Useful German Words

Many of us are familiar with the German word schadenfreude.  It refers to the pleasure you feel from observing another person’s misfortune.  Think about the guilty but nevertheless real surge of joy you get when your arch-rival sports team loses a big game, and you’ve captured it.

trachtSchadenfreude is a very useful word.  So why does a specific word for that sensation exist in the German language, but not in English?  What caused the Germans, at some point in the past, to identify that very particular feeling and coin a term for it, and why didn’t somebody in merry old England do likewise?  You can’t tell me that, during the period of one of their countless wars, the British weren’t happy to see the French take a pratfall.  Why didn’t they come up with a word to capture that specific unseemly yet nevertheless real surge of pleasure?

Schadenfreude doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, the Germans have been pretty good at creating lots of words that capture unique feelings or circumstances.  Here are some:

Futterneid — translated as “food jealousy” or “food envy,” it refers to the feeling you have when you go out to dinner with someone and they order food that looks much better than what you ordered, and you then suffer through the meal wishing you’d ordered their dish.

Fernweh — translated as “distance sickness” (the opposite of home sickness), it refers to the overpowering desire to be traveling, preferably to somewhere far away.

Fremdschamen — the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment you experience when watching someone else go through a personally humiliating experience, like telling an unfunny joke to an audience or having way too much to drink at a work-related function.

Kummerspeck — translated literally as “grief bacon,” it refers to excess weight that is put on by emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik — translated literally as “gate shut panic,” it identifies the fear that certain opportunities or activities are being closed to you as you get older.

Weltschmerz — the sensation of melancholy and resignation that you experience when your hopeful expectations about what will happen in the world fall disappointingly short . . . again.

We could use such words in English, so the word creators need to get cracking.  And isn’t it interesting how many of those German words describing unique, very precise feelings or conditions can be applied to what we are experiencing in 2020?

A Fortnight To Glory

Yesterday, both the President and the Governor of Ohio announced their plans for reopening broad economic activity in the wake of the coronavirus shutdowns.  Interestingly, both the federal plan and the Ohio plan turn on a two-week period — and the ancient English word for a two-week period is a “fortnight.”

On the federal level, fortnights will be used as a measuring stick for the “gating” criteria that define and separate different phases of economic activity.  If a state or region shows a decline in reports of influenza-like illnesses and a downward trajectory in documented cases or positive tests for a fortnight, they can pass through the gate and move to the next phase.  Each successive phase involves fewer restrictions on economic and social activity.  Some states will have already passed this fortnight test and will be in a position to move to phase one immediately; others will be looking at their metrics and their data curves and evaluating when they can pass through the gates.

may-1In Ohio, where the “shelter in place” edict came early and the coronavirus curve has been “squashed” according to state officials, the fortnight is being used for a bit different purpose — it’s the period between now and May 1, when the state will “reopen.”  I put “reopen” in quotes because the process will be gradual and the precise details are still being worked out.  The process evidently will involve some novel activities, like taking your temperature before you enter the workplace, wearing masks in offices, maintaining social distancing, and repeatedly wiping down surfaces.  It’s definitely going to be a change from the norm — but boy, it will be good to get back to the office under any circumstances.

“Fortnight” is an ancient word derived from the Old English phrase fēowertīene niht, or “fourteen nights.”  The resulting truncation, “fortnight,” seems apt in this coronavirus context, doesn’t it?  For weeks now we’ve all be staying in our homes, as if they were individual forts, and it has undoubtedly been a dark period, like a very prolonged night.

But now, as states and regions begin passing the tests and moving through the gates to progressively greater economic and social activity, we can hope that the dark period is ending, and we’ll all be able to emerge from our little fortresses and begin the process of getting back to normal.  Soon, we hope, our “fortnight” will be over.

Apostrophe Wars

The other day we were putting the finishing touches on a brief when an apostrophe argument arose.  We needed to indicate the possessive for an individual whose last name ended in s.  So, the question was, should it be “Mr. Jones‘ car” or “Mr. Jones’s car?”

b3ac60b60ddd3ad1a1d723192a4a4c65I always use the former construction, but the Jersey Girl was adamant that the second construction is the only permissible approach.  As is so often the case with grammar matters, the dispute became heated, passionate positions were staked out on both sides, voices were raised, and the Soccer Star, another member of the team on the case, heard the argument and came from a nearby office to enter the fray.  From there, the dispute escalated quickly, and if it had continued one of the participants probably would have been seen galloping away from the area with a trident lodged in his or her back.  But, because we needed to get a draft out the door, I yielded to the Jersey Girl’s resolute insistence that we must go with “Mr. Jones’s car,” and permanent injury was avoided.

Many people don’t really care about grammar, but for those who do correct usage is a very important issue.  And one of the reasons that the question of precisely how to show that the car belongs to Mr. Jones is a point of great dispute is that there is no universally recognized right answer.  Some authorities take the position that, whenever a possessive is used with a word ending in “s,” an “apostrophe s” must be added, others say that only an apostrophe should be used, and still others acknowledge that there is no correct answer and the key thing is to be consistent.

I prefer the use of the apostrophe only in this situation, because I think “Mr. Jones’s car” looks clunky.  In addition, when I read and write I admittedly tend to sound things out in my head, and the Jersey Girl’s approach with its multiple back-to-back sibilants leaves me hissing like a snake.

Still, it was interesting to see how much people can care about grammar.  And there’s nothing like a good grammar fight to get the tridents flying!

Grammar 101

Trinity Episcopal Church, at the corner of Broad and Third Streets in downtown Columbus, has a cool arched red entrance and a welcoming message for all just above its two front doors. But . . . “An House of Prayer”?

It violates one of the rules of grammar that were drilled into students back in grade school — namely, that you use “an” when the following word starts with a vowel sound and “a” when the following word starts with a consonant sound. It’s one of the many weird English grammar rules that trip people up precisely because of letters like h, which can be pronounced in some cases and silent in others — so you write “an honor” but “a house.”

So how did the friendly message above the front door at Trinity get bungled? I don’t know, but I may have to go inside to see whether there are violations of other key rules, like “I before E, except after C, or where sounded in A as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh.'”

The New Words Of 1957

Language is a living thing — ever-changing, morphing and adapting to develop new words to capture and describe new devices, thoughts, and concepts.  Merriam-Webster has come up with a nifty way to illustrate that point.  It’s called the Time Traveler, and it allows you to pick a year and see which new words were first used in print that year.

41hmjsg3yhlSo why not try 1957, the year of my birth and the year of the largest explosion of births in the American Baby Boom?  Just to set the context, it was the second term of the Eisenhower Administration, federal troops were called out to allow nine African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and started the Space Race, the last episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast and the first episodes of American Bandstand and Perry Mason aired on black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas, and artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard dominated the popular music charts.

And according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler, in 1957 words like bitchin’, chuffed, fantabulous, herky-jerky, hipsterism, lowball, low-rent, magic mushroom, overkill, pothead, rumble strip, scumbag, and Zen-like first appeared in print and made their way into popular lexicon.  “Static cling” was coined — no doubt by a Madison Avenue-type — to describe the annoying condition of clothes that have just come out of the dryer, “gold record” was first used to describe a hit, and somebody thought that “happy camper” was a good way to describe a contented individual.  And more serious words and phrases, like amniocentesis, antiballistic missile, cardiomyopathy, computerize, informed consent, pat down, and transsexual entered the national vocabulary.

Where would we be without words like “low-rent” and “happy camper”?  I’d say that 1957 made our national conversation a little bit richer.

For Fear Of A Dangling Preposition

You learned the rule when you were growing up.  You turned in a theme or two in English class, and your paper came back swimming in a sea of red ink.  Almost inevitably, one of the comments from your teacher — maybe even with an exclamation point or two — was that you were not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition.

winston-churchill-quote-ending-a-sentence-with-aIf you did, you had crossed the dreaded “dangling preposition” line.  It was a rule right up there with the “dangling participle” and the “dangling modifier” in the anti-dangling English grammar book.  So instead of writing “What do you want to talk about?,” you were supposed to write something forced and weirdly contrived, namely:  “About what do you want to talk?”  It’s one key way in which what we were taught about the written word varies distinctly from actual spoken language.  If your wife told you that she wanted to talk about something and you responded “About what do you want to talk?,” she’d think you’ve gone off your rocker.

Why were we ever taught about dangling prepositions?  I ran across an article yesterday that attributed the rule to John Dryden, a well-known English writer of the late 1600s, who supposedly made two offhand comments about how ending a sentence with a preposition did not seem “elegant.”  It doesn’t appear that Dryden was a crusader about the issue, but according to the article, Dryden’s stature was such that his comments became embedded in the strict grammarian mind at a time when the English language was evolving and becoming more standardized, and ultimately gave rise to the hard and fast red-ink rule that was taught when we were going to school.  Others argue, however, that the anti-dangling preposition view arose because English grammarians borrowed the rule from Latin — which was the language of the learned for centuries — and in Latin prepositions can’t be separated from their objects.

So who really was responsible for that red ink on your high school theme?  Was it one now-obscure British writer who was obsessed with elegance, or was it the dangling Romans?  We’ll probably never know for sure.  The important thing is that the anti-dangling bias has ended, and grammarians now embrace sentences like “Who did you go with?” as perfectly correct — and certainly more natural sounding than the artificial constructions used to avoid some of that dreaded dangling.

Your high school English teacher, and perhaps John Dryden, too, must be wondering where this unseemly and inelegant development came from.

Baited Breath

Today as I was driving home I heard a snippet of a press conference given by a police chief somewhere in America. He was talking about an investigation he was conducting in coordination with the federal government, and reassured citizens that no stone would be left unturned thanks to their “duplicitous” efforts. Sounds like the kind of devastating admission that could be used to good effect by the lawyers who defend whoever gets arrested as a result of that joint investigation!

IMG_1674Of course, the police chief should have said “duplicative” — which is probably what he intended — but he botched it. No doubt he wanted to sound highly educated, but instead he gave people who were paying attention a hearty chuckle at a pretty good malapropism.

I received an even better malapropism recently via email. The emailer said he was waiting for something with “baited breath.” I laughed at that one, and thought of all the witty, fish-related responses that his error made possible. Should I say that when he finally got a response he shouldn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker? Add that I hoped he wouldn’t worm his way out of his responsibilities? Observe that if it didn’t work out there were other fish in the sea? Fret about the possibility that the project might hit a snag?

“Baited breath” — as opposed to bated breath — seemed like an especially succulent metaphor because it conjures up the idea of the speaker eating worms, minnows, and maybe even a little chum and tackle. Alas, it turns out that “baited breath” has become so commonplace that linguists think it might soon become the usual form of the phrase. Horrors! Has illiteracy reeled in and ruined another deft phrase that traces its lineage back to Shakespeare himself?

The Origins Of “Glitch”

President Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other members of the Obama Administration have often referred to the problems with the Healthcare.gov website as “glitches.”  It made me wonder:  what is the history of the word “glitch”?

Sometimes tracing the derivation of a word is difficult, but that apparently is not the case with “glitch.”  Several internet sources say the first recorded use of the word in English occurred in 1962, in the writing of Ohio native John Glenn.  Glenn wrote that the Mercury astronauts used the word “glitch” to describe “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current.”  In the decades since, the use of the word has expanded beyond the electrical realm to apply to a number of technological snafus.

That’s all well and good — but why use “glitch” as opposed to some other combination of consonants and vowels?  Many people think it’s derived from Yiddish, where “glitsh” refers to a slippery area or skating ground.  It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a sudden dip in an electrical current might be seen as similar to a slip on ice.

Language is a fascinating, ever-changing thing.  Who would have thought, for example, that the Oxford dictionaries would include a word like “twerk” (particularly given its meaning)?  And who knows whether the repeated use of “glitch” in connection with the Affordable Care Act website issues will cause the accepted understanding of that term to change — to the point, for example, where describing something as a “glitch” provokes laughter and is perceived as a conscious attempt to downplay the significance of a serious problem?

Acronyms In The OED

Every so often the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary decides that new words, phrases, and slang have become sufficiently accepted to be included in the next publication.  For those interested in our language, it is a momentous occasion.

The most recent announcement features many new words, like “tinfoil hat” and “couch surfer” and (horrors!) “wassup,” as well as new usages, like recognizing “heart” as a verb (as in “I [heart shape] NY”).  A number of the newly recognized words are in fact acronyms — or, to use the word used by the OED, “initialisms.”  These new selections would delight Valley Girls, emailophiles, and hard-core texters.  They include “OMG,” “LOL,” “IMHO,” “TMI,” and “BFF.”  For those of you who, like me, wonders whether “TMI” refers to Three Mile Island, it doesn’t — it means “too much information.”

The continued generation of new words and usages shows that English remains a vibrant, growing language — so much so that an English speaker from the year 2350 reading Catcher in the Rye would find its English as distant from their usage as Shakespeare is from the modern tongue.  But if “OMG” and “LOL” are now regarded as proper uses of the King’s English, can “CYA” and “WTF” be far behind?