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

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

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."