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

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.


humorlesstwit said...

That's a great word.

Now, do the Germans have a term for when two people are walking directly at each other, then each move in the same direction, then back, attempting to avoid one another but always getting in the way?

I think this is the world's most common occurance for which there is not term. My hope is for the German language, with it's ability to string words together.

Ulrich said...

I can't think of a German term. What you describe appears to be close to slapstick, and that's something the Americans are much better at than the Germans--so, if anyone has a term, it should be the Americans--no? I'm saying this b/c I believe that the occurrence of a certain term in one language, but not in others, indicates that the experience captured by the term was important enough for the speakers of the language to coin the term in the first place, i.e. it may tell us something about the "collective experience" of that community--I'm using the term with great caution here--essentially b/c I can't think of anything better. In any case, this is the deeper reason why I like to contemplate the kinds of terms and expressions with which we're dealing here.

If we pursue this further, we may realize that the disappearance of a spoken language is really sad: Humankind loses forever the expression of a certain, and in parts unique, view of the world. Bruce Chatwin makes this point memorably in In Patagonia, when he speaks of the extermination of the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego (Fireland).

humorlesstwit said...

I hope the Germans got over their angst about their Angstgegner, because they're about to meet them again, no?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. My wife is of Lithuanian heritage, her family migrated here after the war. It's a migration typical of the time, her oldest brother was born in Lithuania, next oldest in Germany, she and her younger brother in America. She and here two older brothers grew up speaking Lithuanian exclusively at home. By the time the youngest could speak, they had all pretty much started speaking english in the house. The gist of this is she has a multitude of Lithuanian idioms, for which there are no english equivalents, at her disposal, while her younger brother does not. Single words that take an entire sentence in english to convey the corresponding meaning. I'm thinking of one in particular, I won't even try spelling it, but it simply translates to 'wet leaf'. The deeper meaning is someone or some thing that clings persistently, that you can't shake off no matter how hard you try. It's a great term.

I've always been fascinated by small communities. I think much of what we've accomplished as a species arises out of small groups, vs the homogeneity of our current society. We loose the wisdom of the indeigenous of Tierra Del Fuego when they get satellite TV, assuming they survive the small pox. Idiomatic terms have to arise from a small community. Individual genius can transcend the homogeneity, but smaller inputs get lost.

The whole 'wet leaf' thing probably got started by a bunch of guys sitting around a pub. One got up to hit the men's room, another said of him 'He's like a wet leaf stuck to your shoe. No matter how hard you try to shake him off, he just stays here'. By the end of the week he was Joe the wet leaf, by the end of the month, the whole village had a new phrase, and by the end of the year the Lithuanian language grew. I just don't think this would happen as regularly in today's world.

Ulrich said...

Well, the Turks did it again--they are becoming fast everybody's Angstgegner: They are still in the tournament despite the fact that they fell back by one, if not two goals in EACH of the four matches they played so far. I sincerely hope the Germans will take them seriously when they meet in one of the semis.

"Wet leaf" is really a great expression--as you said, it captures a certain idea perfectly through a concrete image.

I also remain, after having lived for over 30 years in the US, "bilingual" in my thoughts: an idea tends to come to me in the language in which it is more easily expressed, even though I speak English exclusively during the day.

mac said...

Hi Ulrich, I'm back in CT and while I was on the plane back the Russians beat the Dutch....
It's a wonderful team, hope they will go far.
About the issue above, about trying to pass but having trouble which way to go, could there be a square dancing term to cover it?
Someone who was sort of in my way that way just said: "shall we dance?"

humorlesstwit said...

On Saturday morning, this dialog was encapsulated for me in an odd way. I was listening to the radio when a linguist was being interviewed - his project was to document and preserver the language of a Native American people who lived around the western great lakes region.

Two things in particular struck me. One was that the greatest threat to the language were roads & Satellite TV. The other was that, even though most were bilingual to the point that English was the primary language for some, there were many things they couldn't say in English. They couldn't pray in English. There were constructs and ideas that absolutely could not be translated into English.

avidreader said...

The trend of using English words for perfectly adequate ones in local language is prevalent in Israel too. Since written Hebrew language omits vowels, which are implied (except for children' books) I sometimes have to actually stop and think about a word that I read in a news article or a fiction piece. It is sad, in light of the fact that Hebrew was revived as a secular language only about a hundred years ago. It has since become rich and beautiful, but is now under attack (like democracy) in that beleaguered country of mine.