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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Word of the Month: Oberlehrer

Word of the Month: Index
Sie wissen nichts, aber wissen alles besser. (They know nothing, but know everything better.) Comment by Czech students after being visited, during the anti-Soviet revolt of 1968, by a delegation of students from West Berlin, who had immediately proceeded to lecture the Czechs about everything they were doing wrong.
A Lehrer is a teacher. Ober, as a prefix, can mean several things. In front of geographical names, for instance, it means “upper”, as in Oberbayern (Upper Bavaria). In front of words indicating a profession, it indicates a senior rank. Thus, an Oberlehrer is a senior or head teacher. The position no longer exists in the German educational system. But the word remains very much in the language as a derogatory term for an obnoxious know-it-all who lectures and corrects people, even when he was not asked to do so, and tends to do this in a tone veering between smugness and condescension—the infamous Oberlehrerton. (I use “he” because I never met a female Oberlehrer.)

I have a particular dislike for Oberlehrer types because of what my wife and I experienced when we were living in West Berlin during the 1970s. She is American, and the Oberlehrer (the plural is the same as the singular) in the left-liberal milieu I used to move in tried their best to make her life miserable. As soon as they learned she was an American, they would launch into long (and largely uninformed) lectures about everything that was wrong with her country. We reached a point where we wouldn’t go to parties anymore and decided, in the end, to move back to the US (where we had met as graduate students).

All of this was vividly brought back to me a week ago when I posted an announcement about my latest ebook, Wild Things in the German Language (see column on the right), on an (American) blog targeted at Americans interested in learning German. I did not know that it was also a playground for German Oberlehrer. No sooner had I posted my announcement than two of them started to chastise me for the bad English in my book. This came as a surprise to me because my English tends to get compliments from Americans for its clarity and grace. And sure enough, when I looked at the particular complaints I received in a lengthy e-mail from one of the Germans, I realized they were all wrong—no, not all of them: I had misspelled “scaredy cat” in my book—so shoot me!  [more in my first comment]

Apparently, blogs have given Oberlehrer an entire new venue to regale people with lectures they did not ask for. My advice: Avoid those blogs because you cannot argue with Oberlehrer—they are loath to admitting mistakes and always try to have the last word.

PS.  Clearly, this post is longer and more heartfelt than my usual Word-of-the-Month posts—I hope readers will understand the reasons why.

Addendum (3/5/2015) for people able to read German. I just read an article that reflects on the love affair between social media and German Oberlehrer: Diskussionskultur im Netz. Deutschland, eine Belehrtenrepublik. I agree!


Ulrich said...

Here's one of the comments from the Oberlehrer e-mail:

I had used the phrase: "...to lighten the essentially arduous task of memorizing words...", and that's what he had to say (m.t.--I'm willing to send the original to anyone doubting my translation): "Really: To illuminate the task? Or more likely "to alleviate" [his suggestion]..."

Clearly, our Oberlehrer does not know that "enlighten" can be formed from the adjective "light" (not heavy, German "leicht"), rather than the noun "light" (German "Licht"), and then means exactly what I wanted to say, to lessen the burden (German "erleichtern").

Heika said...

Ah yes, I know the species from my years living in Germany. I remember speaking to a middle-aged German woman, and I used the word "boxes," which she felt I had mispronounced--What do I know after all. I'm only a native speaker of the language--and said, "We say "bawxes" or something to that effect. So what you say rings very true.

Ulrich said...

Apparently, there are female Oberlehrer!

The I-know-better-than-native-speakers syndrome also manifests itself in the two Germans who criticized my English. They both claimed that since my book was aimed at English speakers, it was hurt by my text (one of them actually claimed--on the blog, not in a private e-mail!--that I had "embarrassed" myself). It made no impression on them when I pointed out that the Americans who had seen the book loved it, including the text (see the favorable reviews on amazon)--they were German Oberlehrer and they knew better!

BTW I'm using the terminology of disease deliberately: I believe this seemingly uncontrollable urge to criticize everyone and everything in sight is a real sickness of the soul.

Christian said...

just came across this blog via a google search, and can not emphasize enough how absolutely annoying an "Oberlehrer" colleague in our faculty is. Somehow I feel that the English "I-know-it-all" is not even remotely reflecting the abrasive potential of these figures...

A sympathetic cheers to all who suffer from such critters!

Ulrich said...

Check this out:

Mark Dominus said...

Is there a German verb for the activity of Oberlehrer-ing?

Ulrich said...

@Mark: Not that I know of. You would have to say, like in English, to act or behave like an Oberlehrer or, really colloquially, to let the Oberlehrer hang out (den Oberlehrer heraushängen lassen). But since I have been living abroad now for a long time, I do not know if that idiom is still widely used. I do know, though, that "Oberlehrer" is still very much in use because, as I said in my post, the Internet has given those types a whole new venue to pursue their favorite pastime, and for their critics, the term is a very convenient expression to make their displeasure known without having to go into lengthy explanations—"Jawohl, Herr Oberlehrer" is all they have to say.