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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Word of the Month: Die Wortklauberei

Word of the Month: Index

Wort means "word" and Klauberei is a noun derived form the verb klauben—to carefully pick over or sort out something (not to be confused with glauben—to believe). The verb is neutral in its connotations, but Wortklauberei is decidedly not: It stands for a pedantically narrow interpretation of a word or expression, conceived in the most literal sense. The nouns referring to people perpetrating Wortklauberei are Wortklauber (masc), Wortklauberin (fem) and Wortklauber (plural); wortklauberisch is the adjective.

Here is an example. A recent New York Times crossword puzzle had as its theme "Where's Waldo?", represented by four theme answers containing different anagrams of WALDO. A crossword blogger complained that these answers did not "hide" Waldo because "he's not hiding so much as he is dismembered...If I accept this puzzle's premise, then the word 'hiding' just loses all meaning." I consider this Wortklauberei: If the name "Waldo" would appear unchanged in the answers, it would not be hidden, but visible in plain sight—in the realm of words, where crossword puzzles reside, anagramming a name is an elegant way of hiding it, to me at least.

Here's another, more substantive example: Article 1(1) of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz—Basic Law) declares
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt. (The dignity of a human being is inviolable [literally, "untouchable"]. To respect and to protect it is the duty of all powers of the state.).
I've heard remarks to the effect that these two sentences contain a contradiction: If human dignity is inviolable, it does not need protection. Really? If an area is off-limits, doesn't it need protection nevertheless, or rather, because of it? The same is true for Article 1(1): Its intent is clear enough, and I find it wortklauberisch, and annoyingly so, to take the authors of the article to task for the language they used.


Ulrich said...

This has nothing to do with Wortklauberei, but with Article 1(1) of the German Constitution I mentioned in my post. It was clearly conceived in response to the Nazi past, when it was precisely human dignity that was violated, and violated horribly, on a regular basis.
BTW The German Constitutional Court (the counterpart of the American Supreme Court) takes this article not as an empty slogan, but as a call for action, using it, for example, in debates about an acceptable level for unemployment benefits

Heika said...

This is a great word and I wish we had an equivalent--although then you wouldn't have introduced it I guess.

It seems to me that people who engage in Wortklauberei are often so busy telling someone else about the precise meaning of a word, they miss the point that's being made.

Recently Leon Wieseltier wrote a great essay about the need to define for ourselves who we want to be in the age of "disruptive" technological "innovation." Wieseltier called for a return to more humanistic values in the sense of giving human beings prime importance as opposed to turning decisions over to software programs that manage every aspect of our lives.

Some people loved it, some hated it, which is fine. But way too many people engaged in Wortklauberei insisting that Wieseltier had not used the word "humanism" in exactly the right way. I forget what some of his various errors were. Maybe he didn't reference Erasmus, who knows.

But what was striking was their failure to address the author's point in any substantive way, which was distressing. Down with Wortklauberei!

Ulrich said...

Thank you, Heika!

In my experience, the people who engage in Wortklauberei fall into three groups: (1) Oberlehrer, who love to criticize people in order to appear intellectually superior themselves; (2) pedants who cannot see the forest for the trees; and (3) people who very much see the forest, but don't like it and therefore divert attention to the trees.

It seems to me the critics of Wieseltier fall into categories 2 and 3 (I think I know the essay you are talking about--in the NYT Book Review, right? But I did not follow the comments--it's more often than not a truly depressing experience.)

Heika said...

I'm with you on the three categories. I was aware of categories 1 and 2 but had not thought of 3, and I think you are exactly right.

Now I'm wondering if that was why people were obsessed about the proper definition of humanism, when Wieseltier was clearly using it in its more general sense to indicate a society centered on the lives of human beings rather than on some larger power like god or technology.

The comments were fascinating for their divergence. The president of Harvard praised it, Stephen Pinker expressed contempt, minus any analysis of course. Interesting, too, were the complaints about its length (984 words), which fed my paranoia that we are becoming a culture unable to follow a complex argument lasting for more than a paragraph.