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

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).