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

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Word of the Month: Zugzwang

This word is in the language, but I'm still meeting people who don't know what it means. So, let's have a look: It originates in German chess terminology, where it describes a situation in which a player has to make a move (one cannot "pass" in chess), but all legal moves available will make his/her position worse. The word combines Zug ("move" in the context of board games) and Zwang ("compulsion", "being forced to do something"). Zugzwang is now generally used to indicate this sort of dilemma, and this makes it a very useful addition to one's vocabulary.

Note on pronunciation: Tsook-tsvang, where the "oo" is long, as in "fool", and the "a" is open like in "father", not like in "gang".


Ulrich said...

The Republicans in congress are in a bit of Zugzwang right now: They clearly have to react to the initiatives that will be forthcoming from the Obama White House and congressional Democrats. But if they fight the Democrats all the way (as some have promised), they may appear obstructionist, a bad situation if the initiatives prove popular and work. Conversely, if they go along, the will appear too accommodating to their base and superfluous to the rest of us. From what I've read, some Republicans are aware of the situation, even if they don't say this in so many words.

Marlene said...

What a wonderful word. Can you use it in a sentence? Does someone find him or herself "in a zugwang." I'm reading it as similar to "on the horns of a dilemma." Would that be correct? As usual, German has one perfect word where English needs several.

Since I'm not an especially politically-minded person, nor do I cook much, I'm hoping you won't give up the German emphasis of your blog. I really enjoy it. Happy New Year!

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: You raise a good question. I said in my comment that the Republicans are "in a bit of zugzwang", but I did this intuitively--I don't know exactly how the term is supposed to be used in English. In German, you would say that they are "under zugzwang" (sie sind unter Zugzwang), which could also work in English, no?

"The horns of a dilemma" comes close, but doesn't have this explicit notion of Zwang--you could presumably sit on the horns forever, but under zugzwang, you must act--the clock is ticking in chess.

Laraine said...

I just found these two examples on the Internet at www.wordofthedaywebsite.com:

1.)Charlie’s opponent must not have noticed the extent of his zugzwang because he only lost a pawn instead of his endangered rook.

2) Besides the immorality of his deceit, a married man who cheats is walking right into a zugzwang.

I also found a reference to "a zugzwang game." This is a great word. Thanks for coming up with it, and it is indeed in the American Heritage Dictionary. When you said it had made it's way into English, I didn't believe you since I didn't know it--always my test for what's common knowledge--but you are correct.

And since I can politicize a discussion of which detergent to use, this description of a legal dilemma suggests Obama will soon be in a zugwand position when the government has to file a brief before the Supreme Court in February. Or at least that's how I read the article and I'm delighted to have a word to describe the situation if not so delighted over what might well be the outcome.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: Upon further reflection, I think you would say in German er steht under Zugzwang ("he is standing under zugzwang"), but I think that would not fly in English.

mac said...

I have been racking my brain about this expression, but I have not been able to come up with anything better than : forced to make a decision. It's the beauty of the German language that it can put a whole feeling, or a whole situation, into one word. Of course it helps that they make very long words....

Ulrich said...

@mac: Yes, but the longer the words get, the more they lose their punch. A while ago, I couldn't believe my eyes when I read in one of Safire's columns on language in the NYTimes mag. that Fingerspitzengef├╝hl is such a useful word that it should enter English as a foreign word--really?

BTW it means literally "finger tip sensitivity" and is used to indicate a highly developed form of sensitivity for the feelings of others or sense of tact.

Anonymous said...

Does the word "Zugbesser" exist? It should.

Ulrich said...

@mociute: I had to laugh--no, there is no such word.

This is what a friend who is a very good chess player sent me by e-mail re. zugzwang:

Many years ago, readers of Chess Life were asked to render an English translation of Zugzwang. As I recall, the best was Movebound. Among the cognoscenti, you can say "He's in Zugzwang".

This is a relatively rare situation in chess, but it does occur in practical play. It's well known to chess players. There is even an immortal Zugzwang game.

I leave you with an expression that teaches beginners not to move their knights to the edge of the board:

Springer am Rande bringt Kummer und Schande

("Knight on the edge brings sorrow and shame")