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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Scherbenhaufen

Word of the Month: Index

Scherben are potsherds or shards, and a Haufen is a heap. A Scherbenhaufen, then, is a heap of shards—think of what happens when a china cabinet topples over and spills its contents on the floor.

Image source: Langerwehe Pottery website

Why is this an interesting word? Because it's used most often metaphorically in German to indicate the complete failure by a person or persons in charge of some goal-oriented outfit like a team, a corporation, or a government. The term commonly appears in phrases such as "she is standing before a Scherbenhaufen" or "he left behind a Scherbenhaufen" when someone's attempt to reach some goal turned into its opposite and resulted in a debacle.

Depending on the context, the term may carry a mix of connotations, from the dashed hopes and heartbreak on the part of the person who failed to glee and Schadenfreude* on the part of observers who thought the effort was hopeless, or too grandiose, to begin with or who wanted it to fail for other reasons.

The very concrete image of a Scherbenhaufen thus can carry multi-faceted connotations, and that's why I like this word: When you use it, you say much more than a simple statement of failure could express.
*I never made Schadenfreude a WoM because it seems to me that it has entered English as a foreign word no longer in need of an explanation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Nervenkitzel

Word of the Month: Index

Nerven are German nerves, and Kitzel is a noun derived from the verb kitzeln (to tickle). A Nervenkitzler, then, is a "nerve tickler", something that significantly raises your adrenalin level.

The Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru are a spectacular example. They consist of three 4-bed cabins suspended from a sheer, 1200ft-high cliff overlooking the Cuzco valley and reachable only by ropes and iron handholds anchored into the rock. Getting and staying there is indeed a "pure Nervenkitzel" as stated in a recent article about the lodge.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Winkeladvokat

Homage to August Sander

Word of the Month: Index

Winkel is the German word for 'angle' or 'corner', and Advokat is an old-fashioned term for an attorney or counselor (replaced in modern German usage by Anwalt). In its original meaning, a Winkeladvokat was someone who gave legal advice 'out of a corner', that is, without proper training and certainly without a license. Nowadays, the term refers to an inept or unscrupulous attorney. It's similar to English 'shyster', but I have the sense that a Winkeladvokat is distinguished more by ineptitude than questionable morals, while a shyster can be extremely clever.

My original motivation for selecting the present WoM was to use it as an excuse for showing a portrait labelled 'Winkeladvokat' by August Sander (1876-1964), perhaps the greatest German photographer of the first half of the 20th century. He spent most of his career building a collection of portraits, which he called Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century). Each image in the collection represents a person identified by his or her profession or status (the farmer, the brick layer, the tramp); that is, in Sander's grand design, the subjects are seen less as individuals than representatives of the role they play in society. But Sanders treated his sitters with great respect—he let them pose however they wished, and as a result, they speak to us very much as individuals. It is this tension between role and individuality that intrigues Sander fans like me.

Sander's portrait of a Winkeladvokat stands out, first of all, because of its caption—it's the only one in his entire work, as far as I can see, that is not purely descriptive. It may be that at the time, being called a Winkeladvokat was less derogatory—I don't know. But the portrait is memorable not only because of its caption. The subject sits at a table surrounded by his tools—pencil, paper, and, prominently, rubber stamps, and he presides over his world with a suppressed smirk as if he wanted to say, "Yes, I'm a Winkeladvokat—so sue me!" And that's why I am so fond of the photo.

Alas, I am not allowed to show the portrait here for copyright reasons. I drew a caricature instead and hope readers feel motivated to google Sander and his Winkeladvokat.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The German Suffix -schaft

The suffix –schaft has a wide range of uses in German that overlaps to a large extent with the way in which the etymologically related suffix –ship is used in English. It may indicate, for instance, a state of affairs or a relationship between the type of persons indicated by the noun it is attached to. For example, Freund means "friend" and Freundschaft "friendship": It's the relationship that exists between friends.

It may also refer to a group whose members have something in common. For example, Leser mean "reader" and Leserschaft "readership": It's the community of people identified by the preceding noun. In German, this type of use may have negative connotations. For example, a Sippe is a clan or an extended family, while a Sippschaft is bad company.

The suffix can also refer to an event or action or their result. The word Erbe means "heir" and Erbschaft "inheritance": If you become an Erbe, you receive an Erbschaft. Analoguous examples for the use of -ship in English are "courtship" and "censorship".

The suffix can also be attached to an adjective. An English example is "hardship". But this use is rare in English. It's more common in German. A well-known and often commented-on example is Gemeinschaft, which is formed by adding -schaft to the adjective gemein in the now almost obsolete meaning of "relating to the larger community". It's often translated into English as "community", but this translation does not capture the connotations of the German term, the sense of belonging, on the one hand, and the rejection of outsiders, on the other hand, that are often implied when we speak of a Gemeinschaft.

There are also instances in German where -schaft is added to a verb. For example, wandern can mean "to hike" or "to roam", and Wanderschaft refers to an extended period of being on the move without having a fixed residence. I cannot think of an analoguous use of English -ship, unless one considers the "court-" and "censor-" parts in "courtship" and "censorship" verbs instead of nouns. In fact, I would consider this a more plausible explanation, but no online source I consulted supports this point of view.

Seilschaft vs. Deep State

Seilschaft is my current Word of the Month. It's a hidden network of people with a shared outlook and common background who work together and support each other inside an institution. Readers may wonder if a Seilschaft is the same as a "deep state", a term used by the Trump administration in its claim that there exists a clandestine network across the intelligence community that aims at undermining the president through leaks.

The notion of a deep state
"comes from the Turkish derin devlet, a clandestine network, including military and intelligence officers, along with civilian allies, whose mission was to protect the secular order established, in 1923, by the father figure of post-Ottoman Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was behind at least four coups, and it surveilled and murdered reporters, dissidents, Communists, Kurds, and Islamists." (David Remnick, "There is no Deep State", The New Yorker, March 20, 2017)
Clearly, a Seilschaft and a deep state have things in common: They are secret networks and established deliberately. But there are also significant differences. A Seilschaft tends to be smaller and restricted to a group within a single institution. Its purpose is, first of all, to provide fellow comrades with cushy jobs—someone gets in and then tries to help others to fill positions that open up. There may be a political side effect because the members of a Seilschaft have a shared world view, which may influence their decisions. There may even be Seilschaften (that's the plural) whose explicit goal is to advance a political agenda. But that is not a necessary condition for something to be called a Seilschaft. A deep state, on the other hand, tends to be large and spread over various institutions, and its members do pursue a common political goal. They spring into action when they see an opportunity to advance it or see it threatened by political enemies.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Seilschaft

Word of the Month: Index

Seil means "rope". If we add the suffix -schaft, we get Seilschaft, a group of people connected by a rope. The term originated in mountaineering, where it refers to a group of climbers connected to each other along a single rope as a safety measure against falling off the mountain or into a crevasse. There is a strong connotation of mutual dependence and shared fate among the members of the group: The rope provides a measure of safety for each climber, but can also lead to disaster when one of them falls and pulls the others down with him or her.

I think this sense of shared fate led to the figurative use of the term, a clandestine network of people with a common background and shared outlook inside an institution—they have the same Stallgeruch. The members of the group work together and support each other while trying to keep their connection a secret. When used in this sense, the term always has negative connotations. For example, it's employed regularly to describe the situation after the downfall of a (dictatorial) regime when members of the old ruling clique heave each other into positions within the new administration.

Further Readings: Seilschaft vs. Deep StateThe German Suffix -schaft

Friday, May 19, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Stallgeruch

Word of the Month: Index

A Stall is a stable or a coop, a building for sheltering and feeding domestic animals, be they tall (like horses, as in Pferdestall) or small (like chickens, as in Hühnerstall). Geruch means "odor" or "smell". Stallgeruch, then, refers to the odor emanating from a Stall. But it's used today mainly in a figurative sense: When we say that someone has a certain Stallgeruch, we indicate that this person shares the background, values, or attitudes of a specific group or belongs to a certain milieu.

The term is used frequently to explain why someone was or was not hired to fill a certain position—he or she had or did not have "the proper Stallgeruch". I like the term very much because it is so evocative: I always picture a bunch of dogs subjecting a newcomer to the smell test.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Extrawurst

Word of the Month: Index

Extra is a prefix that has in German the same meaning it has in English: It indicates a quality exceeding or a position outside some established range or norm. Wurst probably needs no explanation—boiled or grilled, it's the ur-German comfort food. For readers who have yet to hear of it: It means "sausage".

An Extrawurst, in the narrow sense, is an additional sausage, like the one a mother may put on her son's plate because "the boy is still growing". In the figurative sense, and that's how the term is mainly used, it stands for the special treatment someone is demanding or given, and when it's used in this way, there is at least a whiff of disapproval in the air.

The term pops up regularly in German media in discussions of the role Britain has played in the European Union, and it's typically said with some exasperation. The claim is that the Brits always demanded an Extrawurst in the resolution of an issue, and this may be the explanation why expressions of regret about the Brexit vote are remarkably muted in Berlin—or Brussels, where some officials seem only too eager to get the exit negotiations started.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Gleichschaltung

Word of the Month: Index

Gleich is an adjective/adverb/prefix indicating that something is the same as or indistinguishable from something else. For example, if two people have "die gleiche Meinung", they have the same opinion. Schaltung refers to the sum of the connections between the components of an electrical, electronic, or mechanical device as depicted, for example, by the wiring diagram of an appliance. In a car, Schaltung refers to its gear mechanism.

Combining the two words we get Gleichschaltung. The term refers to the enforced uniformity of opinion and purpose in the administrative and cultural institutions of a country—the goal is to have them all "wired the same" in the end. The emphasis is on "enforced": Gleichschaltung doesn't happen by itself, but is always ordered and orchestrated from above, like when independent reporters at state-owned media are fired and replaced by conformists.

Gleichschaltung typically accompanies the beginnings of an autocratic regime or a dictatorship, starting with the media and moving on to the civil service, especially the judiciary; the police; the military; the arts; and eventually the universities, when professors critical of the regime are fired, if not put in jail, and research challenging the official propaganda is suppressed.

Getting the media under control is always an important first step because it takes away peoples' ability to receive uncensored news and to learn what's really happening in their country. We saw this taking place when Putin came to power in Russia and now in Turkey, where Gleichschaltung has already reached the universities.

Acknowledgment. I would like to thank Al Rodbell for pointing me to this term, which has lost none of its relevance [more about this in my comment].

Monday, January 23, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Dauerbrenner

War on Christmas
Word of the Month: Index

A Brenner is a burner (derived from brennen—to burn). Dauer means "duration" and refers to the time something lasts. Used as a prefix, it indicates that something lasts seemingly forever. Thus, a Dauerbrenner refers to an oven that continues to burn while consuming hardly any fuel and without human intervention. Used figuratively, the term refers to something that seems to be going on forever or to someone who has been performing for a long period of time.

Here are some examples demonstrating how broadly the term can be applied: The Lion King has been a Dauerbrenner on Broadway. Willy Nelson has been a Dauerbrenner in country music. And if you're looking for an issue that can be considered a seasonal Dauerbrenner, the so-called "War on Christmas" comes to mind (more on this in my first comment).

And here's an example from a recent issue of a popular German soccer magazine: Under the heading "Die Dauerbrenner" (note that the plural is the same as the singular), it identified the handfull of players who haven't missed a single minute of play so far in the premier German soccer league (the Bundesliga).