What’s that schmuck doing in the jewelry store?

8 May 2022

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The war in Ukraine has catapulted yet another German word into English vocabulary in just two months. The word is Zeitenwende, turning point. It takes its place next to venerable old-timers such as zeitgeist, angst and doppelgänger.

I’m going to indulge in the luxury of ignoring the war itself. Instead, let’s take a look at how languages evolve. When large numbers of immigrants arrive in a country, their suitcases usually carry a few vocabulary words tucked in between their socks and underwear.

German, for instance, has had a considerable impact on American English, but the process was not as straightforward as you’d think. There were German immigrants back in colonial times, and Benjamin Franklin even feared that the German language would overtake English – perhaps in a blitzkrieg? No, that wasn’t possible, because that word came along with World War II, and Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., lived in the late 1700s.

Another huge wave of immigrants left Germany following the failed revolutions of 1848, disappointed that the absolutist Prussian government was absolutely not going to yield power. Then along came the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, inspiring yet more Germans to head for the States.

“Kindergarten” made its way into English around 1850 – perhaps in the suitcase of one of those revolutionaries? I guess that brought an end to the kids just romping around in the yard until they were old enough for school. Along came the Germans and ruined all the fun!

I grew up saying “Gesundheit!” whenever somebody sneezed. This seems like a very logical thing to say (it is German after all), especially compared to the common English post-sneezing utterance of “Bless you!” It originates from the belief that you have just ejected an evil spirit from your body by sneezing.

I think I’ll stick with “gesundheit.”

In the 20th century, the expulsion of many Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Europe enriched the English language once more. Yiddish is a hybrid of German and Hebrew with a smattering of other languages that were being spoken in medieval Europe. You only have to watch a few episodes of Seinfeld, the ultimate New York City sitcom, to realize how many Yiddish words have taken hold in American English – especially in New York City.

The similarity between German and Yiddish can get you into trouble. Many of the words are the same but have different meanings. Take the word “schmuck,” meaning jerk, a word an old Jewish friend of mine used regularly. But in German it means jewelry, evoking puzzled looks from American tourists walking past jewelry stores in Germany.

“Schlep” is one of my favorite Yiddish words that made it into English. It means to carry something, especially a particularly heavy or bulky item. In this case, its meaning didn’t change; it also means carry in German. The first time I said this word to my German husband he looked at me aghast, sure that I had mistakenly slipped a German word into English. And I consistently called my clumsy sister a “klutz” growing up. This word comes from the Middle High German Klotz, meaning chunk or block. It’s easy to see how that could morph into the meaning of clumsy.

One does wonder why certain German words made the cut. Take “poltergeist.” Now how often do you really need to say that? How did such an obscure word wangle its way into English vernacular? According to dictionary.com, it also sneaked its way into the language around 1850. It means noisy ghost and reminds one of the German tradition of Polterabend, held the night before a wedding (poltern means to make noise; Abend means evening). For a Polterabend, guests bring old dishes, sometimes bought especially for the occasion, and then everyone smashes the dishes on the ground. It’s supposed to bring good luck, as in the expression “Shards bring good luck.”

But the joke’s on them. The original meaning of the word “shard” is earthenware pot, since a full pot was deemed to bring good luck. This makes a lot more sense than a broken pot’s bringing good luck. So while everyone is out there merrily smashing the porcelain to smithereens, they are in a sense wishing the couple bad luck. Sort of like when you tell someone “Break a leg!” when they head out the door.

And let’s face it. Something about the German language is so mysterious. Maybe it’s those ridiculously long words – like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän – meaning captain on the Danube Steamship Company. This is an actual word, in case you were wondering. Such compound German words present translators of German with a kind of verbal Rubik’s Cube. “Hmm,” we ask. “Now how do I line up these individual words so that they make sense in my language?”

This is where we take revenge on the Germans. While they can just slap words together in their language, wash their hands and call it a day, if they try translating such a word into another language, they are forced to figure out what order to put the individual words in – and which prepositions should be used to connect them. It’s the equivalent of buying an IKEA shelf, spreading all the parts out on the floor and then wondering where those four big screws go.

Those pesky German umlauts, the two dots on top of some vowels, also accord a bit of mystique. At least that seems to be the case to English-speakers that use them without realizing how silly it makes them sound to those who actually know how to pronounce the letters (looking at you, Mötley Crüe. Correctly pronounced you sound like a toy French car from the forties).

Volkswagen ran an entire series of commercials centering on a German word that is most decidedly not in the English language: Fahrvergnügen. Several commercials are based on this theme that show VWs zooming around, and at the end the announcer says something like “VW is the only one with Fahrvergnügen.” It just means “driving enjoyment” but it sounds so much cooler in German. The umlaut clearly does a lot of the heavy lifting here.

Finally, if you work in IT, you’ll know that SAP triumphed not just in ERP software but also in solidly anchoring a German word not just in English but in many other languages, simply because of its expediency: sammelgang. The English definition for this term is “collective processing,” which just doesn’t have the same ring and could mean many things. So sammelgang it remains. Of course, thanks to Silicon Valley, the English language has completely ruined the purity of German when it comes to IT, but we can all rest assured knowing that languages never stop changing. With the ongoing rise of globalization and concomitant growth in migration, the increased trade and contact among cultures will continue to facilitate the addition of new words and changes to languages.

It’s just a matter of time until the next Zeitenwende comes marching along – or arrives in a blitzkrieg, as the case may be.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Engin Akyurt

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