German Words of the Week: Ursprache & Weltschmerz

This is a very special word of the week.  It will involve a personal reminiscence, a nerve-racking, high-stakes championship contest, and adults torturing young girls with German words.

First, the reminiscence.  Back when I was a young lad, I participated in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.  What is a spelling bee, some of you ask? Simple — you take young children, say a word to them, and then order them to spell the word. Because Americans are  competitive folks, you have the children all compete against each other to spell various words. If you spell one word wrong, you are thrown out of the contest. If you spell it right, you go on to the next round. The words get more and more complicated. Since English has the largest vocabulary of any language, this means the words get really f#$%ing hard to spell.  If you reach the final, they might throw at you totally fucked-up words like "eleemosynary" or "chthonic."

I don’t like to brag, but if there’s one thing I can do, it is spell. Think of me as a little bit like Stephen Wiltshire, the human camera. He’s autistic, but what he lacks in social skills, he makes up for in drawing ability. He can draw near-perfect pictures of buildings, or even the entire city of Rome, after seeing them only once, briefly. Like Stephen, I lack many social skills, but I can spell just about any word in the dictionary. Annihilate, daguerrotype, persiflage, or even hepatosplenomegaly, I can spell them all.

I used this odd skill to win the Houston, Texas spelling bee, and then the East Texas regional spelling bee. That won me and my family a free trip to Washington, D.C., to compete among 150 other contestants for the national spelling championship. I represented East Texas, which wasn’t really to my taste, but I did it anyway. I lost in an early round because I couldn’t spell "novena". I attribute this bitter humiliation to my parents, who were pretty secular, and to the fact that there is no mandatory religious education in Texas schools. To this day, I have a hatred of the number 9, and refuse to pronounce it. As a consolation prize, I won an entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I must admit, that’s a pretty fantastic consolation prize. But I was 13, and I wanted a stereo.

End of personal reminiscience. Now on to the contemporary relevance of all this. On Thursday, the final round of this year’s National Spelling bee took place on national television. The kids who make it to the final round are the cream of the crop. They’re odd, they’re bright, they love words, and they’ve usually been drilled by their over-achieving parents to memorize the craziest words you’ve never heard of.

If you want to stump these blooming nerds, you’re going to need a really freakish, unspellable word. You know where to turn. To German! The New York Times reports a coincidence too freakish to be believed: the winner won the contest because she could spell Ursprache, and the second-place finisher was cheated out of the title because she couldn’t spell Weltschmerz:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A 13-year-old New Jersey girl making her fifth straight appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee rattled off ”ursprache” to claim the title of America’s best speller Thursday on prime-time television.

Katharine Close, an eighth-grader at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, N.J., is the first girl since 1999 to win the national spelling title. She stepped back from the microphone and put her hands to her mouth upon being declared the winner. She recognized the word as soon as she heard it.

”I couldn’t believe it. I knew I knew how to spell the word and I was just in shock,” said Katharine, who tied for seventh-place last year. ”I couldn’t believe I would win.”

Runner-up was Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, a 14-year-old Canadian, a confident speller during two days of competition who nonetheless stumbled on ”weltschmerz.” The word means a type of mental depression.

A type of mental depression? Well, that’s a start, I suppose. German wikipedia defines Weltschmerz ("world-pain") thus: "A concept introduced by Jean Paul for a feeling of grief and painful melancholy one feels when observing the state of the world. The feeling stems from one’s own inadequacies, which are simultaneously seen as the inadequacies of the world. The concept is linked to pessimism, resignation, and the flight from reality."

We’re on very German territory here, so I’ll end with another German quote, which might console the bitterly disappointed runner-up: "The fact that various agonies of life take turns with one another makes life bearable." (Christian Friedrich Hebbel).

6 thoughts on “German Words of the Week: Ursprache & Weltschmerz

  1. Enjoyed your personal spelling bee story, Andrew. I especially giggled at your youthful distaste for East Texas (such judgment at a young age!) and your wish for more religious education in Texas public schools (cast a vote for Rick Perry for Governor and you may get your wish!).


  2. Thanks a lot for this interesting blog, I just came along the first time.

    We don’t have those contests in Germany, maybe because most German words are easy to pronounce. You write it like you say it (some exceptions, though). I got to know to this kind of contest while watching an episode of The Simpsons with Lisa participating and failing in the final battle.


  3. Hi. I enjoyed your post immensely, but I still have to shoot down in flames your claim about being able to spell everything. You’ve misspelled “reminiscence” as “reminiscience”. Sorry, but …..


  4. lol I loved your comment about your consolation prize:) from the way you write, you seem like a witty guy
    nice name too!
    n btw as you’re an excellent spelling bee, is it true that supercalafragelisticexpialidotious is the longest english word? And could you explain Hebbel’s quote to me? Last one!
    Take care!
    TITLE: Deutsches im Spelling Bee und die englische Rechtschreibung
    BLOG NAME: USA Erklärt
    DATE: 06/07/2006 10:28:33 PM
    Andrew Hammel schreibt in seinem Blog German Joys über eine sehr amerikanische Institution: Dem spelling bee, eine Art Buchstabierwettbewerb. Anlass ist der Sieg der 13-jährigen Katharine Kerry Close in diesem Jahr ausgere…


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