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

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.


Ulrich said...

Some informal inquiries during my recent visit to Germany showed that the term is being used--in fact, it occurs in various forms, derived form the two German words for "improvement", Besserung and Verbesserung, and the two corresponding verbs, bessern and verbessern. As a result, we have Schlimmbesserung, Verschlimmbesserung, schlimmbessern, and verschlimmbessern.

The reason for these variants seems to be that Besserung and Verbesserung are not exact synonyms; i.e. in certain situations, you cannot use one of the words b/c only the other one would be idiomatically correct. For example, you wish a sick person gute Besserung, but not gute Verbesserung; conversely, the new engine design for a car may be a Verbesserung--it's not a Besserung (unless the prior design was really sick). It seems to me that Verbesserung means generally a purposeful correction (from the outside), whereas Besserung is a change for the better "from the inside", intended or not. This may also explain why I heard Verschlimmbesserung more often mentioned in Germany than Schlimmbesserung, but for non-native speakers, it's a moutful--so, let's stick with Schlimmbesserung.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your note, and Schlimmbesserung it is. Since my Cassell's had verschlimmbesserung, I guess I won't throw that dictionary out just yet. :-) Either way it's one of those wonderful words for an entire concept, and a phenomenon that I imagine all of us have experienced.
Thanks again for the follow-up.


miriam b said...

Thanks so much for your exegesis, Ulrich, and for the explanation of the distinction between bessern and verbessern. As for the 200-year-old reference: That's just fascinating. The web is our friend (usually). Danke sehr!


Ulrich said...

Lest I forget: Among the classical German prose authors, Heinrich von Kleist is my favorite. Nobody else wrote sex-and-violence stories like he did in his novellas. Check them out if you can get hold of an English translation: The Earthquake in Chili (present-day Chile), The Wedding in Santo Domingo (takes place during the Toussaint revolution), The Marquise of O. (made into a movie by Éric Rohmer in 1976 and starring the great Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, two actors whom I've seen on stage in Berlin in the 1070s), among others...