German DictionaryGerman is an interesting language in that it can string together multiple, disparate word stems to form a single word that accurately describes an attitude or feeling. Many of these have been borrowed by the English language to cram multiple meanings about objects, people or situations into a single word.

Here are seven that spark interest and debate among logophiles of all backgrounds and styles.

 

Zeitgeist

This word translates as spirit of the time but has a much broader meaner. Spirit can be seen as the feelings of the population or it can be taken literally as a “ghost” that  lends a guiding hand. Some have even argued that there are theological overtones to the word as in the “Holy Ghost.”

In any event, the word aims to capture the hopes, aspiration and general feeling of an entire society or culture.  Common references include the Victorian era, turn of the century Paris in the 1900s and gangland Chicago in the 1920s.

 

Schadenfreude

A tremendously powerful word that has been co-opted by the Scandinavian countries as well as by the English speaking world. Schadenfreude is literally pleasure at someone else’s harm. It is a deliciously useful word and connotes satisfaction and justice being served but with the smallest dissatisfaction in oneself for being so petty.

The Germans, never at a loss for words, have also transposed the word to Freudenschade which, of course, means displeasure at another’s good fortune. For better or worse, Schadenfreude cuts across socioeconomic and political divisions.

Anyone can find joy in the tax troubles of a noted celebrity or, while sitting drunk at the wheel, revel in the fact that the guy who cut them off in front is being handcuffed. While a beautiful word, “schadenfreude” would not save us from extirpation by an alien race looking for the good in mankind.

 

Gestalt

Broadly speaking, gestalt embodies the idea that the whole of something is greater than the sum of its parts as in the phrase, “the gestalt of the human mind.”  Simplistically, it asserts that our inability to accurately describe an object, in toto, to someone’s mutable satisfaction lessens the validity of our observations. It is an odd construct by any definition.

The term can also, more interestingly and far more relevantly, refer to the idea that an object is perceived as a whole before its constituent parts are recognized. This theory is the basis for Gestalt psychology and forms one of the bedrocks of modern psychology and more accurately describes the phenomenon as “the whole is OTHER than the sum of its parts.”

This distinction is what give the word its fascinating and controversial meaning. Just look at the word and you’ll understand the import of this statement.

 

Zugzwang

Before you even understand its meaning, just say it. It rolls of the tongue. Its very sound connotes power and decisiveness. Still, it is a relatively obscure word that gained prominence in chess circles in the late 1960s.

Chess has always been a game of sublime force. Limiting the options of your opponent and drawing him down well developed and analyzed combinations is the  essence of a grand master play. On a more quotidian level, club players strive to gain tactical advantages over more strategic objectives.

In the game, checkmate is, of course, the ultimate goal, but forcing a player into an untenable position where all his options have been limited to purely losing choices is, to a chess aficionado, much like the Holy Grail. It not only wins, but asserts dominance and establishes the true pecking order. Using “zugzwang” in a sentence while at the family picnic can only have the same effect.

 

Doppelganger & Poltergeist

The Roman Catholic Church is renowned for its observance of the differences between supernatural creatures such as angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, demons and the like. The two German words doppelganger and poltergeist would make those theologians proud for their ability to maintain the proper distinctions.

In the first case, doppelganger has simply come to mean a look-alike or twin of a familiar person who merely impersonates another. The true German doppelganger has far more insidious intent. It strives to destroy its double in any and every way possible even to its own detriment. Unlike the movies, it has no desire to impersonate the original after it has gone. Instead, it is a purely evil incarnation of a malevolent spirit.

Poltergeist, as its German translation of “noisy ghost” would indicate is a spirit that likes to be noticed. The American film, where a young, helmet clad Heather O’Rourke, is sped across the floor to her father’s amazement is dead on and timeless. The movie strays for dramatic effect as poltergeists are merest interested in attention and not in doing any real mischief.

 

Wanderlust

Commonly mistranslated as a lust to wander, the German is actually, more accurately, translated as “a love of hiking.” The distinction is important for, as previously noted, the language German could easily have created a word that meant love of wandering. It did not.

Instead, the love of the outdoors and nature figures prominently in this word. For instance, no one would ever accuse the Hollywood jet setters of embodying wanderlust. Their  rapacious use of fossil fuels generates an enormous environmental footprint. It is incredible that the hypocritical liberals of California position themselves as defenders of nature while obliviously denaturing it.

 

Kitsch

Speaking of Hollywood, the production of an inferior, tasteless copy of any extant art form is considered kitsch.  This word is particularly interesting to the writer or artist as it can be seen as the ultimate insult since the purveyor of “kitsch” is merely pandering to public opinion instead of following their own Muse.

A decent respect to the writers on this site restrains me from saying any more.

 

Ich Liebe Deutsches

As a side note, I’d like to point out that Hogan’s Heroes was my earliest tutor for German. The only phrases I picked up are, “ I know nothing,”  “Hogan!!!” and “ Who is this man?” Still, that silly, but very funny, TV sitcom gave me an endearing love for the language.

Incidentally, did you know that Hogan’s Heroes is the only TV show condemned by both the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the American Nazi Party. It just goes to show that if you look hard enough, you can always find common ground.