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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hope meets reality

This is the December version of the political threads that we have had since the end of August—I can't believe that it has been that long!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Word of the month: Dolchstoßlegende

Word of the Month: Index

Our word of the month is composed of three compounds: Dolch (dagger), Stoß (stab, thrust), and Legende (legend, myth). It means literally "dagger stab legend (or myth)". The phrase has its origin in the aftermath of WWI: Reactionaries of various stripes claimed that Germany lost the war not on the battlefields, but on the home front, where socialists, communists, liberal democrats, or Jews (i.e. all the usual bugaboos of the German right at the time) "stabbed the fighting troops in the back" by sabotaging the war effort (through strikes, anti-war writings etc.).

The term is now generally used to characterize efforts to assign blame for a lost cause not to the real culprits, but to those that the blamers consider their adversaries. Right now, we can observe a Dolchstoßlegende in the making when we follow right-wing commentators trying to blame the outcome of the recent election not on the deficiencies of the McCain campaign, but on the (alleged) pro-Obama stance of the so-called "liberal media".

Addendum: Dolchstoßlegenden after the 2016 election.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cross-cultural idioms

In a prior thread, we briefly touched on cross-cultural idioms, a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I have always wanted to turn this into a full-fledged thread, and now I got beaten to the punch (an idiom, BTW, that does not exist in German).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food shmooze

No matter what topic we start with, talk will turn eventually to food (happens on Rex's xword blog, too). Mac's mentioning of Grünkohl, Dutch version, in the "Hope won!" thread made not only my mouth water, but also that of another reader (see the first comment). So, let's move the food talk to this new thread and continue with politics on the preceding one (eventually, we'll have to create a new political thread, too. But as long as the old one stays "above the fold", I don't see the need for starting a new one).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope won!

Pictures of Americans crying for joy are going around the world and reactions from all over the world are pouring in: The image of America has changed literally over night. What a night, what a day after!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Word of the month: Maulfaul, mundfaul

Maulfaul—or mundfaul—is an adjective adding faul ("lazy") to Maul ("mouth" of animals) or Mund ("mouth" of people). It literally means "mouth-lazy" and could be translated as "uncommunicative" or "taciturn". But it connotes taciturnity with an attitude, the result of boredom, or an expression of passive resistance. You could call a student who answers a question by a teacher with a shrug "uncommunicative", but maulfaul captures the underlying attitude in a more graphic way, calling up the image of a mouth too lazy to move. That's why I'm fond of the word.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Word of the month: Schnulze

So far, all Words of the Month have been compounds that hitch together two seemingly unrelated nouns. This month, I’m introducing a word of a different kind, a neologism that could join the well-established kitsch and schmalz ("shmaltz" in its Yiddish form) to indicate excessive sentimentality in art. Schnulze, in particular, refers to an overly sentimental pop song. I love the word because of its onomatopoetic expressiveness: It mimics the sobbing it’s intended to induce.

Note on pronunciation: The word consists of two syllables—Shnool-tsah—where the "oo" is short as in "foot".

Endgame: Hope vs. fear

The PUMA thread has far outlived its initial topic, but there seems to exist a real desire among some of my readers to continue a discussion of all things campaign-related. This, then, is the thread where we can do this.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On designing small things

So far, I have been talking exclusively about topics that do not belong to my specific field of expertise, architecture and design—I have been talking about this stuff for 30 years of teaching and research, and I greatly enjoy the opportunity of finally being able to talk about other things that interest me. But this doesn't mean I lost interest in design issues.

This thread was motivated by a brief discussion I had, via e-mail, about the design of graphical avatars and by the longer discussion we had some days ago on an xword blog about the state quarter program of the US Mint. Different as quarters and avatars may seem, they have one important feature in common: Both are small objects, and their design is more or less successful depending on how the designer took that feature into account. I'll elaborate on this in my first comment

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Eggcorns, malaprops, mondegreens, and plain idioms

This is what a reader posted yesterday on an xword blog: "I remain impressed with how non-native English speakers adopt the language so well, yet there are always some instances of idioms that don't turn out so well. I cite a German guy from last night's dinner party who worried about throwing the kid out with the bathtub, and a former German colleague who asked for ballpoint figures...Anyone can make these minor errors, of course, but I find extra amusement when they're stated in a slightly foreign accent."

I agree, especially about the "slightly foreign accent", and the examples really made me laugh—they definitely struck a chord. Since the puzzle blog does not allow us to have more fun with this, let's do it here. For starters, I will remind everyone in my first comment of what a malapropism, a mondegreen, and an eggcorn is b/c it seems to me that much of the funny stuff falls into one of these categories— I certainly have committed sins in every one of them.

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".

Saturday, August 30, 2008


In an xword blog today, I introduced pumas ("party unity my ass" people) merely as a humorous aside. But apparently, it struck a chord with some readers. So, this is a thread where we can continue talking about these creatures.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Heine today

The indefatigable marlene has opend the discussion on another German poet who is of great interest to me, too. I will chime in after trying to get hold of the essay Die Wunde Heine by T. W. Adorno, who should have much to say about this. (Not that I take Adorno as final authority on many subjects, but I find him really illuminating when it comes to literary criticism because of his penchant for debunking established wisdom)

BTW Die Wunde Heine is hard to translate. It means literally "The Wound Heine", which isn't really English. One has a choice between "Heine as [Open] Wound", "Heine's Wound", "Heine, the [Open] Wound" and perhaps other possibilities. I probably like the first one best.

Addendum: After starting this thread, I have translated two Heine poems I like. They may offer a good way to get into this topic.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

For people who love cats

This blog may need some comic relief. So, here is a poem by me that started out as a parody of Emily Dickinson. But I could not really get the edginess with which she often goes against the meter she has set up. And so, I ended up with a poem "in the style of Dickinson":

There is a corner in my room
where Cat prefers to pee -
and then he yawns and walks away -
leaving the mess to me.

And as a wipe I contemplate
the nature of this act -
was this a form of vengeance or
simply a lack of tact?

But then I look into his eyes
and in his whiskered face -
I gather up my soap and cloth -
and sigh - and rest my case.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Word of the month: Schlimmbesserung

Word of the Month: Index

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 a 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.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

German comfort food

Yesterday in an xword blog, some very disparaging things were said about lima beans. This saddens me because Dicke Bohnen mit Speck (lima beans with bacon) is a classic regional dish in the Rhineland, where I grew up--it was one of the comfort foods of my youth. To kick this thread off, I'll start with the recipe in my first comment.

And speaking about lima beans: my wife makes a very good lima bean dip with cumin, a little cream. and butter.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Rilke

Marlene started a post on Rilke, and I am delighted to take her up on this. I am no specialist, though--which should encourage other non-specialists to contribute!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The awful German language

In a thriller I recently read, the author describes people waiting at an airport and speaking in "ugly German". This was an aside, of no consequence to anything in the plot: It's simply understood that German is ugly. I have encountered this attitude many times while living in the US, and it has motivated me to launch this post.

It's true that German can be ugly. We have our share of poetic hacks who butcher their syntax to make their sentences fit some strict meter or rhyme scheme. German academic prose has a bad reputation that is not entirely undeserved: There are indeed professors (and others) who consider unreadabilty a sign of profundity—I've seen sentences that do not yield their meaning even after a third parsing. But then there are the masters, and it is they who show us how expressive and musical German can be. One would not try to assess the beauty of (American) football by watching one's neighbor quarterbacking a pick-up team—one would watch Joe Montana or Danny Marino. Similarly, one should go to Goethe, and Hölderlin, and Rilke to find out what German can do. And this tradition is neither restricted to poetry nor dead. Among modern prose authors, for example, I find that Christoph Ransmeyer’s language has a beauty that is positively seductive.

Let me, then, kick off this discussion by summoning the great Jose Luis Borges as witness. I'm grateful that Laraine Flemming pointed me to his poem To the German Language. It reads so well in English that I thought at first it was written by Borges like this. But then I found the Spanish original and realized that the English version was a translation by the poet and translator Christopher Mulrooney. I think either version will serve nicely to start a discussion.

Addendum (March 2017): The link to the Mulrooney translation doesn't work anymore in my browsers. If you have the same problem, try copying and pasting the url directly into your browser:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Translating Der Erlkönig and such

Motivated by today's NYT crossword puzzle, I present here, for further discussion, my thoughts on the chances and pitfalls of translating German texts into English--and vice-versa.

Here's the comment I put on the puzzle blog: Der Erlkönig (The Erlking): A Lied (art song) by the greatest composer of such songs in German, Schubert, using as lyrics the perhaps best known ballad by the greatest German poet of all time, Goethe... The ballad/song has not lost its appeal to the present day. Nabokov quotes the first two lines in my favorite Nabokov book, Pale Fire; Hilary Hahn has a wonderful version of it for solo violin; and Kraut Rock is also not immune to its allure.

Among the versions I found on youtube, I liked this audio-only version by the great basso A. Kipnis because of the clarity of his diction. If you do not know the lyrics, here is the German text together with a (workable, if flat-footed) prose translation.

This brings me to the present thread. For starters, please read some of my general thoughts on translation and take a look at my own prose line-by-line translation of this gem by Goethe.

Monday, July 14, 2008

German odds and ends

Let's make this a free-for-all for whatever comes to anybody's mind relating to something German.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

On grammar and grammarians

It's not surprising that our spirited debate about the English gerund has broadened. Once you realize that, as I said in that thread, grammars are not divine laws handed down to us by some higher authority, but human constructs afflicted with all the beauty and flaws such constructs often have, the differences between the approaches underlying various grammars (especially if they deal with the same language!) become indeed an intriguing topic. So, let's talk about grammars and grammarians under a more general perspective.

As an introduction, I suggest that you read my comment from July 8, 10:32 am, on the post named "Gerund vs. present participle" below.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gerund vs. present participle

The charge (raised in an xword blog on Sunday) is that "[something] may have to do with me not being too fond of forced puns..." is grammatically wrong and should read "..with MY [instead of ME] not being fond of.."

First a general principle: If you claim that something is grammatically wrong, state the rule that is being violated, not just what you think the correct version should be like--in the present case, WHY should ME be replaced by MY?

I can think of no reason b/c both versions appear correct to me. In "with me being not too fond of..." "being" is the present participle of "to be", which modifies "me", the object case of the pronoun "I", which has to be selected after "with" b/c "with" is a preposition and requires the object case (so much for people who think "between you and I" is correct--nonsense! "between you and me" is correct--but I digress).

But "with my being not too fond of.." is also correct b/c now "being" is the object of the preposition, specifically, it is a verb turned into a noun, i.e. it is a gerund, which can take a possesive pronoun like "my" as well as direct and indirect objects.

When I write comments for a blog, I prefer colloquial English (within the limitations that come with me [sic!] not being a native speaker), which by and large makes me avoid gerunds b/c they sound, to me at least, always somewhat stilted.

Word of the month: Zweckpessimismus

I promised to use my recent trip to Germany to clarify the status of Schlimmbesserung. I’ll make it the word of the month in the near future and explain what I found out. For this month, I selected a different word, though, because I thought of it a lot during Euro 2008: Zweckpessimismus (literally "purpose[ful] pessimism", or better, "pessimism with a purpose"). The term refers to the sort of pessimism one adopts when in doubt about the outcome of an event one is personally interested in: At worst, things turn out as expected, and at best, one is positively surprised.

There was quite a bit of Zweckpessimismus in the attitude with which I looked forward to the final of Euro 2008 between Spain and Germany!

A note on pronunciation: Unlike the (voiced) English "z", the German "z" is very sharp (voiceless)--you almost spit it out with the tip of your tongue pressed against the back of your upper incisors. The Chinese apparently have a consonant that sounds exactly like German "z". One of my PhD students from Taiwan, Jonah Tsai, always told me to pronounce the "Ts" in his name like German "z".

Friday, June 13, 2008

Word of the month: Angstgegner

One reason why a foreign word enters the vocabulary of a language is that this vocabulary does not have a word or expression with exactly the same meaning. Examples of German words that have entered English apparently for that reason are Gestalt, Zeitgeist, Weltschmerz or Schadenfreude. Examples in the opposite direction are "fair play" or "common sense".

[In parenthesis: Right now, German is experiencing an outright invasion of English terms, some of which are used--for whatever reasons--to replace perfectly adequate German terms; for example, there is no reason in the world to speak of a "game" instead of a Spiel in German. But this issue and its ramifications--endlessly discussed in German blogs--do not concern us here.]

Each month, I will identify a German word that has entered--or could/should enter--English for legitimate reasons, i.e. there does not appear to exist an exact English equivalent. Given the prominence of soccer news this month, I select Angstgegner (lit. "anxiety opponent") for June. The word is used in German sports to denote an opponent a team tends to lose to on a regular basis, even if the odds would predict otherwise. Given Croatia's win yesterday over a favored German side, together with Germany's 0:3 loss against Croatia in the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup and the fact that Germany always seems to struggle against them, Croatia can now be considered Germany's Angstgegner.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Euro 2008

The European Soccer Championship 2008 will start on June 7 with the match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic. I'll travel to Germany to be closer to the action, perhaps even catch a game live in Austria, one of the host countries (together with Switzerland). I hope this will be a lively thread throughout the tournament (which ends on June 29) and that I will be able to contribute from over there.

For starters, here are the four groups in the preliminary round:
A: Switzerland, Czech Republic, Portugal, Turkey
B: Austria, Croatia, Germany, Poland
C: Netherlands, Italy, Romania, France
D: Greece (the def. champion), Sweden, Spain, Russia

Conspicuous by its absence is England, basically b/c of a chronic weakness, goalkeeping. Their goalie managed to lose the decisive match in the qualifying round against a team (Croatia) already qualified.

In the preliminary round, the teams in each group play each other, round-robin fashion. A win gets you 3 points and a tie 1 point. The two teams with the most points in each group advance to the quarterfinals (I'm not going into the tie-breaking rules here). Group C is generally considered this year's "group of death"--it is indeed a pity that at least one of the perennial European power-houses (Italy, France and the Netherlands) will not make it past the first round--and Romania is no slouch, either. I also think that Germany's group is stronger than the Germans want to believe.

So, let's see what happens...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tristan und Isolde

Live from the Met!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Ich bin ein Berliner"

There is a persistent rumor in English-speaking countries that President Kennedy made a terrible gaffe in a speech he delivered in 1963 in what was then West-Berlin when he said (in German) "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). According to the rumor, he said, in fact, "I am a jelly donut" b/c "Berliner" is short for "Berliner Pfannkuchen" (Berlin pancake). The claim is that he should have said "Ich bin Berliner" (i.e. leave out the indef. article "ein").

Well, this is utter nonsense, and the first time I heard the story, my reaction was: How silly! "Ich bin Berliner" means "I was born/grew up/live in Berlin" (i.e. it's the same as "I am from Berlin"), which is certainly not what Kennedy wanted to say. What he did say was grammatically and idiomatically correct--the association with jelly donuts is far-fetched, especially since Berliners do not call the things "Berliner", they simply call them "Pfannkuchen". I am sure that no one in the crowd of tens of thousands who listened misunderstood the sentence.

A friend of mine was there and told me that people were standing on each others' feet b/c it was so crowded, but that excitement was so great that he noticed only when he got home that his feet were bleeding. My own association with the event is much less direct: My (American) wife and I got married in the same city hall (Rathaus Schöneberg) from where Kennedy delivered the speech.


The issue has come up whether "fink" in slang has something to do with German "Fink"--the German word for "finch." The dictionaries on the web I have looked at (quickly) claim that the origin of fink is unknown, but my German dictionary suggests something interesting: It lists under "Fink" not only the primary meaning, the songbird "finch", but also a slang meaning, "tosher". Now, I have never heard of "tosher," but this is what my friend Wiki says: "A tosher is someone who scavenges in the sewers, especially in London during the Victorian period." This is interesting b/c German "Dreckfink" means a dirty person who loves to play in the mud. This suggests to me that English "fink" may actually have something to do with German "Fink". But then again, why hasn't someone found this out yet?

More on the Ode to Joy

We follow-up on stuff from the Hello World thread

Friday, May 30, 2008

Schlegel vs. Coleridge

We have a topic--scary, actually.

Hello world

I created this blog as a spin-off to a very popular crossword puzzle blog to which I contribute on a regular basis. In particular, I make comments triggered by German references in the daily puzzle, which are of interest to some other readers and sometimes trigger short back-and-forth exchanges that seemingly turn the blog into a personal affair. I have been reprimanded (and rightfully so, I may add) by the owner of the blog repeatedly for doing this. In response, I created this blog to invite anybody who wants to engage in this sort of exchange without guilt or fear of reprimands.

To start things off: In response to my posting the first few lines of Goethe's Faust yesterday on said blog, one reader sent me a quote by Schiller and asked if her quote was correct--it almost was. Here's the correct version:

"Ehret die Frauen! Sie flechten und weben
Himmlische Rosen ins irdische Leben."

Translation: Honor women! They wreathe and weave
heavenly roses into life on earth.

Schiller was Goethe's friend and rival. Here are the lines from Faust I posted (in a quickly made translation)

I’ve studied, ach! philosophy
medicine and jurisprudence,
and, sad to say, theology,
with single-minded diligence,
and here I stand, a fool and poor,
no wiser than I was before.

Note that Schiller's line is lofty and not meant to be funny, whereas Goethe's lines display already the generally ironic or teasing tone that he maintains throughout the play, especially in the parts he gives to the devil, Mephistopheles. In a nutshell, we get a sense of the way in which these two giants of German literature differ--I think this is a good start of the blog (I've no idea if I can maintain it)

Please read the rules of engagement on the left before posting.