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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Geistesblitz

Geistesblitz Isaac Newton
In the present context, Geist means "mind" or "intellect." A Blitz is a lightning stroke, as it occurs during thunderstorms, or a flash, as used in photography. Taken together, they signify a promising idea that suddenly occurs to a person, illuminating his or her mind like a lightning stroke or flash.

I got the idea for the current Word of the Month recently when my friend Thomas Kreifelts sent me an article with the headline Geistesblitz in der Matschnacht—"Geistesblitz in the Mud Night," with intended pun on Matsch ("mud"), which is pronounced (almost) like English "match" so that the headline can also be understood as "Geistesblitz in the Match Night." The article describes a friendly soccer match played on Nov. 18 at night in pouring rain between the Spanish and German national teams. It was an uninspiring affair, not only because of the miserable weather, but also because neither side had been able to field the strongest team owing to injuries to key players. Just when spectators resigned themselves to a scoreless tie (the most boring of soccer results), the German midfielder Toni Kroos saw, in the penultimate minute of regulation time, a sudden opening and hammered the ball towards the Spanish goal from a distance—it slid over the surprised goalie's outstretched hands into the net for a score. It was Kroos's Geistesblitz that illuminated the night like a flash and warmed the hearts of at least the German fans.

Attentive readers will ask why our current word interjects "es" between the two components Geist and Blitz. Well, I guess the time has come to talk about the Fugen-s ("joint s" or "joining s"), which occurs sometimes in German compound words—we encountered it already in such Words of the Month as Armut-s-zeugnis or Glück-s-pilz. Its function is to make the word easier to pronounce. The "s" becomes "es" (turning the first component from a nominative into a genitive) when this further facilitates pronunciation, for example, by breaking up a consonant cluster.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Flemming's First and Second Law of Taking Offense

We live in a culture (and I'm speaking not only about the USA) that puts a high value on feeling offended. It seems that, for some people, finding occasions that allow them to be offended is a central purpose in their lives (if they have a life). I find this annoying most of the times, if not outright exasperating some times. And so, I formulated two laws of taking offense.

1. It is silly to be offended when no offense was intended.
This is so obvious to me that I won't elaborate.

2. It is silly to be offended when an offense was intended because it plays right into the hands of offenders: You react the way they want you to react; i.e., you are doing them a favor.

The rationale behind the second law may be less obvious—so, let me elaborate. I think that if you really want to frustrate would-be offenders, try to beat them at their own game by laughing at them or playing along (did I mention the name of this blog?); i.e., by making it clear that you are not offended. For example, there was a time when I followed live chats accompanying sports events like tennis matches. The level in these chats is so low that one has to participate to actually believe it; for example, a popular retort to someone whose remark a commenter does not like is, "I f***ed your mother last night." My standard response has been in this case, "And she loved it and wants more," which shuts them off immediately. Of course, I now avoid chats like that as a matter of course.

A more serious illustration for my second law at work is provided by groups who adopt a moniker meant to be derogatory and use it themselves—with pride. A recent example from Germany is the adjective schwul, which was, when I grew up, a really negative designation of homosexuals. But gay people adopted it and it's now a completely common designation stripped of its former connotations. Homophobes had to come up with a new derogatory term, which is now, as far as I can see from my remote perch, the noun Schwuchtel. I hope gay people adopt this one, too; i.e., keep the bigots continuously on the run, rather than trying to continuously run away from them.

Here's an example from history: The Dutch who fought for liberation from their Spanish occupiers in the 80-year war (1568-1648) called themselves geuzen, a word derived from the French word for "beggar." It had been used initially by the Spanish as a derogatory moniker for the Dutch who resisted them. By making the word their own, those same Dutch robbed it of its sting. (Source:, visited on Dec. 2, 2014)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Quasselstrippe

Quasseln is a verb used colloquially in the sense of "yack" or "prattle," and a Strippe, again used colloquially, is a cord, line, or thin cable connecting two things. In the days when all telephones were connected by landlines, Quasselstrippe was used as a somewhat derogatory, if humorous moniker for a telephone: It was the line used by people to yack away. But landlines are a dying breed, whereas Quasselstrippe is still very much in use today—its meaning has shifted from the instrument used to yack to the yacker him- or herself. It now denotes a person who just won't shut up, on the cell phone, as a moderator on TV, or in any other context where this sort of behavior gets on people's nerve.

I love the term because of the way it sounds, but hesitated for a long time to feature it as a Word of the Month because it is a feminine noun—the implication seems to be that women are particularly fond of yacking; i.e., it could be considered sexist. But on closer inspection, that charge falls apart. The gender of a German compound noun is determined by the gender of the dominant compound, Strippe in the present case, and Strippe happens to be feminine. This gender assignment is completely arbitrary in the same way in which it is completely arbitrary that Wurst (sausage) is also feminine, Schirm (umbrella) is masculine, or Telephon (telephone) is neuter. That is to say, the gender of the majority of German nouns has nothing to do with sex or gender in the biological sense. I believe this is also true for Quasselstrippe—when the term was initially applied to a telephone, it was not because Strippe is feminine, but because a Strippe was one of the essential components of a telephone.

The distinction between grammatical gender and biological sex is sometimes hard to grasp for speakers of English, in which this distinction does not exist. Mark Twain, for example, in his famous essay on the awful German language, just could not wrap his head around this idea (but was able to milk it for comic effect).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Querdenker

Quer is an adverb meaning "across," and a Denker is a thinker (from denken - to think). In combination, the words indicate a person who thinks independently or "outside the box," as the saying goes. Querdenkerin is the female form. But whatever the gender, the implication is that the ideas of such a person are not always understood or accepted.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New Photobook: Bhutan and Nepal

Here's my latest—you'll understand why we found this trip unforgettable. As usual, full-screen view is best (although some images may look grainy, depending on your monitor).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Kummerspeck

We encountered Kummer (sorrow, grief, anxiety) already in Liebeskummer, our word of the month for December 2009. Speck is the fatty tissue people or animals may carry on their bodies.* Kummerspeck, then, is the stuff that grows visibly around the midriff of people who overeat out of anxiety or grief.
*It may be also a byproduct of the slaughtering of hogs, eaten as such or used to flavor dishes; but that's not the meaning in the present context.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Word of the Month: Fremdschämen

Fremd is an adjective meaning, in this context, "alien" or "foreign." Schämen is a (reflexive) verb meaning "to be ashamed" or "to be embarrassed." In combination, they mean "to be ashamed for somebody else who is behaving in an embarrassing way." The verb is used, in particular, if there is some indication that the culprits themselves are not embarrassed, even though they should be. For example, one may conclude the description of the outrageous behavior of some spectators at an event with the sentence, "Ich hab mich fremdgeschämt (I felt embarrassed [for these people])."

The verb appears for the first time in the Duden, the official German spelling dictionary, in 2009. That is, it is of relatively recent coinage, and I was not aware of it until I saw it used some years ago in an online forum. Since then, it has become a favorite of mine for several reasons. For one, it succinctly represents a feeling that overcomes me at times. It also demonstrates, again, the ease with which one can combine seemingly unrelated words in German to capture, in a compact form, some nuanced meaning—apparently, this process is still going on in the German language community.

I am well aware that using our current Word of the Month as a foreign word in English is just about impossible. It is, first of all, a verb, and I have no idea how you would conjugate it in English. In addition, it is a reflexive verb, which makes this task even more challenging (see the example in the opening paragraph). I decided nevertheless to make fremdschämen a Word of the Month for the reasons stated above. People traveling to Germany or reading German papers may encounter it, and students of the German language may find it an interesting neologism in its own right.