German Words of the Week: Verunsicherung, verwählen, Verstimmung

In this week’s lesson, we learn the extraordinary versatility of the German prefix "ver-"; and we assess the results of yesterday’s inconclusive election. 

After some serious setbacks in regional voting for his Social Democratic Party, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder arranged to lose a confidence vote in the German parliament in July.  This enabled him to move forward the date for elections to yesterday, September 18th.  There was about a six-week phase of intense campaigning before the vote.  At first, the conservative candidate, Angela Merkel, had the decisive advantage.  The polls showed her party with a narrow majority when twinned with its preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats.  She portrayed herself as a bold reformer, with the necessary ideas to break Germany out of its continuing economic stagnation and reduce the nation’s 12 percent unemployment.  Part of her plan was to pick Paul Kirchhof, a law professor who had long favored a flat-tax scheme, ably described by Ed Philp in this post.

Merkel’s bold move, however, led to Verunsicherung.  Here we encounter our first GWW.  The root is the word "sicher," meaning safe or secure.  But we also meet with the prefix "ver-" in its "inchoative" mode.  That is, it indicates a process of becoming.  Next we have "un," which means the same in English as it does in German.  So Verunsicherung means the process of making someone insecure.  So much meaning packed into one word!

To understand the use of this word, you must understand that many German voters, whom a certain German Joys contributor last night described as "pusillanimous," are like rabbits watching as a giant farm combine heads straight toward their nest, tearing up the ground as it goes.  These bunnies are too frightened or transfixed to abandon their warm, comfy nest, even in the face of imminent destruction.  This bloc of voters, like the bunnies, vaguely yearn for some way out of the miserable, rapidly-decaying state of their political economy, but are too afraid to change any of the fundamentals of the present political order.  Chancellor Schroeder sowed Verunsicherung among these voters by arguing that Merkel would introduce radical reforms (spearheaded by the Prof. Kirchhof, whose professorial arrogance made him the wrong messenger for tax reform) that could leave the "little man" in the lurch. 

Now, you can either think Schroeder was shamelessly exaggerating the results of a modest sensible proposal, or you can believe that Merkel’s plans would, in fact, have damaged the German welfare state without bringing the promised growth.  I leave it to the individual reader to judge the arguments on her own.  But there seems little doubt that Schroeder’s arguments, among others, brought the SPD’s approval ratings out of the low 20s and set the stage for their surprisingly good performance.  The CDU simultaneously descended from the mid-40s (where they would have easily been able to form a "Black-Yellow" ruling coalition with the Free Democrats) to the mid-30s.  Up to the beginning of the voting last night, almost a third of voters registered themselves as still undecided.  At the end, many bolted out of the two big mainstream parties into the smaller parties — the Free Democrats, the Greens, and the Linke "Left Party", which stands to the left of the social democrats.

The result is, err, utter chaos.  Neither of the two main parties has enough votes to form coalition with any one of the remaining parties.  Here is a graphic from a leading German broadsheet, the FAZ:

The only way to climb over the 50% hurdle to form a ruling coalition is for either one of the main parties to combine with two of the smaller parties.  The problem is, the small parties have very different agendas.  The FDP (yellow) are the party of the small businessman or independent professional.  They stand for lower taxes, deregulation, privatization, and market-based solutions to social problems, such as how to pay for pensions and health insurance.  The Greens are, well, green.  They are pro-bicycle, pro-wind energy, anti-nuclear anything, anti-genetically modified anything.  If these policies curb economic growth a bit, well then, so be it.  Nobody promised environmental protection would be cheap.  The Linke (purple, in the graph above) are the skunk in the garden party of this election.  Formed from an amalgam of former Communists and SPD voters incensed at the budget-trimming reforms undertaken by Gerhard Schroeder, they have been shut out of coalition negotiations by all the other parties. 

Nobody, but nobody, can predict how the negotiations will proceed.  The only possible scenarios that appear now are these:

1.  A "grand coalition" of the two major parties.  Nobody knows who would actually run the country if this were to happen, and most commentators think it would lead to yet more gridlock, when Germany needs far-ranging reforms.

2.  A "Jamaica Coalition" of the Black, Yellow, and Green parties.  This coalition is named after the colors of the Jamaican flag.  Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer noted during a post-election debate last night that this name also conjured certain other associations which one doesn’t normally associated with governance…  A Jamaica coalition would be hard to manage, since many Green environmental positions are incompatible with FDP ideas, and vice versa.  Yet it’s the only coalition that hasn’t yet been definitively ruled out by the various parties’ statements about whom they are willing to cooperate with.

3.  Red-Green continuing as a minority coalition with the tacit acceptance (Duldung) of the Linkspartei.  This is a very, very long shot, since there is huge bad blood between the SPD and the lefties, but it’s not completely impossible.

The result of this utterly confused landscape is that many voters feel they may have verwählt.  Now we meet the "ver-" prefix again, but it’s wearing a different hat.  When you attach it to a verb such as wählen — too choose or vote — it says you did it wrong.  Perhaps, these voters say mournfully, they should have just stuck with one of the boring old mainstream parties, since at least then somebody , for the love of Yahw*h, would at least have some kind of clear mandate to run the country. 

And finally, we come to the last instance of "ver-".  Here, you attach the prefix to a noun to indicate something’s gone wrong or been spoiled.  The noun in question is Stimmung or mood, so a Verstimmung is a crappy or lousy mood.  Which, despite the glorious early-fall weather, Germany is certainly in this morning. 

4 thoughts on “German Words of the Week: Verunsicherung, verwählen, Verstimmung

  1. A few comments from a native speaker:

    “Verunsicherung”: I wouldn’t translate it as “the process of making someone insecure”. For one, “sicher” not only means “secure” but also “sure”. “Unsicher” hence can mean both “insecure” and “unsure”. But “Verunsicherung” – don’t forget that it’s a noun – is, IMHO, the state of being unsure. Of course, you can’t be very secure when you’re not sure, but “Verunsicherung” doesn’t have much to do with security per se.

    “verwählt”: “Wählen” not only means to vote and to choose but also – get this – to dial! If you dial the wrong number, you say “Entschuldigung, verwählt!” to tell the guy on the other end of the line that you made a mistake. Strictly speaking, “verwählen” only means “to misdial”. Not “to make a wrong choice” or “to elect the wrong candidate”. Saying that the germans “verwählten sich” at the election is actually a bit sarcastic and makes me think of confused people unable to put their “x” in the right “o”.

    “Verstimmung”: “Stimmung” not only means “mood”, but also “tuning” in the musical sense. A “gestimmtes” instrument is tuned, a “verstimmtes” instrument sounds weird. If you feel “verstimmt”, you feel out of tune. Especially, if your stomach is “verstimmt”, which means that you are mildly sick.

    Of course, I am from Austria, and as everyone knows, Germans and Austrians are divided by their common language, so maybe some parts of my comment are actually Austria-centric. (Hooray! I’m a patriot!)

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