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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.

In the latter sense, 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 term pops up frequently in German discussions when officials are relieved of their duties to cover a superior's you-know-what. [Full version under construction]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Korinthenkacker

Korinthen are very small and dark raisins (named after Korinth, German for Corinth, the town in Greece that gave those special raisins their German name). Kacker is a noun derived from kacken, a slang term for moving your bowels. Taken literally, then, a Korinthenkacker is a person who produces nothing more impressive than raisin-like turds when going to the bathroom. Figuratively, and that's how the term is used exclusively, it's a pedant who hides his inability to see the larger picture behind an obsessive focus on small details. I say "his" because Korinthenkacker is masculine—Korinthenkackerin would be the feminine form.

The most recent time I saw the term used was on a German blog, where a commenter was called a Korinthenkacker because all he or she had to say was to correct another commenter's spelling. And my Facebook friend Richard Caldwell pointed me to a very instructive blurb on the etymology of kacken .

Word of the Month: Index

Monday, March 30, 2015

Word of the Month: Der Dünnbrettbohrer

It's time to up the ante and introduce a word consisting of three compounds. In the present case, they are dünn (thin); Brett (board); and Bohrer (driller, from bohren—to drill). In combination, they give us a "driller of thin boards," indicating a person who tends to choose the path of least resistance—especially in terms of mental exertion—when dealing with a task. I've heard the term used, for example, to characterize a PhD candidate who has selected an easy topic and has treated it in a way that's just (barely) sufficient to pass. Dünnbrettbohrerin is the female form.

Word of the Month: Index

Friday, March 20, 2015

Rumpelstiltskin: The Initial Version

Following my post on parallels I saw between Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Rumpelstiltskin, I dug a little deeper into the origins of the Grimm Brothers' tale and discovered that there exists an initial version in manuscript form, which has survived by sheer accident: The Grimms had lent a handwritten collection of tales to their friend Clemens Brentano, who was keenly interested in folk tales, and expected it to be returned. Well, Brentano never did, and the manuscript was found in his bequest—it's known as the Ölenberger Handschrift (Ölenberg Manuscript). This collection contains, among others, the original version of Rumpelstiltskin, who is called Rumpenstünzchen there. The link below will lead you to a translation.
Rumpenstünzchen - My translation
A comparison of this initial version with the published one is truly startling. It shows, first of all, the lengths to which the brothers went in editing the tales they had collected, which went well beyond embellishments and involved, in the present case at least, a substantial reworking of the plot.

It starts with a reversal in the premise under which the heroine is introduced. In the original, she cannot spin flax properly and always produces gold. In the later version, she cannot spin gold from anything. Subsequent modifications of the plot result from this reversal, as summarized in the table below. (Note that because of the terseness of the original version, the reader has to make assumptions about gaps in the plot, especially when it comes to motivation—it may well be that other readers will interpret the text differently from me, but the table shows my currently best guess.)
Original manuscript Published version
The girl always spins gold from flax. The girl cannot spin gold from anything.
Her predicament is, apparently, that this is not considered a useful talent. Her predicament is that the king expects her to spin gold from straw, as promised by her father, and threatens to kill her if she can't deliver.
Rumpenstünzchen helps her by marrying her to a prince. We must assume that this solves her predicament because either the prince does appreciate her talent or does not expect his wife to engage in lowly chores. Rumpelstiltskin helps her by spinning the straw into gold for her.
The king is impressed and marries her, and the two plots proceed more or less in parallel from here, except for the ending.
Rumpenstünzchen's punishment consists of his not getting the child. Other than that, he escapes unharmed. Rumpelstiltzkin not only does not get the child, but also dies a horrible death.
The Grimms not only rewrote the plot, but embellished it with details, and it's these details that suggested to me the parallels I saw between Rumpelstiltskin and Shylock. In the initial version, we have only the actions of the girl and Rumpenstünzchen, with a guest appearance by the maid—there is no societal context. In the published version, we have interactions between the various protagonists from which a context emerges, a hierarchically-structured society in which everybody has a proper role to play and against which Rumpelstiltskin remains the outsider: As is the case with Shylock, his services are sought to get a member of that society out of serious trouble, but he is denied his mutually agreed-upon compensation, essentially by a conspiracy of the insiders against him

It's fascinating to speculate if the Grimms were, at least subconsciously, influenced in their rewriting of the tale by Shakespeare's play—after all, Shakespeare was extremely popular among the German romantics—among them were A. W. Schlegel and L. Tieck, contemporaries of the Grimms, who completed (with other collaborators) the monumental task of translating all of his plays into German, making him a "German playwright."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Wortklauberei

Wort means "word" and Klauberei is a noun derived form the verb klauben—to carefully pick over or sort out something (not to be confused with glauben—to believe). The verb is neutral in its connotations, but Wortklauberei is decidedly not: It stands for a pedantically narrow interpretation of a word or expression, conceived in the most literal sense. The nouns referring to people perpetrating Wortklauberei are Wortklauber (masc), Wortklauberin (fem) and Wortklauber (plural); wortklauberisch is the adjective.

Here is an example. A recent New York Times crossword puzzle had as its theme "Where's Waldo?", represented by four theme answers containing different anagrams of WALDO. A crossword blogger complained that these answers did not "hide" Waldo because "he's not hiding so much as he is dismembered...If I accept this puzzle's premise, then the word 'hiding' just loses all meaning." I consider this Wortklauberei: If the name "Waldo" would appear unchanged in the answers, it would not be hidden, but visible in plain sight—in the realm of words, where crossword puzzles reside, anagramming a name is an elegant way of hiding it, to me at least.

Here's another, more substantive example: Article 1(1) of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz—Basic Law) declares
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt. (The dignity of a human being is inviolable [literally, "untouchable"]. To respect and to protect it is the duty of all powers of the state.).
I've heard remarks to the effect that these two sentences contain a contradiction: If human dignity is inviolable, it does not need protection. Really? If an area is off-limits, doesn't it need protection nevertheless, or rather, because of it? The same is true for Article 1(1): Its intent is clear enough, and I find it wortklauberisch, and annoyingly so, to take the authors of the article to task for the language they used.

Word of the Month: Index

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Mutti

Word of the Month: Index

Mutti Angela Merkel
Mutti is not a compound word, and there are perfectly fine equivalents in English. That is, the WoM for January does not satisfy any of the criteria I usually apply when making a WoM selection. But I decided to make an exception, motivated by a recent, remarkably nuanced portrait of Angela Merkel, the current chancellor of Germany, in the New Yorker (George Packer, "The Quiet German"). Merkel is known by supporters and opponents alike as Mutti, a diminutive of Mutter (mother), which is used in Germany like "mom" or "mummy" is used in English-speaking countries. For my brothers and me, for instance, our mother has always been Mutti.

On the face of it, Merkel is as unlikely a person to be called Mutti as you could find. She has no children. She obtained her PhD the old-fashioned way—she earned it, and in a hard science to boot (as opposed to some other members of her party who had their titles taken away after charges of plagiarism turned out to be true). But she abandoned her academic career when she became interested in politics after the unification of Germany and has pursued her new career with single-minded determination ever since. Her husband is a highly-respected university professor with his own career, and the two are hardly seen together in public. In other words, Merkel is not exactly Mutti material.

But the name has stuck. Merkel won her third election in 2013 (the third chancellor of the Federal Republic to accomplish this feat) with a campaign that was remarkable for its absence of big themes or grandiose visions. Her point was, "Stick with me and you're safe." Clearly, a large number of Germans bought it* and do not hesitate to call her Mutti, in a half-mocking and half-admiring way (that she looks the part, in a particularly dowdy fashion, may also play a role, particularly for those who use the moniker more derisively).

And there are many of those, if the comments I read on political blogs are in any way representative. In fact, there seems to exist an almost visceral hatred of her in parts of the left. Some of it may stem from old-fashioned snobbery—anything that's popular cannot be good by definition. But the hatred seems to sit deeper, and I find a clue why this may be so in a quote by a Social Democrat cited in the New Yorker article, "Merkel took politics out of politics." And that is anathema for those to whom ideology is the only thing that matters in politics; for those who are against a measure when it's ideologically incorrect, even if it works in practice, and conversely, are for a measure when it is ideologically correct, even if it does not work in practice. So, the common complaint against Merkel is that she has no vision and is just "muddling through" (durchwurschteln in German).**

I'm too far away to have a definite opinion on this (and would welcome comments from people closer to the action). But there are two traits of her I admire from my distant perch. It's first of all her ability to remain unaufgeregt ("unperturbed"), even when faced with attacks and insults of the most vile kind, as they happen routinely in countries unhappy with her fiscal policies and having a press that appears to be in a state of permanent hysteria. My favorite cartoon of 2014 (which I cannot show here because of copyright issues) was sent to me by my friend Volker Sayn. It shows a row of spectators looking after a group of politicians that just passed by, with a dowdy-looking woman in a pant suit in the center. Says one spectator to his neighbor, "That was Merkel? I did not recognize her without the Hitler mustache."

And she does not make a mistake twice. In her first election, she had run on a platform calling for continuing the economic reforms initiated by her (social-democratic) predecessor and had made an economics professor a member of her advisory team. He, in turn, used the occasion to introduce one of his pet projects, a flat tax rate, into the debate—and this in a country that firmly believes, across the political spectrum, in progressive taxation and despite the fact that absolutely nobody else regarded this an issue. The electorate was confused, and Merkel almost lost the election. She never again ran on a platform calling for significant reforms in any shape—her supposed lack of vision may be based on this experience.

A second example: When the Euro crisis started for good with Greece going practically bankrupt in 2010, Merkel called for leaders of the Euro Zone to get together and work out a general solution "in solidarity," only to learn that nobody wanted to follow her lead because it would inevitably imply the loss of some sovereignty for the countries involved. Merkel never suggested this again and has been trying to muddle through the crisis ever since. [If there's one principle she keeps in mind, it's not to "throw good money after bad" and to protect the German taxpayer from having to bail out countries that got into the mess they are in through their own fault (and many Germans love her for it).] I think she knows that when other countries call for Germany to assume more of a leadership role, it's a euphemism for asking the Germans to write blank checks for everyone asking for them—when German politicians suggest something else, like the need for some structural reforms, they are invariably chastized for "trying to tell other people what to do." [What's positively infuriating to some Germans is that at the same time, everybody feels perfectly fine lecturing the Germans about what they ought to do.]

If there is one issue where I believe leadership on the European stage is urgently needed (at no immediate cost for anybody), it's to impress upon the generations that have not grown up in the immediate aftermath of WWII that the European Union is an achievement of singular historical significance for a continent that has seen the type of bloodshed Europe has experienced for thousands of years. But alas, Merkel is not suited for this role—as the article mentions, she is an awkward public speaker, which is a polite way of saying charisma is not her forte.
*This astonishing map shows how sweeping her victory was—her party won 86% of the electoral districts (the black areas in the map—click on the "Wahlkreise" tab if the map does not appear immediately). If Germany had a system like the UK, Merkel's party would have controlled 86% of the seats in parliament. But since the final distribution of seats reflects the percentage of votes obtained by each party overall, Merkel had to form a coalition government in order to gain a parliamentary majority.
**Lindblom's The Science Of 'Muddling Through' (1959), a manifest of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, has never made an impression on "principled" Germans.