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Monday, September 1, 2008

Word of the Month: Notnagel


A Notnagel (lit. "emergency nail" or "nail in need") is an iron nail carried by firefighters of old—to be used when an escape from an upper floor through the interior was blocked: It could be hammered into an outside window or door frame so that a rope could be put through the hole, allowing the endangered firefighter to rappel down to safety. Now used to indicate a last-minute substitute or remedy, a stopgap solution. I like this modern, figurative use of the term because of its association with a real and remarkable object (Source)

Note on pronunciation: Both the "o" and "a" are long and no diphthongs. Especially the "a" is pronounced like the "a" in "father", not like the "a" in "bagel". But the "g" is voiced as in "bagel".

19 comments:

fikink said...

This is a terrific, lovely word and object of which I was unaware. If I were to come across one at an auction I would bid on it. (Is this because I am currently intrigued with all things forged? or were they cast?)

Moliticon said...

I like the whole idea of a fire brigade museum. Have you been there, Ulrich? I see Linz on the map between Salzburg and Vienna? I bet that would make a nice side trip.

Ulrich said...

@fikink: I don't know anything about the process, but it's a good question. I'll see if I can contact the Firebrigade Museum from where I got the image.

@moliticon: I've never been to Linz, but the museum looks intriguing. It's apparently located in a converted cow stable of a former Stiftsmeierhof, which is the dairy farm attached to a convent. BTW A Meier (surviving as one of the most common surnames in German-speaking countries) could have been a steward (manager of an estate) or a dairy farmer.

Myles Callum said...

Great word, especially in its contemporary figurative sense. What would be the nearest English equivalent--stopgap, as you said?
The crossword dictionary by Baus also mentions the French "pis aller," but I never hear anyone actually using that. So where does the "h," as in Mike Nothnagel, get into the act?

Myles

Ulrich said...

@fikink: I got an answer from the Museum. The Notnagel in the picture was first cast and then manually worked on to create the hooks and notches. I was also told that some Notnägel (that's the plural) are just cast--no hooks.

@myles: The nice thing is the word is really used today in the figurative sense. I do not know of a direct English equivalent--that's why it became a "word of the month". Depending on the context, one would say stopgap, or substitute, or whatever seems appropriate.

As to the "th": Before the significant spelling reform in Germany around the turn of the 19th/20th century (I do not know the exact date), a "t" was always followed by an "h". But the "h" had no function--the pronunciation was always like English "t", not "th" (as anyone who has watched Hogan's Heros knows, German has no "th" :-) So, the reform got rid of the h's after t's. My guess is the ancestors of the Nothnagels in the US emigrated before the reform had taken place (which is to say that, strictly speaking, the name should be pronounced as I said in the post, i.e. without the "th" and not to rhyme with "bagel".)

An interesting aside: The reform took place during the reign of one of the Prussian Emperors, and the obsequious weasels of the reform committee did not dare to remove the "h" from Thron ("throne"). I believe that this happened only in the most recent reform (which is generally despised BTW).

Ulrich said...

Correction: It's not true that a "t" was always followed by an "h" before the old spelling reform. I should have said "sometimes".

fikink said...

Ulrich, did the reforms replace the "oe" with the umlauted O, or did that happen long before?
I love the fact that the notnagel was worked after casting, but I would think that their production would have been so labor-intensive it would have precluded their mass production. Were they ever used in this country? Are they still in use anywhere? Brother Dit forged a meat turner for his Revolutionary rendezvous. He will flip when I tell him about these!

Ulrich said...

Fikink: Your questions get tougher and tougher. I have no idea when the umlaut replaced the following e--I only have an idea how it happened. In the old script (still written by my grandmother), the lower-case e consisted of two parallel, connected bars. In a first move, the e was placed on top of the vowel (a, o, or u), rather than behind, then the connection between the two bars was lost--they became two strokes, and then the two strokes became two dots (to the present day, one can use two strokes instead of two dots--they are easier to write). Again, I've no idea when this happened, or how long it took.

I also have no answer for any of the Notnagel-related questions. To research their use in the US, one would have to know their English name, which I do not know. [@Myles: Is your dictionary of any help--mine gives only the figurative meaning, and gets it wrong!] Perhaps Brother Dit coud help us out here.

fikink said...
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fikink said...

cool! I will ask him. 
My questions getting harder? That's a high compliment from you!

I think I mentioned to you my paternal grandparents came from a German enclave in Russia. I can remember seeing that grandmother's writing when I was a child. I wonder if the old script is what I was seeing.

myles callum said...

My Baus is a wonderful crossword dictionary beloved of members of the National Puzzlers League, but it doesn't seem to be of much help here--just gives synonyms like substitute, expedient, resort, etc.
To which one might add "make-do."

It would be interesting to find out whether modern firefighters use anything like that. I know they use certain rock-climbing gear, like carabiners and descenders, but the descenders only have the "eye" part, not the nail-like extension you would hammer in.

Frustrating as it is, I do love it when another language has a word for which there is no English equivalent. Sorta like finding a Sniglet made in another country. :-)

Myles

Ulrich said...

@myles: What makes Notnagel so special is the Not ("dire straits", "emergency") part: It implies not just any remedy, but a remedy when you need it most.

I commented already in an earlier Word of the Month thread that I find these words that have no equivalent in another language so interesting b/c they tell us something about the "collective experience" of that language community. It works in both directions, of course.

ArtLvr said...

Happy to catch up with your insights finally, Ulrich! -- I'd say we use "safety net" in a similar figurative sense, for stopgap policies and programs like Social Security and FDIC insurance, and perhaps "pinchhitter" for a person brought in to help out in a more immediate emergency...

"Bailout" comes to mind too, as with the current financial crisis, and "safeguards". The free market is not going to work without active oversight and regulation to curb excesses -- contrary to the mindset of those who adhere to the Reagan slogan "Government is the problem". After instituting a fatal moratorium on fiscal responsibility, ruining the fair playing field, they created a situation where the buck has all but stopped here.. nearly down the drain!

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: Welcome back, and yes to all of that.

By way of thread drift: As I see it, at the core is the fact that b/c of the way in which things are set up after decades of misrule (it all started under Reagan), the market no longer punishes mistakes, provided the blunder is big enough. When our pizza man goes out of business b/c not enough people like his pizza, he loses everything. The CEO who runs a great company into the ground walks away with 140 mio$ in "severance pay"--it's obscene. The pizza parlor goes bankrupt, but the giant company comes running to the tax payer begging for a bailout--and gets it! This has been called "lemon socialism" for a while now, and it's time for the people to finally demand a stop to it b/c at that level, the market is not working since "failure" cannot be allowed to happen. We need oversight at that level, to prevent speculators from ruining entire economies and looting the treasury (I shudder what will happen when Cheney and Co. get the blank check from Congress that they are asking for).

Back to the topic: There are certain Notnägel that you absolutely do not want to use--ever.

ArtLvr said...
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ArtLvr said...

Good thing I don't have a Notnagel on hand... One of the final nails in the coffin of the financial crisis was the very stupid removal by the Bush administration a year ago of the venerable uptick rule governing short-selling. It simply required that a short sale could not be executed unless a higher price in a stock immediately preceded the sale. This rule was in place for decades, and effectively prevented a stock from being hit by a fast series of sales deliberately designed to start a panic or freefall, without starting any false rumors (still ilegal, I hope). Who thought up that change or why is not clear, but it was diabolical -- the perfect example of deregulation gone amok!

mac said...

Even though I personally have never had anything to do with it, my daily Dutch (NRC) newspaper tells me that it was actually the Dutch, in the 17th!!! century who developed this short and naked short selling! I'm ashamed.

Ulrich said...

@mac: I read the same thing in the Wikipedia article on short selling (for the first time in my life, I think I understand what it means)--you Dutch are certainly an enterprising bunch:-)

Ulrich said...

...and thanks to artlvr for giving the old Notnagel a second lease on life--you put it on an uptick again!