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

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Words of the Month: Pechvogel, Glückspilz

Pechvogel combines Pech (misfortune, bad luck) with Vogel (bird). The word denotes a person who has bad luck, like a soccer player who scores an own goal--he or she will be the Pechvogel of the match. More generally, the word denotes a person who seems to have always bad luck. The word is used in German where in English one would perhaps use "bad news bear".

Glückspilz is its antonym. It combines Glück (good fortune, happiness) with Pilz (mushroom) and refers to a person in luck, particularly one who always seems to have luck.

More in my first comment...

[Source: Wild Things in the German Language: Kindle version | iBook version]

12 comments:

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I look forward to them, especially the drawings.

Ulrich said...

First a note on pronunciation:

Pech rhymes with "fresh", except that the "ch" is softer than English "sh"--it's like the "ch" in German ich. The "v" in Vogel is pronounced like English "f", not like English "v"! BTW Not every German "v" is pronounced like English "f"--a "v" appearing in a word of non-Germanic origin, as in Vase ("vase"), is likely to be promounced like English "v"--one of the pleasures people trying to learn German have to deal with.

I won't get into the problems English speakers have with an umlaut like ü--it doesn't help if I say it's pronounced like French "u"--English speakers usually can't pronounce this one either--there is simply no equivalent sound in English. The "z" at the end of Pilz is, as usual, voiced and pronounced like "ts".

Etymology: My guess is that the etymology of Pechvogel is horrendous. I think it derives from the practice of trapping songbirds on surfaces covered with glue--a bird caught like that definitely had Pech. To the present day, auf den Leim gehen ("to step on glue") is used as an idiom for "to get conned". Nevertheless, I believe that people who use Pechvogel these days are not aware of its origin--I myself like the word b/c there is something quirky about it.

The same is true for Glückspilz, and I have no idea of where it derives from. I don't believe the hallucinogenic properties of some mushrooms played a role.

Ulrich said...

@marlene: Forgot to thank you for your encouragement!

Ulrich said...

A little clicking produced this derivation for Glückspilz: It originally meant an upstart (Emporkömmling in German--literally "one who comes up"), in reference to the quick growth of mushrooms, but since the 19th century, increasingly meant "lucky devil".

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, Well I"m one of those people who used the expression "bad news bear," but from now on I'll talk about a "bad luck bird." As usual, the English doesn't have the punch to it that "pechvogel" does, but the alliteration is nice. I love the Happy Mushroom too. What wonderful words, but even more so, what wonderful drawings. You could draw professionally, I bet, if you wanted to.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: Thx again--if you could see me, you'd see me blushing!

Ulrich said...

What is it with Germans and unhappy birds? Here's another one, almost synonymous with Pechvogel: Unglücksrabe (mishap raven). No idea about the etymology...

BTW The prefix "un" can be put in front of adjectives and nouns denoting something positive to turn them into their opposites (like "lucky/unlucky" in English, but this usage is more common in German, I think):

Glück/Unglück (good/bad fortune)
Sinn/Unsinn (sense/nonsense)
Tugend/Untugend (good/bad habit)
etc

ArtLvr said...

Brings to mind Poe's "Raven", the bird of doom repeating Nevermore... Wow, that image of the songbirds trapped in glue is an unhappy one!

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: You are right--I didn't think of that raven...

Ulrich said...

Here's a late comment: I just watched the soccer match Berlin vs. Hamburg, in which the Berlin goalie was declared the Pechvogel of the game. This is what happened:

He came into the game as substitute for the regular goalie, who had injured himself--the score was tied, 1:1. Five minutes later, the new goalie ran out about 60 ft to head* out a ball away from the attacking Hamburgers--unfortunately, it landed at the foot of another Hamburger 100ft away, who had nothing to do but to lift it over the goalie, who was scrambling back, into the empty goal--2:1 for Hamburg. And then, incredibly, the same scene only 1.5 min. later: Again, the goalie has to run out, heads the ball away, only to see it be lifted over his head from 120ft away into the again empty goal--3:1 for Hamburg! All commentators agree that have never seen anything like this sequence of events before.

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*For non-soccer fans: When the goalie leaves the goal area (ca. 45 ft from the goal), he's no longer allowed to handle the ball with his hands--he has to use his feet or head, like any other field player

brian said...

As to the etymolgy of Pechvogel, could this relate to Vogelleim (birdlime)?

People used to catch birds with glue-tipped sticks to keep them as pets (Leimrute).

Pech (fir tree resin, pitch) is an excellent glue/glue additive.

Ulrich said...

@brian: You are right about the original meaning of Pech in Pechvogel--I've heard this explanation many times, and I mention it in my book Wild Things in the German Language. However, the intent of the bird catchers may have been less benign: I read they twisted the necks of the caught birds and then fried them for dinner--still happens in countries like Italy.

BTW the platform smeared with Pech to catch birds was called a Vogelherd in German, a "bird range" or "bird stove top".