Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Word of the Month: Schmunzeln

My post on Christian Morgenstern from a few days ago suggested to me the current WoM, which is both a verb and a noun (when capitalized). It refers to a close-lipped smile that expresses good-natured joy, amusement, or satisfaction in response to something just encountered or remembered. Because of that, it is more specific than smile (lächeln in German)—you may bare your teeth when someone takes your picture or when you are kissing babies on a campaign stop without enjoying the situation. English "grin" comes close, but schmunzeln is less in-your-face and usually done without malice—nobody would ever tell you to wipe it off your face. "Smirk" is not the same because it always has negative connotations*, and "laugh" is different altogether because it's open-mouthed and usually accompanied by a sound track.

I have to admit that schmunzeln is somewhat old-fashioned, which is too bad because to me, it is the perfect response to a poem by Morgenstern.

As to its etymology, I had supected that it may have entered German via Yiddish, but Duden Online set me straight—it can be traced back to a Middle High German form.
* A friend on Google+, Laura Gibbs, just commented: "Something about smirk: I've noticed that my students often use it with entirely positive connotations, and they are surprised when I tell them it (usually) has negative connotations. So I think something is happening to that word in English...but I am not sure why it is happening. Smile and grin both seem like words in good health! Hmmm..."

Word of the Month: Index

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Christian Morgenstern, Humorist

This is a post I should have written in March 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of Christian Morgenstern's death. But I missed the opportunity and must be content with this belated homage.

Morgenstern (1871-1914) was a German humorist (yes, such creatures exist!) attuned to the oddities of life. Especially the idiosyncrasies of German and its use inspired many of his poems: For example, he deliberately used bad rhymes for comic effect or to gently mock the rhyming conventions of poetry1; he spun funny stories from figures of speech taken literally; he described invented creatures with names he got by fooling around with the names of existing ones; and in the introduction to a collection of his poems, he skewered the impenetrability of German academic prose. Since all of this is so tightly bound to a particular language, it's basically untranslatable.

One may have better luck with poems that simply tell a story without linguistic tricks, and that's what I tried with my translation of Morgenstern's poem Der Hecht (The Pike), which can be read as poking fun at vegetarians, or religious orthodoxy, or both (see illustration on the right). The link below will lead you to the German original together with a literal translation and a rhyming Nachdichtung.
Der Hecht: Original and Translations

Addendum (one day later): Since I posted this, I discovered a poem that (a) illustrates Morgenstern's penchant for taking figures of speech literally; and (b) uses a phrase that has an almost exact equivalent in English, a happy coincidence that motivated me to attempt a translation. And so I added Die beiden Esel (The Two Asses) to the first poem.
Die beiden Esel: Original and Translations

Addendum 2 (Nov. 25, 2015): I tried my hand at a third poem, Der Lattenzaun (The Picket Fence), dear to me because an architect plays a leading role:
Der Lattenzaun: Original and Translations
Morgenstern The Pike

1He shares this predilection with Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908), another master of German comic verse.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Schwippschwägerin, der Schwippschwager

Word of the Month: Index
If you are married and your spouse has a sister, it's your sister-in-law; if it's a brother, it's your brother-in-law. The Germans have single words for these relations, Schwägerin and Schwager, respectively (I won't go into the etymology). So far, so good. But what about the relationship your marriage establishes between your brothers or sisters and your brothers- or sisters-in-law, i.e. between your siblings and your spouse's siblings? I'm not aware of an English term expressing that relationship—well, the Wiktionary has "co-sister-" or "co-brother-in-law", but I swear, I have never heard these terms used in common speech, or seen them used in literature, for that matter.

The Germans, of course, have terms for these relationships: Schwippschwägerin and Schwippschwager: They simply prefix Schwägerin or Schwager with Schwippe (the flexible end of a whip or fishing rod), shorn of its final e (to ease pronunciation), and bingo! you have the relationship expressed in a compound noun (see the top diagram on the left). Note that the terms can also be used to express the relationships between the spouses of siblings (second diagram on the left). In my family, though, we drop the Schwipp in these cases: My brothers' wives call my wife simply Schwägerin and vice-versa.

Why use Schwipp(e) to coin the term anyway? One source suggests it's because the relationship can be flipped; i.e. it works in both directions, from the wife's siblings to those of her husband and vice versa [Bastian Sick, Oct 23, 2015]. A cynic may suggest, in contrast, that it's because a Schwippschwägerin and a Schwippschwager find themselves caught in new relationships without having given their consent (just kidding!).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Geschichtsklitterung

Source: Wikipedia article "Geschichtsfälchung"

Word of the Month: Index
Soviet officials were notorious for falsifying historical records by removing references to persons no longer in favor. An example is shown in the photos on the left. The original (top) is from 1897 and depicts the members of the Revolutionary Club of St. Petersburg, with Lenin in the center. Below is a version from the 1930s with one member removed—he had fallen out of favor with Stalin.

The falsification of history is not restricted to totalitarian regimes. In the US, for example, Christian fundamentalists unwilling to accept the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state try to rewrite history by insisting that the Founding Fathers had intended all along to ground the new nation in the "Judeo-Christian tradition". Another example is the claim (since retracted) made in a textbook for Virginian 4th-graders that thousands of blacks fought for the South in the Civil War, "including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson". (Washington Post, Oct 20, 2010; see also the current controversy in Texas about the role of slavery in the Civil War).

All of this involves falsification with a purpose, and the Germans, of course, have a word for it: Geschichtsklitterung. The first part is a shortened version of Geschichte, which derives from the verb geschehen (to happen, come to pass). Geschichte is used in two distinct meanings: (a) Like English "story", it may refer to a tale told by someone; for example, the English "short story" is called a Kurzgeschichte in German. (b) Like English "history", it may refer to the events that formed a political, geographical, or cultural entity as well as to descriptions of these events. It is in the latter meaning that the term appears in our current WoM. The second part, Klitterung, is a noun derived from the (rarely used) verb klittern (to cobble together; take out of context and misrepresent). Taken together, these components refer to an intentional falsification of history for political or ideological reasons.

There seems to be general agreement that the term originates with Affentheurlich Naupengeheurliche Geschichtklitterung, the pun-laden and therefore untranslatable title of a book by Johann Fischart published in 1575. It is considered one of the first language experiments in German and sometimes called the Finnegan's Wake of the 16th century.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Profilneurose

German Profil means, first of all, a side view of something, especially of the head of somebody. In that sense, it's very similar to English "profile" (The image on the left shows a detail of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X). But there is a second, more figurative meaning that comes into play in our current word of the month: The sum of the (positive) characteristics that uniquely identify someone and differentiate him or her from their peers. This derived meaning is probably a reflection of the fact that the unique shape of a person's forehead, nose, chin, and ears appears most clearly in a profile view. The "profile" applications like Facebook ask us to fill out hints at that second meaning, but doesn't have the heft of the German term.

Neurose is, of course, the German form of English "neurosis". In combination with Profil, it indicates a fear that one's standing among peers is not properly recognized, leading to deliberate efforts to correct the situation, which more often than not backfire because the motivation is obvious and observers are more amused than impressed. The publicity stunts politicians sometimes resort to are very often examples of a Profilneurose in action.

Word of the Month: Index

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Word of the Month: Das Bauernopfer

Here's another term that originated in chess and made it into wider usage from there (cf. Zugzwang, Jan. 2009). Bauer generally means "farmer" or "peasant"; but in chess, it's the name of the piece called "pawn" in English. An Opfer is a sacrifice, and a Bauernopfer is a move in which a player deliberately lets a pawn be taken in order to gain some other advantage. Outside of chess, the term has come to refer to the firing of someone in a subordinate position in order to blunt criticism of someone higher up. It pops up frequently in German discussions when officials are relieved of their duties to cover a superior's you-know-what.

The meaning of Bauernopfer is similar to "sacrificial lamb" in English, but owing to its origin in chess, it has stronger strategic overtones, while lacking, conversely, the religious connotations of "sacrifical lamb." The closest term in English is probably "fall guy."

Word of the Month: Index