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Friday, August 1, 2008

Word of the month: Schlimmbesserung

This word is different from the ones I talked about before: I had never heard it used until someone mentioned it on another blog. My first reaction was: This must be a neologism that occurred after I left Germany. But then, thanks to the wonders of the web, I found a source that is over 200 years old: Someone complaining--at the beginning of the 19th century--about the editors of the play by Kleist, Der Prinz von Homburg, who, in the attempt to improve upon Kleist’s language, actually made it worse. And that’s exactly what the term means: An intended improvement that has the opposite effect (the adjective schlimm can mean anything from "bad" to "malicious"; the noun Besserung means "improvement"--literally "betterment")--a useful word indeed, given how often we have seen so-called "reforms" that make a situation worse.

Details in my first comment.


Ulrich said...

Some informal inquiries during my recent visit to Germany showed that the term is being used--in fact, it occurs in various forms, derived form the two German words for "improvement", Besserung and Verbesserung, and the two corresponding verbs, bessern and verbessern. As a result, we have Schlimmbesserung, Verschlimmbesserung, schlimmbessern, and verschlimmbessern.

The reason for these variants seems to be that Besserung and Verbesserung are not exact synonyms; i.e. in certain situations, you cannot use one of the words b/c only the other one would be idiomatically correct. For example, you wish a sick person gute Besserung, but not gute Verbesserung; conversely, the new engine design for a car may be a Verbesserung--it's not a Besserung (unless the prior design was really sick). It seems to me that Verbesserung means generally a purposeful correction (from the outside), whereas Besserung is a change for the better "from the inside", intended or not. This may also explain why I heard Verschlimmbesserung more often mentioned in Germany than Schlimmbesserung, but for non-native speakers, it's a moutful--so, let's stick with Schlimmbesserung.

Myles Callum said...

Thanks for your note, and Schlimmbesserung it is. Since my Cassell's had verschlimmbesserung, I guess I won't throw that dictionary out just yet. :-) Either way it's one of those wonderful words for an entire concept, and a phenomenon that I imagine all of us have experienced.
Thanks again for the follow-up.


miriam b said...

Thanks so much for your exegesis, Ulrich, and for the explanation of the distinction between bessern and verbessern. As for the 200-year-old reference: That's just fascinating. The web is our friend (usually). Danke sehr!


Ulrich said...

Lest I forget: Among the classical German prose authors, Heinrich von Kleist is my favorite. Nobody else wrote sex-and-violence stories like he did in his novellas. Check them out if you can get hold of an English translation: The Earthquake in Chili (present-day Chile), The Wedding in Santo Domingo (takes place during the Toussaint revolution), The Marquise of O. (made into a movie by Éric Rohmer in 1976 and starring the great Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, two actors whom I've seen on stage in Berlin in the 1070s), among others...