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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Geistesblitz

Word of the Month: Index

Geistesblitz Isaac Newton
In the present context, Geist means "mind" or "intellect." A Blitz is a lightning stroke, as it occurs during thunderstorms, or a flash, as used in photography. Taken together, they signify a promising idea that suddenly occurs to a person, illuminating his or her mind like a lightning stroke or flash.

I got the idea for the current Word of the Month recently when my friend Thomas Kreifelts sent me an article with the headline Geistesblitz in der Matschnacht—"Geistesblitz in the Mud Night," with intended pun on Matsch ("mud"), which is pronounced (almost) like English "match" so that the headline can also be understood as "Geistesblitz in the Match Night." The article describes a friendly soccer match played on Nov. 18 at night in pouring rain between the Spanish and German national teams. It was an uninspiring affair, not only because of the miserable weather, but also because neither side had been able to field the strongest team owing to injuries to key players. Just when spectators resigned themselves to a scoreless tie (the most boring of soccer results), the German midfielder Toni Kroos saw, in the penultimate minute of regulation time, a sudden opening and hammered the ball towards the Spanish goal from a distance—it slid over the surprised goalie's outstretched hands into the net for a score. It was Kroos's Geistesblitz that illuminated the night like a flash and warmed the hearts of at least the German fans.

Attentive readers will ask why our current word interjects "es" between the two components Geist and Blitz. Well, I guess the time has come to talk about the Fugen-s ("joint s" or "joining s"), which occurs sometimes in German compound words—we encountered it already in such Words of the Month as Armut-s-zeugnis or Glück-s-pilz. Its function is to make the word easier to pronounce. The "s" becomes "es" when this further facilitates pronunciation, for example, by breaking up a consonant cluster.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Flemming's First and Second Law of Taking Offense

We live in a culture (and I'm speaking not only about the USA) that puts a high value on feeling offended. It seems that, for some people, finding occasions that allow them to be offended is a central purpose in their lives (if they have a life). I find this annoying most of the times, if not outright exasperating some times. And so, I formulated two laws of taking offense.

1. It is silly to be offended when no offense was intended.
This is so obvious to me that I won't elaborate.

2. It is silly to be offended when an offense was intended.
This law may need some explanation, which I'm providing below.

You do would-be offenders a great favor when you react as they want you to react, i.e., by being offended. A much more effective strategy is to frustrate them and beat them at their own game, by laughing at them or playing along (did I mention the name of this blog?). For example, there was a time when I followed live chats accompanying sports events like tennis matches. The level in these chats is so low that one has to participate to actually believe it; for example, a popular retort to someone whose remark a commenter does not like is, "I f***ed your mother last night." My standard response has been, in this case, "And she loved it and wants more," which shuts them up immediately. Of course, I now avoid chats like that like the plague.

A more serious illustration for my second law at work is provided by groups who adopt a moniker meant to be derogatory and use it themselves—with pride. A recent example from Germany is the adjective schwul, which was, when I grew up, a really negative designation of homosexuals. But gay people adopted it and it's now a completely common designation stripped of its former connotations. Homophobes had to come up with a new derogatory term, which is now, as far as I can see from my remote perch, the noun Schwuchtel. I hope gay people adopt this one, too; i.e., keep the bigots continuously on the run, rather than trying to continuously run away from them.

Here's an example from history: The Dutch who fought for liberation from their Spanish occupiers in the 80-year war (1568-1648) called themselves geuzen, a word derived from the French word for "beggar." It had been used initially by the Spanish as a derogatory moniker for the Dutch who resisted them. By making the word their own, those same Dutch robbed it of its sting. (Source: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geusen, visited on Dec. 2, 2014)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Quasselstrippe

Word of the Month: Index

Quasseln is a verb used colloquially in the sense of "yack" or "prattle," and a Strippe, again used colloquially, is a cord, line, or thin cable connecting two things. In the days when all telephones were connected by landlines, Quasselstrippe was used as a somewhat derogatory, if humorous moniker for a telephone: It was the line used by people to yack away. But landlines are a dying breed, whereas Quasselstrippe is still very much in use today—its meaning has shifted from the instrument used to yack to the yacker him- or herself. It now denotes a person who just won't shut up, on the cell phone, as a moderator on TV, or in any other context where this sort of behavior gets on people's nerve.

I love the term because of the way it sounds, but hesitated for a long time to feature it as a Word of the Month because it is a feminine noun—the implication seems to be that women are particularly fond of yacking; i.e., it could be considered sexist. But on closer inspection, that charge falls apart. The gender of a German compound noun is determined by the gender of the dominant compound, Strippe in the present case, and Strippe happens to be feminine. This gender assignment is completely arbitrary in the same way in which it is completely arbitrary that Wurst (sausage) is also feminine, Schirm (umbrella) is masculine, or Telephon (telephone) is neuter. That is to say, the gender of the majority of German nouns has nothing to do with sex or gender in the biological sense. I believe this is also true for Quasselstrippe—when the term was initially applied to a telephone, it was not because Strippe is feminine, but because a Strippe was one of the essential components of a telephone.

The distinction between grammatical gender and biological sex is sometimes hard to grasp for speakers of English, in which this distinction does not exist. Mark Twain, for example, in his famous essay on the awful German language, just could not wrap his head around this idea (but was able to milk it for comic effect).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Querdenker

Word of the Month: Index

Quer is an adverb meaning "across," and a Denker is a thinker (from denken - to think). In combination, the words indicate a person who thinks independently or "outside the box," as the saying goes. Querdenkerin is the female form. But whatever the gender, the implication is that the ideas of such a person are not always understood or accepted.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New Photobook: Bhutan and Nepal

Here's my latest—you'll understand why we found this trip unforgettable. As usual, full-screen view is best (although some images may look grainy, depending on your monitor).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Kummerspeck

We encountered Kummer (sorrow, grief, anxiety) already in Liebeskummer, our word of the month for December 2009. Speck is the fatty tissue people or animals may carry on their bodies.* Kummerspeck, then, is the stuff that grows visibly around the midriff of people who overeat out of anxiety or grief.

*It may be also a byproduct of the slaughtering of hogs, eaten as such or used to flavor dishes; but that's not the meaning in the present context.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Word of the Month: Fremdschämen

Word of the Month: Index

Fremd is an adjective meaning, in this context, "alien" or "foreign." Schämen is a (reflexive) verb meaning "to be ashamed" or "to be embarrassed." In combination, the words mean "to be ashamed for somebody else who is behaving in an embarrassing way." The verb is used, in particular, if there is some indication that the culprits themselves are not embarrassed, even though they should be. For example, one may conclude the description of the outrageous behavior of some spectators at an event with the sentence, "Ich hab mich fremdgeschämt (I felt embarrassed [for these people])."

The verb appears for the first time in the Duden, the official German spelling dictionary, in 2009. That is, it is of relatively recent coinage, and I was not aware of it until I saw it used some years ago in an online forum. Since then, it has become a favorite of mine for several reasons. For one, it succinctly represents a feeling that overcomes me at times. It also demonstrates, again, the ease with which one can combine seemingly unrelated words in German to capture, in a compact form, some nuanced meaning—apparently, this process is still going on in the German language community.

I am well aware that using our current Word of the Month as a foreign word in English is just about impossible. It is, first of all, a verb, and I have no idea how you would conjugate it in English. In addition, it is a reflexive verb, which makes this task even more challenging (see the example in the opening paragraph). I decided nevertheless to make fremdschämen a Word of the Month for the reasons stated above. People traveling to Germany or reading German papers may encounter it, and students of the German language may find it an interesting neologism in its own right.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Lückenbüßer

Word of the Month: Index

A Lücke is a gap or narrow opening and a Büßer a penitent. However, the ~büßer part in Lückenbüßer derives from a now obsolete meaning of the verb büßen: To improve upon or correct something. So, a Lückenbüßer is someone who fills in for someone else without being really qualified for the job. The term is closely related to Notnagel, our word of the month for 9/2008, where the latter term is, possibly, a little less derogatory than our current word of the month.

Note that in spite of its outdated use of büßer, this compound noun is very much in use in present-day Germany.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Segeln in der Ägäis (Sailing in the Aegean): New Photobook

A photo diary (in German) of my recent trip, augmented by snippets of how we experienced the concurrent soccer World Cup. As always, hit the full screen button for the best view (although the photos may look grainy on some monitors).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil

I just arrived in Cologne and I'm looking forward to watching as many matches as possible with brothers and friends interested in and knowledgeable about soccer. As I did in the past, I'm creating this post to give friends on the Internet a chance to comment on and discuss matches and prospects with like-minded people.

However, I'll be leaving for Turkey tomorrow to go on a sailing trip until June 20 on my brother's boat, moored right now in Marmaris. I'm sure we'll have many opportunities to watch matches there, but I do not know how often I will be able to comment. I hope this will not deter any readers from putting their two cents in. To start things off, I'm posting an initial comment about the German team and the mood I perceive in the country.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Jugendsünde

Word of the Month: Index

Here's a word that pops up frequently in German discussions about forgetting on the web, especially when it comes to social media. Jugend means "youth" and Sünde "sin." If you did something foolish in your youth and are embarrassed when you are reminded of it in later life, you may try to dismiss your trespass as a Jugendsünde, as something that should be ignored or forgiven in light of your age at the time. Examples may be a bad poem you published as a freshman in a student newspaper or a tasteless selfie you posted as a teenager on Instagram. Truly criminal acts can hardly ever be considered Jugendsünden (that's the plural).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Wackelkandidat

Word of the Month: Index

June 3 is the deadline for the managers of the 32 national teams qualified for this year’s soccer World Cup in Brazil to name the 23 players that will represent their country during the competition. At this late stage in the preparations, most of those players are typically known, but a few are still Wackelkandidaten. Wackeln means "to totter" or "to shake," and a Wackelkandidat (that's the singular) is a “shaky candidate,” someone who is in the running for an office or position and has a chance to win, but whose success is by no means guaranteed.

As far as the German World Cup team is concerned, most experts agree that about 19-20 players “have the ticket” for Brazil as of now—the rest will come from a pool of ca. 7-8 Wackelkandidaten, and their fate is being passionately discussed by fans and in the media.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Animal Portraits

My third self-published book, Animal Portraits, presents a collection of animal photos. But unlike a field guide or a zoology book, the collection does not try to help readers identify the species to which an animal belongs by showing as many characteristic features as possible. Instead, the photos should be seen as portraits in the way we view portraits of people, as representations of individuals capable of feelings and possessed of an inner life.

As someone who has owned and loves pets, I have no doubt that animals have feelings and distinct personalities. I hope that at least some of my pictures convey this sense also to the reader, and I do not apologize for any anthropomorhism someone may detect in my approach: There is a mounting body of research supporting what I have felt for a long time, and I hope my photos will encourage readers to think along the same lines.

Kindle editionPrint-on-demand paperback edition

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Nestwärme

Word of the Month: Index

A Nest is a nest, and Wärme means "warmth." Put the two together and you get a word for the sense of safety and psychological comfort a family provides, especially for children (provided, of course, that the family is not dysfunctional). The term can also be used in a more general meaning to denote the comfort and sense of belonging a tightly-knit group may provide for its members.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Four Days in the Mojave

My new photo book, a diary of my recent trip to the Mojave with a group of geology enthusiasts (viewed best in full screen mode, second button from the right).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Word of the Month: Das Sorgenkind

Word of the Month: Index

Thanks to Wunderkind and Kindergarten, Kind (child, plural Kinder) is probably one of the best known German words to English speakers. The verb sorgen is another matter. In its reflexive form—with the preposition um (about)—it means "be concerned" or "worry" (about someone or something). As an intransitive verb—with the preposition für (for)—it means to "take care" of or "provide" for something or someone. The noun Sorge (plural Sorgen) also has the double meaning of "worry" and "taking care," and both meanings are present in our word of the month: A Sorgenkind is a "problem child" whom parents are most concerned about and who needs the most help among their children. We may say, for example, "Walter war von Anfang an ein Sorgenkind" (Walter was a Sorgenkind from the beginning). The term can also be used in a figurative sense. For example, we may say that the luxury car division is the Sorgenkind of a car manufacturer.

Note that a Sorgenkind is not the same as a schwarzes Schaf (black sheep) in the family: The former commands sympathy and receives help, while the latter most often does not.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Word of the Month: Der Bärendienst

Word of the Month: Index

A Bär is a bear (see my Word of the Month Seebär) and a Dienst is, in the present context, a service performed for somebody. A Bärendienst is a service that backfires—meant to benefit the recipient, it has the opposite effect; it may even turn out to be a disaster for the intended beneficiary.

Why connect a bear, among all creatures, to that type of action? There seems to be general agreement that the German term derives from La Fontaine’s fable L'Ours et l'amateur des jardins ("The Bear and the Garden Lover"). It tells the story of a lonely gardener and a lonely bear who become companions. The bear assists his friend in his work, and when the gardener takes a nap, the bear tries to ward off a bothersome fly. When all else fails, he picks up a paving stone and crushes the fly, which had settled on the gardener's nose. Alas, the blow also kills the gardener.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Word of the Month: Die Nervensäge

Word of the Month: Index

Nerven are nerves, and a Säge is a saw. Taken together, they refer to somebody or something that gets on your nerve, badly and persistently. A Nervensäge can be strictly a creature of the imagination, like Frosty, the Snowman, or Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, or something that exists in real life, like a child who's endlessly complaining or a sports commentator who is more in love with the sound of his voice than the game he is supposed to comment on.

BTW The kind of handsaw that was the inspiration for my rendering of a Nervensäge is called a Fuchsschwanz (fox tail) in German.