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.


avidreader said...

When a china cabinet topples over one posts the contents on Etsy, calls them mosaics and charges by the ounce.

Ulrich said...

This shows that you can also turn a Scherbenhaufen into a gold mine! It's called 'Midas touch' in English--I can't think right now of a German equivalent.