German Word of the Week: Weichtierkundler

One of the many fascinating things about Hermann Löns, the German naturalist and folk poet (Heimatdichter) is that for a time he studied malacology, which is the study of molluscs. There's a Latinate German word for this as well (Malakologie), but screw that, the more German way of describing this line of study is Weichtierkundler. This is another example of the German animal names which the Internets have discovered: 

In this case, Weich = soft, Tier = animal, Kundler = expert (literally, 'knower'). Put them together, and you have a knower of soft animals. Appropriate, since Löns was a bit of a womanizer. Which, in German, is either Frauenheld (woman-hero) or Schürzenjäger (skirt-hunter).


German Word of the Week: Einsatzort

Images

Being the Friend of Nature™ that I am, I'm gonna plant some bee-friendly plants on my balcony this weekend. To find out which ones to plant, I visited bienenretter.de (bee-rescuer). One of the main pages is labeled Dein Einsatzort: Balkon! 

There are a couple of things to note here. First, the website uses the private/intimate form of address, something which is increasingly common in the German media and which often irritates extremely traditionalist Teutonophiles such as myself. Sure, bee-rescuer website, we may have some ideas in common, but that hardly gives you the right to address me informally.

Honor is saved by the use of the German word Einsatz. What is (an) Einsatz? Einsatz is a mission, a task, purposeful activity of some sort. Work. Diligent accomplishment. Soldiers go on Einsätze (missions). The sign above lets you know that this car is owned by a doctor who is currently doctoring someone up -- he is im Einsatz (literally 'in a mission'). Einsatz, being value-neutral, and also being German, has its dark side. The mobile SS death squads in the occupied East during World War II were called Einsatzgruppen, often lamely translated as 'special action groups'.

Now, many German words have other, completely unrelated meaning, so Einsatz (literally, 'in-portion' or 'in-set' or 'in-part') is also the incredibly useful, general term for something smaller that fits into something larger, as these images, found at the previous link will immediately convey to you:

Bildergebnis für mit einsatzBildergebnis für mit einsatzBildergebnis für mit einsatz

At first, the two meanings might seem unrelated, but upon further reflection, a metaphorical Einsatz refers to something someone or a group does to fulfill a larger mission.

Which brings us back to Einsatzort: Balkon! Your place of Einsatz, this website is telling you, is your balcony. By planting the right plants, you, ordinary German citizen, can help assure the survival of bees. And with that, I plan on beginning my Einsatz with a beer-fuelled visit to my local Gartencenter.


German Word of the Week: Stichwort

Stichwort -- literally, stab-word or sting-word, is common in German, but it's hard to define. Originally, it refers to the words on the top of the pages of dictionaries which show the reader about where they are in the alphabet. Now it's also used as to sum up the general theme of a conversation, as in: 'Dann haben sie haben sie eine halbe Stunde lang über die Gaza-Krise diskutiert -- Stichwort Menschenrechte' 'Then they discussed the Gaza crisis for half an hour -- the main topic being human rights.' It also is used for search term or rubric -- i.e. you might search a health website for articles related to the Stichwort asthma.

So far, so dull. But here's the sort-of-interesting part. When I was learning German, many German friends asked me what the English word for Stichwort was. They would point to the word at the top of a dictionary page and say 'That's a Stichwort. Surely there must be an English word for something that's so common.'

I had zilch. bupkis. NFC.

Before you laugh at my ignorance, do you know what the English word for a Stichwort in a dictionary is? No, you don't. It's not 'heading' or anything like that. It's a very specific word for just this concept, and I bet ya don't know it. Answer after the jump.

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German Word of the Week: Sturmholz

Uproot near S-Bahn

Pentecost (Pfingsten in German) celebrates the time when 'suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.' Appropriately, on Pentecost Monday, usually known as Whit Monday, a freak windstorm pummeled the westernmost state in Germany, Northern Rhine-Westphalia, leaving scenes of destruction like this. Six people died, traffic was disrupted for days, and something like 20,000 trees were uprooted, many others damaged. And we didn't even get a visitation by the Holy Spirit out of it.

Everywhere you go in Düsseldorf, there are still uprooted trees slowly dying, and tree branches scattered on the side of the road, where they were hastily cleared away to permit traffic to pass. And yet the city administration quickly issued a warning to all residents: the trees and branches blown over by the storm are the property of the city, and anyone appropriating them commits theft (g). This is in contrast to most of the neighboring towns, which encouraged citizens to clear away the wood.

This caused a controversy, which I plan to ignore. Instead, I want to focus on the word for the downed trees: Sturmholz. It couldn't be easier: Sturm (storm) + Holz (wood) = Stormwood. I've quizzed a few friends, and they report they'd never heard of the word before the storm, but instantly grasped what it referred to. The Lego Language provides yet another compact word for something that other, sloppier, lazier, smellier, louder, less efficient, more Southern European (g) languages would need an entire phrase to convey.

Stormwood!

Johnny Stormwood, that is, lank-haired skateboard rebel and the embittered rival who brought down Slash Treadfree:

Bm-JdN_IIAAquFd

(From the twitter feed Unfinished Scripts)


German Word of the Week: Backpfeifengesicht

Over at a website called Chateau Heartiste*, the anonymous author has this to say about the above picture: 

The Germans have a word (the Germans always have a word) for “a punchable face”: Backpfeifengesicht.

That's rather hard cheese on feminism-boy, but we'll leave that aside for a moment. I found to my surprise that Backpfeifengesicht has an active double-life in English, with an eager crowd of Teutonophiles spearheading a movement to bring it into English to join Earworm, Weltschmerz, Fahrvergnügen, and other recent imports. Problem is, though, that nobody has any idea how to pronounce Backpfeifengesicht. The consonant-block 'ckpf' is, safe to say, not one many English-speakers have encountered, although it's far from the gnarliest that German has to offer.

My advice is simple: as with all German words, it's pronounced exactly as it's spelled, no matter how impossible that may seem at first.

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German Word of the Week: Lebenswallen

Reading Hans Joachim Moser's 1958 book Musikgeschichte in 100 Lebensbildern (Music history in 100 Biographical Sketches). Moser (g) was a famous German musicologist and prolific author of books about Western music for a high-middlebrow audience. Moser's biographical sketches are lively, readable, but also sophisticated -- he gently dismantles myths such as Palestrina 'saving' Catholic religious music, and isn't afraid to point out works and composers he thinks are under- or over-rated. Moser was also a Nazi, joining the party in 1936 and becoming a senior musical functionary. Among other dubious deeds, he oversaw the 'Aryanization' of Händel's oratorios in the early 1940s.

The book isn't ideologically inflected, though. Granted, lesser-known German composers (Schein, Schütz, Scheidt, Biber even Oswald von Wolkenstein) get more attention than they might in a book by a Frenchman, but this is to be expected. Moser is by no means parochial, and if you ask me, many of these German masters are a bit underappreciated outside of Germany.

At once point, Moser refers to the Lebenswallen of the well-traveled Orlandus de Lassus, which caused me to sit up and say: 'What the fuck ist ein Lebenswallen'? Leben is life, and forms the root of many German compounds: Lebenslust, Lebensauffassung (idea of what life is for), lebenslang (lifelong), even the useful Lebensmüde (tired of life, used of someone who's either suicidal or about to do something extremely stupid and dangerous, as in 'You're really going to drink that piss-colored Sochi tapwater? What are you, Lebensmüde?).

Wallen is a verb meaning, variously, to seethe, bubble or flow. So apparently a Lebenswallen is a seething, bubbling, foaming flow of life. I could find only very few uses of the word in German. One of these is typical, from an 1821 book entitled 'Investigation of Life-Magnetism (Lebensmagnetismus) and Clairvoyancy' by one Johann Karl Passavant:

Screenshot 2014-02-07 14.04.28

The middle paragraph reads: 'From the unsearchable depths of Being, universal Father of things, emerges the God-revealing life-source of all existence, the eternal word of creation (the Logos), and the worlds are created and disappear through the flow of life (Lebenswallen), the breath (spirit) of God, who, all-inspiring, fills the universe.'

Lebenswallen, like Afterkind seems to have fallen into disuse. Together, we can and will usher this fine word back into everyday use.


German Word of the Week: Trinkhalle

Tinrkhalle Behrensstrasse Exterior

This is an archetypal German Trinkhalle, found on the Behrenstraße in Duesseldorf. Note the red-white color scheme. These are the colors of Fortuna 95 Duesseldorf, the local soccer club. The Behrenstraße is a vortex of Fortuna fandom, with red-and-white banners hanging from many balconies. The former owner of this Trinkhalle seems to have accepted advertising only from sponsors whose logos share the Fortuna color scheme. Now that's dedication.

The word Trinkhalle comes from the root of the verb trinken (drink), plus Halle. I've never really understood this pairing, because a Halle generally refers either to a large, ceremonial hall, as in Festhalle (banqueting-hall), or to a cavernous storage space, such as a Lagerhalle (warehouse building).

A Trinkhalle, though, is anything but cavernous. They range from the ludicrously tiny to stately specimens like such as the one above. What distinguishes a Trinkhalle from a Stehcafe (standing-cafe) is generally the plexiglas service-window of the traditional Trinkhalle. And they're just plexiglas. Germany has essentially no random hand gun crime, so there's no need to make store windows bulletproof, even in the diciest areas.

You walk up, get the attention of the guy inside, and order your beer, cola, cigarettes, magazines, or candy. If you're well-off, you order pre-rolled cigarettes and quality German or Czech beers. If you're not, you buy off-brand Oettinger beer and a cardboard cylinder of barely-smokable shag and roll your own. If you're lonely, you stand there chatting with the owner as you consume them and watch street life roll by. Trinkhallen are often run by immigrants from non-Christian (or at least non-Western-Christian) countries, so they'll be open on Sunday and other religious days. Very useful!

Trinkhallen, at their best, are genuine neighborhood institutions and generate the all-important eyes on the street that keep German cities vital and safe. They're also probably kind of inefficient. Which means some group of soulless plutocrats capital investors, somewhere, is plotting to replace them with anonymous chain outlets or trendy boutiques. Will we let them win?


German Word of the Week: Lebensabschnittsgefährte (and why opera DVDs rule)

MH points me to the a 3 Quarks Daily piece by Brooks Riley about German-English language exchange:

The German language may have a reputation for exhaustively long words, but when it's pithy, it's penetrating: The word for 'scene of the crime' is 'Tatort', a linguistic slamdunk.

And then there's the economical 'doch', an invention that should have been imported years ago. I say, 'The world won't end today.' You answer, 'Oh yes it will.' A German answers, 'Doch', a four-letter contradiction instead of a four-word one. 'Doch' has an elegant finality about it—having the last word without spelling it out. ' You're not going out dressed like that!'. 'Doch.' Try to argue with that.

...English also suffers the boyfriend-girlfriend issue, a problem dating back to the Sixties, when young people started avoiding marriage. Before then, 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' were useful terms for a temporary state of affairs, to be discarded when the young ones tied the knot. Now that marriage is just one of many forms of monogamous pairings, those without a wedding ring are left hanging--some of them well into old age--without a proper word to describe their Significant Other, other than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. In both languages, the rather tepid solution is to use 'my friend' to imply romantic involvement, and 'a friend of mine' to suggest friendship. (This distinction works only if you omit the name of the loved one: "My friend Flicka" would hardly be mistaken for a romantic liaison). 'Partner' pops up in both languages, but what does it mean? A business partner? A lover? Is it a he or she (the same predicament applies to the word 'lover')? Do they live together or do they just do dinner? In German, unmarried cohabiting (or is it co-habiting) pairs refer to each other as Lebensgefährte (male life companion), or Lebensgefährtin (female life companion), profiting from a language with male and female nouns. But what if they break up? You can't exactly refer to a former boyfriend as a 'former life companion' (unless you tweak it to 'companion of a former life'). One cynical German suggested the word 'Lebensabschnittsgefährte', or 'slice-of-life companion'. An American friend of mine uses the term 'serial monogamy' to describe a lifetime of long-term relationships, but it's not one that solves the problem of what to call the S.O.

I would translate Lebensabschnittsgefährte more as 'phase-of-life' or 'period-of-life' companion, but there's no doubt it's a magnificent word. It's still a bit louche: you would never describe your current girlfriend as a Lebensabschnittsgefährte -- at least not in front of her -- but that's only because we humans are masters of self-delusion and wishful thinking.

I also have to quibble with Riley about the boyfriend/girlfriend issue. Not that the problem she describes doesn't exist, but that Germany, like many other languages, lacks a distinction between boyfriend and friend. If you're a woman, you call your boyfriend merely your  'Freund'. But, of course, you may have other male friends, who are also your Freunde. The only way to know whether someone is talking about their boyfriend or merely a friend is context and/or body language. Alternatively, you can use the formulation ein Freund von mir (a friend of mine) to describe a Platonic friendship, but that's a bit clumsy.

Germany's lack of words for boyfriend/girlfriend leads to amusing situations in which a British man brings over his German girlfriend to meet the family, and she constantly refers to him as merely 'my friend', even as they're sharing bodily fluids and discussing wedding plans. Alternately, I constantly fall into the trap of referring to my male friends as mein Freund, which leaves people who don't know me unsure whether I've just declared my homosexuality.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is Brooks Riley describing why watching operas on DVD is so rewarding:

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

I was never much of an opera fan until I began collecting opera DVDs. That changes the entire experience. The advantages are overwhelming:

  • You can drink and eat and smoke whatever you want while watching.
  • You can get a fantastic blu-ray DVD of an opera for perhaps 1/3 the price of a decent ticket.
  • You can see operas from all over the world.
  • You get a variety of camera angles, not just one static view from 100 meters away.
  • The sound quality is incredible on the newest DVDs and blu-rays, and superior to what you would hear in any seat you can afford.
  • For foreign-language operas, you can see immediate translations as the singers are singing, enabling you to appreciate the acting and follow the plot.
  • You control the climate, so no stuffy, over/underheated concert halls, no coughing, no hyperflatulent geezers, no ringing cellphones, etc.
  • You can back up and re-play interesting scenes or arias.
  • You can skip the dull recitative.
  • For non-opera CDs, you can see the facial expressions of the soloist, members of the orchestra, and/or conductor. This adds immeasrably to the listening experience.

The list just goes on. I still go see live performances here and then, but only when they promise to be something special, with an electric live atmosphere. Everything else I watch on DVD.


Freiburg and the Black Forest

I spent the weekend in Freiburg courtesy of the German-American Lawyers' Association (thanks!) and got to enjoy that delightful city again. The people are friendly and laid-back (Freiburg gets more sun than any other place in Germany), the food is outstanding (Freiburg is right on the border with France), and the small old city is filled with artificial rectilinear 'brooks' (Baechle), about a half-meter wide and deep, through which cool, clear water courses rapidly. Kids float boats down them, people cool their feet on hot summer days, and the sound fills the narrow streets. These little brooks aren't covered, so one of the most amusing pastimes is listening for the agonized shrieks of tourists who, gawking at old buildings, have wrenched their ankle into one of these Baechle. You can't sue, because it's tradition. Besides, the locals say if you trip into one of the Baechle, you'll marry someone from Freiburg. I so far have managed to step over every one of these Baechle.

A hilly chunk of the Black Forest thrusts directly into Freiburg from the East like a giant arrow. This means that you can walk 10 minutes from the city center and literally be inside the Black Forest --especially if you take the mountainside railcar, which lifts you about 300 meters to the main hillside trail. In most other places in the world, this hillside would be covered with the mansions of the rich, but not in Freiburg. I hiked about 4 km into the Black Forest to the forest shrine of St. Odile of Alsace, a small baroque church housing a spring whose water is supposed to heal eye problems. According to this church website, the water has tons of radon in it, but that didn't stop a few pilgrims from washing their eyes with it (!) while I was there. Odile was born blind in the 7th century but her vision was restored through prayer, so one of her typical iconographies is a book with human eyeballs projecting from it, as in this Baroque sculpture from the church. There was also a group of young Germans who recited the Ave Maria in German in a monotone over and over, interspersed with some prayers sung in Latin. I wonder what this devotional exercise is called.

Here is St. Odila with her chalice-book-eyes! The some pictures of Freiburg, greenery and forest views, a panorama of the valley in which Freiburg is locaged, a foxglove plant (which is called Fingerhut -- finger-hat! -- in German), the interior of the St. Ottilien church. Oh, and a hideous, gigantic Brutalist building (housing a Breuninger department store) excreted like a steaming pile of shit right into the middle of Freiburg's Old City. 

Sculpture of St. Odila in St. Ottilien Church
View of Karlssteg in Stadtgarten Brutalist Building in the Freiburger Altstadt

View of Path to St. Ottilien
Foxglove Plant on path to St. Ottilien
Panorama of Freiburg from the Burghaldering
Forest Clearing near Freiburg
Stand of Pine Trees on Path to St. Ottilien
View of Passionsweg near St. Ottilien
Interior of St. Ottilian Church