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

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Word of the Month: Amtsschimmel

A Schimmel is a white horse, and Amt denotes, in this context, a government office. In combination, they refer not to a bureaucrat as a person, but to bureaucracy as a sometimes baffling phenomenon. When you are confronted with some bureaucratic absurdity, you may say, "Der Amtsschimmel wiehert (whinnies)." A fine example is given by the foreign student who tried to enroll at the University of Vienna, but could not do it because he did not have a residence permit and could not get a residence permit because he was not enrolled at the university. [Beikircher p. 314]

Now, what does a beautiful animal like a white horse have to do with bureaucratic excess? Nothing, it turns out! Schimmel derives, by way of folk etymology, from Simile (Latin for "similar"), a term used in Austrian offices to refer to a boilerplate form from which other forms could be generated. It came to stand for the enthusiasm with which forms are embraced by some bureaucracies and for their sometimes unfathomable ways in general. [Source]

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

3 comments:

Unknown said...

I always thought that 'Schimmel" means 'fungus', i.e., in German we have the saying, "da regiert der Amtsschimmel", meaning that everything is covered by a layer of fungi, because nothing ever moves ...
But that is just my personal thinking, I don't know anything about the scientific etymology of the word.

Ulrich said...

Yes, Schimmel can mean "mold" (not so much "fungus"—that would be Pilz), and that would also be a plausible folk etymology deriving from Latin simile. However, the phrase Der Amtsschimmel wiehert ("The Amtsschimmel whinnies"), which is really common, indicates that people take the Schimmel part in Amtschimmel to mean "white horse", as the source that I reference claims.

BTW Schimmel as a white horse and mold have in common that they are both whitish. This suggests that they derive from the same root (I'll follow up on this).

Ulrich said...

I have not found any source that would link Schimmel in the two meanings to a common root. It seems that "mold" is the original meaning. It got transferred to the horse, first as a color adjective, which then became a noun.