German Words of the Week: Afterkind & Afterwelt

Translators live by one golden rule: if you ever see a cheap old dictionary in your source language (i.e., the language you translate out of), buy it. A German-English technical dictionary from 1955, a dictionary of turn-of the century German slang, a tourist phrasebook from 1970, they’re all worth buying. In such books — and sometimes nowhere else — you can find out that the strange word you just red in a novel about Communist Party intrigue is 1950’s East German slang for "nuclear meltdown."

Following this rule, I recently bought the Kleines Lexikon Untergegangener Wörter ("Small Dictionary of Lost Words") as soon as I saw it in a local bookstall. It was written by Nabil Osman (an Egyptian student of German lexicography) in 1972. It’s a curious collection of words that dropped out of the German language around 1800 or so, for a variety of reasons (regularization of spelling, the substitution of German-based expressions for Latin-based ones, etc.). The words Afterkind ("After-child") and Afterwelt ("After-world) appear on pp. 26-27. Afterkind is an illegitimate child, one conceived "after" (i.e. outside of) marriage; the Afterwelt is the afterworld, just as it would be in English.

What’s wrong with these words? After all, so to speak, they are nice cognates of the English word "after," so you could say they contribute to intercultural understanding. The problem, however, is that the German word After is a homonym (same word = different meanings). The other meaning of After, and the one that became dominant in Germany about two centuries ago, is, err, "anus". You can see the problem. But it wasn’t just "Anuschild" and "Anusworld" that had to go, the change in the meaning of After, according to the Lexikon, triggered a regular verbal genocide — 110 German words were ruthlessly exterminated in the early 19th century because of their "deadly closeness" in pronunciation to a certain piece of excretory equipment.

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