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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Word of the Month: Der Morgenmuffel

Word of the Month: Index

Morgen means "morning," and a Muffel is a sullen person, a grouch. Put together, they signify a person who habitually wakes up in a bad mood and needs some time before being able to face the world with an even temper.

The late German chancellor Willy Brandt was, according to his wife Ruth, a Morgenmuffel. And recently, I came across a study dealing with the important question why (German) teenagers are such Morgenmuffel (the plural is the same as the singular).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Excursions in Southern Florida

Another collection I created after sifting through the photographic residue from several trips. As always, full screen view works best.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Word of the Month: Die Sternstunde

Word of the Month: Index

Stern means “star” and Stunde “hour.” A Sternstunde (plural Sternstunden) is a “dramatically compressed, fateful” event in which a “lasting development is being condensed into a single day, a single hour, or even a single minute” as it occurs only “rarely in the life of an individual or in the course of history.” These are the words of Stefan Zweig, who published between 1927 and 1943 fourteen historical “miniatures” under the title Sternstunden der Menschheit (Sternstunden of Humankind). He called the events he described Sternstunden because they “outshine the night of transience brilliantly and lastingly like stars.” [Source]

What Zweig had in mind becomes clear when we look at some of the Sternstunden he chose to describe: Händel composes the Messiah in a state of creative intoxication after a near-fatal illness (1741); the Janissaries enter Constantinople through a secret gate during the Turkish siege and conquer the city for the Turks (1453); Lenin returns to Russia in a sealed train to lead the Bolshevik revolution (1917). What unifies these events is their momentousness—in Zweig’s depiction, they changed the course of political or cultural history almost over night. If it was for the better or worse is not a concern of his.*

In present-day usage, however, the term Sternstunde has a distinctly positive connotation—it designates a highpoint or a pivotal moment that turns things around in the course of history. For example, Einstein’s publication of his paper on special relativity could be called a Sternstunde in the history of physics, and Germany’s unexpected victory in the 1954 World Cup a Sternstunde for German soccer.

*Historians have also questioned the accuracy of Zweig’s narratives or the importance he assigns to certain events; for example, his account of the creation of the Messiah appears to be entirely fictitious. But this does not diminish the usefulness of the term he coined.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Word of the Month: Der Platzhirsch

Word of the Month: Index

Platz means "place" in a very broad sense—it can be a location, a position (like in a hierarchy), a space occupied by or reserved for someone, or a (city) square. A Hirsch is a male deer, i.e., a stag. Platzhirsch in the original sense is a hunting or forestry term that refers to the dominant stag in an area who lays claim to the resident hinds when they are in heat and fights off all competitors. It's used figuratively to indicate the leader of a group who claims all the rights and privileges such a position entails. In English, we would say he is the "alpha dog."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Word of the Month: Treppenwitz

Word of the Month: Index

A Treppe is a stair(case), and Witz means "joke." In combination, they indicate an event that, in retrospect, looks like a bad joke because it had completely unintended, negative consequences—it's an initiative that backfired in a way that would be funny, if it weren't so serious. The term can be applied to a wide range of situations, from personal predicaments to the ironies of history. An example would be the hiring of a new CEO for a troubled company who was expected to turn it around, but leads it into bankruptcy instead—the hiring becomes a Treppenwitz in retrospect.

But what in the world does a staircase have to do with something that turns out to be a failure in the end? In order to understand this, one has to know the term's history. It is a translation of the French phrase l'esprit de l'escalier ("wit of the staircase"), which was coined in the 18th century and refers to a clever rejoinder or reposte one thinks about too late, i.e., after one has already reached the bottom of the stairs on one’s way home from a party [Source]. L'esprit de l'escalier became Treppenwitz in the German translation, where Witz was used not in the sense of "joke," but in the sense of "cleverness" or "wit." But that meaning has become, by now, secondary to "joke" and along with this, a Treppenwitz came to be understood not as a clever retort thought of too late, but as something that looks like a bad joke in retrospect. When you hear someone speak of a Treppenwitz in present-day Germany, you can be sure that the latter is the intended meaning.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Word of the Month: Sündenbock

Word of the Month: Index

Sünden means "sins," and a Bock is a male goat in this context. Sündenbock is used in German in exactly the same way in which "scapegoat" is used in English: It denotes a person who has been falsely accused of a misdeed and subsequently ostracized within a group, with the intent to turn suspicion away from the real culprits.

That these terms have the same meaning in the respective languages is not surprising because both have their origin in a ritual described in the Old Testament. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the High Priest puts his hands on a goat in order to transfer the sins of the people of Israel onto the animal and then has it, and with it the sins of the congregation, chased into the wilderness. [Leviticus 16, 21-22]

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Words of the month: Sippenhaft, Sippenhaftung

Word of the Month: Index

A Sippe is an extended family, a clan. Haftung means "liability" and Haft "imprisonment" or "confinement." Sippenhaft and Sippenhaftung refer to the principle that every member of a clan can be held responsible for any crime committed by another clan member. It was practiced in the Middle Ages in German-speaking countries and is also known from other cultures. It is fundamentally in conflict with the modern notion that individuals can be punished only for acts they committed themselves, which did not prevent the Nazis from reviving Sippenhaft as a means to terrorize the population. [Source]

Why do I bring up this seemingly outdated notion? It’s because I see Sippenhaft, in a vastly extended form, at work wherever I look. For example, the Boston bombers explicitly justified their actions against Americans with the claim that (other) Americans had committed crimes against Muslims. Conversely, more than one Sikh was murdered in the aftermath of 9/11 by an American who considered wearing a turban and a beard a sure sign that someone was a Muslim. In both examples, the killers were willing to ‘murder the innocent,’ and this makes this modern form of Sippenhaft so repulsive to me. In traditional societies that subscribed to Sippenhaft, the member of a clan who committed a crime or who was aware of a crime committed by a relative knew, at least, what was coming, whereas the spectators at the Boston Marathon did not.

Sippenhaft in its extended form becomes grotesque when one realizes that a person typically belongs to more than one group. Take me as an example: I’m male; I’m German; and I may be perceived as being a Christian. This may make me simultaneously the target of certain feminists; of people who suffered under the atrocities committed by Germans all over Europe during WWII; and of radical Islamists. Never mind that I oppose patriarchy in all its forms; abhor the German war crimes; and am appalled by the conduct of Western powers in the Muslim world, from the Crusades to recent times.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Learning a Foreign Language Through Poetry

Guest post by Laraine Flemming
Laraine's text is longer than my usual posts and therefore opens in a new window.

I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment of the value of memorizing poems, not only to assist in learning a foreign language, but also to make you appreciate the finer points of your own language. I believe I have an ear for the rhythm and melody that can be achieved in a text, and I think one reason is that we had to memorize poems in school and recite them aloud. That way, I started to see the expressive potential of different meters and to the present day, I 'hear' the sentences that I write down. I attribute this directly to my experience with reciting poems.

To me, the claim that one doesn't learn anything from memorizing poems is dubious, to say the least. It's just one of the many ways in which education has been dumbed down over the last decades based on spurious claims that do not hold up to scrutiny.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Word of the Month: Unglücksrabe

Word of the Month: Index

A Pechvogel was the first 'compound creature' I drew and posted on my blog. I'm finally getting around to giving him a companion in misery. Unglück is the opposite of Glück (good fortune, luck), and we encountered a Rabe (raven) already in connection with Rabeneltern. Like a Pechvogel, an Unglücksrabe is a person who has run into some misfortune—he and a Pechvogel are partners in bad luck.

The most famous Unglücksrabe in German literature is Hans Huckebein, the anti-hero of a story told in pictures by Wilhelm Busch. I have to do some more research to find out why ravens are associated with bad luck in this expression.

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

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Word of the Month: Buchschmuck

Word of the Month: Index

We know by now that a Buch is a book. Schmuck means "jewelry", both the precious stuff you possess and the stuff you use to accessorize your person. The Schmuck in Buchschmuck is of the second kind: It's the sum of the graphical elements that have been added to a book's pages to enhance the status of the book as an artifact—the decoration of the title page; the special treatment of the first letters of a chapter etc. These features are not to be confused with illustrations intended to support the text—they have a practical purpose, Buchschmuck has not, in the narrow sense. It does not contribute to our understanding of the text, but it may contribute significantly to our enjoyment of the book as an object—it makes it more precious. I show, as an example, on the left the title pages of the edition of the Grimms' fairy tales that motivated me, in second grade, to teach myself the old-fashioned font called Fraktur in German.

I must confess that I have not seen the term Buchschmuck used in a long time. It sounds old-fashioned, harking back to a time when books were objects that could be considered precious. Are these days gone? Or, to put it differently, could eBooks have Buchschmuck? More generally, could they become carefully-crafted objects to be appreciated as such? I see no reason, in principle, why they couldn't.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wagner Heralds the Arrival of May

If April is the cruellest month, May is the loveliest, at least for those who— like my wife and I—were born in it. This is how Siegmund rapturously celebrates its onset (and his re-unification with his twin sister, Sieglinde) in the first act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle:
Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond.
In mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz...

Winter storms gave way to the Month of Joy.
Spring glows in a soft light...
The link I'm giving above is to a concert version—I didn't like the staged versions I found on YouTube because I did not like the staging (or the tenor's knödeln—seeming to press and sing through his nose). Instead, I show below part of the panel depicting the scene in P. Craig Russell's graphic retelling of the opera.

[Source: P. Craig Russell, The Ring of the Nibelung, Volume One, 2002. © P. Craig Russell. Used by permission]

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Word of the Month: Die Kampfsau, das Kampfschwein

Word of the Month: Index

Just in time for the beginning of the most exciting phase of the soccer year in Europe—The final stages of the Champions League and European League competitions:

Kampf means "fight," a Sau is a sow and a Schwein a pig. Kampfsau and Kampfschwein are terms used in sports, particularly soccer, where they are applied to players who may be technically limited, but more than make up for it by their unflagging fighting spirit, by the abandon with which they risk, not life, but certainly limbs, fighting for the ball and tackling players on the opposing team. And if their jersey is not the dirtiest at the end of the match, they know they haven’t given it their best effort.

Calling someone a Sau or a Schwein in German is an insult, and a relatively bad one. But in combination with Kampf, these words turn into compliments: Kampfsäue and Kampfschweine (those are the the plurals) tend to be fan favorites.

I wonder how speakers of languages that avoid consonant clusters will deal with Kampfschwein, which requires one to enunciate 5 consonants in a row: m • p • f • sch (same as English "sh") • w.

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

Monday, March 4, 2013

Word of the Month: Torschlusspanik

Word of the Month: Index

I was reminded of this word when Kathleen Kiesel Cozzarelli sent me an e-mail inquiry about it, and it is a very useful word indeed. Tor means "gate" (or, in soccer, "goal"); Schluss can mean many things—in the present Word of the Month, it stands for "closing"; and Panik is the same as English "panic". In combination, they refer to the intense anxiety one feels when a decision has to be made before an approaching deadline, but none of the available options looks in any way promising. The term is also used to explain why a hasty decision was made under these circumstances.

Back in the days when women were supposed to get married, Torschlusspanik was regularly used to explain why a woman who was fast approaching middle age would marry someone below her status. Times have changed, and for the better in this case. For decades, I haven't heard the term applied to women marrying later in life. But it's used regularly in other situations, for example, when just before the end of the annual trading period for players, a soccer team that needs to improve at certain positions acquires players who may not be particularly skilled at these positions, or are past their prime, but were the only ones still available.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Three Literary Parodies and an Homage

I've finally found the time to collect, in one place, the literary "finger exercises" occasioned by the MOOC (massive open online course) "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World" I took in the summer of 2012. The course was taught by Prof. Rabkin of the University of Michigan. COURSERA provided the supporting software and infrastructure.

Three Parodies and an Homage

People who do not have first-hand experience with a COURSERA-based course may not get the insider jokes in the Alice piece. But the rest does not rely on such knowledge—you just have to know the literary piece being skewered/paid homage to.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Word of the Month: Pleitegeier

Word of the Month: Index

Pleite means "bankrupt" as an adjective and "bankruptcy" as a noun. A Geier is a vulture. In combination, they may denote a person who has gone bankrupt or the precarious financial situation an enterprise finds itself in, like in the sentence, "Der Pleitegeier sitzt auf dem Dach." (The Pleitegeier is sitting on the roof.)

The term derives from Yiddish plejte gejer—"bankrupt goer," i.e., someone who went bankrupt. Folk etymology turned the gejer into a Geier. [Sick 2012]

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

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Pronounce German "ch"

There is quite a bit of misinformation out there on the web when it comes to the way German speakers pronounce "ch," a digraph (pair of letters representing a single sound) that appears very frequently in German words. So, let me set the record straight (follow the link below).

Main page

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Wild Things... now available as iBook

And if I may say so myself, it looks great in iBooks on the iPad. iBooks Author, which I used to produce this version, makes it easy to add bells and whistles (like audio clips as pronunciation aids):

Friday, January 4, 2013

Word of the Month: Verlegenheitslösung

A Verlegenheit is a difficulty one may find oneself in, tinged with a whiff of embarrassment, and a Lösung is a solution. In combination, they indicate a solution that is less than ideal, the result of necessity rather than choice—there simply was no better alternative available. The so-called fiscal cliff deal we were treated to two days ago looks very much like a Verlegenheitslösung to me—nobody is happy with it, but something better was not doable, and everybody has some 'xplaining to do to their respective constituents.

In Germany, I find the term used particularly often in connection with personnel decisions, like when a coach names someone to a team only because the usual starter or substitute is injured. The whiff of embarrassment comes into play because the implication is that the team does not have enough depth to field a better replacement. It's this whiff that distinguishes a Verlegenheitslösung from what's called in English a stop-gap solution. In addition, it may not (temporarily) stop a gap: A less-than qualified cabinet member, who was a Verlegenheitslösung when appointed, may last for the entire term of a government.