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

Thursday, July 3, 2008

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".


mac said...

Dear Ulrich,
I don't think our American friends understand this term: they are usually so optimistic that they put an enormeous amount of pressure on their athletes. Both the Dutch and the Germans like to prepare for the worst and are super-critical of their countrymen to make sure not to expect to much.....

Ulrich said...

@mac: Does the term exist in Dutch?

As we discussed in connection with the first word of the month, it's fascinating to consider the different circumstances that generate unique expressions in one language, but not in another. At the a danger of overinterpretation, I would guess that German tends to be more specific about the unhappier moments in life than about the happier ones.

mac said...

@ulrich: there probably is a term for it, but it would probably entail 2 - 3 words. You must know the German language knits words together like no other?

Heika said...

What the previous post said highlights what I love about the German language, the knitting together of words in order to identify exquisitely precise meanings, which is my segue ,Ulrich, into asking you to expand on the meaning of "zweckpessimissmus." Does the word suggest that someone is maintaining a degree of pessimism about a hoped-for goal in order to both avoid disappointment and yet still keep some hope alive? I'm asking because Google translated the word as "calculated pessimism, " and your translations also point to a purpose behind the pessimism. What I hear in both your translation and Google's is that the word tries to capture a feeling slightly more complicated than expecting the worst about the achievement of a goal. Would that be correct or am I misinterpreting both you and Google?

Heika said...

P.S. If I am misinterpreting the word it's precisely as Mac feared,I'm an American despite my foreign-sounding name.

Ulrich said...

@heika: no, you understand the word exactly--in fact, the explanation you found with google is better than mine (I tried to stick closer to the literal meaning of the parts of the phrase). It's this keeping alive a glimmer of hope that I missed, but that is definitely implied in the word. In other words, it's a very subtle, multiply-shaded expression, and that's the beauty of it.


Heika said...

Hi Ulrich, I think that's what I really like about German, the knitting (thanks to Mac for the nice metaphor) together of words to create one word that packs a punch along with complexity of meaning. That's probably why English picked up words like "Zeitgeist" and "Weltanschauung," because the translations didn't have the same zip and richness. I'm very much looking forward to your explanation of the next German word. I forget what it is, but I am sure it will be interesting and fun to read.

David said...

Hey Natives,

how do these two sound to you?

-expedient pessimism?
-purposive pessimism?

What other connotation would you hear in these, what subtleties come in with these??

As I am translating my master thesis into English, where "Zweckpessimismus" is a terme in the very core of the matter, I am looking for a translation, that would immediately be understood to an English native speaker.
Pessimism that wants to avoid disappointment, yet hasn't truely given up all hope but just pretends to be hopeless, since it expects rather bad than good. Pessimism that actually wants to help a situation to become better by avoiding disappointments, misunderstandings, futile waste of energy and idealism.

Thank you!


Ulrich said...

@David: "purposive pessimism" comes close b/c it parallels more or less the German term. But my inclination would be to let the German term stand after you explained what it means, for the same reasons that the Germans never translated "fair play" or the English "Zeitgeist"--you just cannot capture the (more or less) subtle connotations, or the history of a term, in a newly formed phrase that has no history in the language into which it has been translated.

In the case of Zweckpessimismus, one has to understand the specific "purpose" implied: It's a stratagem to ensure that, at worst, one will not be disappointed, while keeping open the possibility that one will be positively surprised (that's the undercurrent of hope in the term, as you say yourself). I don't think any English translation will capture these connotations without further explanation--you may as well explain the original term--and enrich English by adding another foreign term to it.