the past participle of the verb "auszeichnen" (to award something to somebody), the corresponding substantive is "Auszeichnung", the German word for award, prize or honour. So in its literal meaning, if somebody / something is "ausgezeichnet", they are so excellent that they have already received a prize, an award. A soldier who has been awarded a medal (Auszeichnung) is "ausgezeichnet", or a cook who got a Michelin star.

Of course the use of the word "ausgezeichnet" is broader nowadays, but the connection to Auszeichnung / award is still clearly visible.

I cannot see the ethymological connection to "out of sight" here. What makes you think that the there is a connection? Because it sounds a bit similar? As far as I understand the phrase, it has nothing to do with awarding something to somebody.

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