German Word of the Week: Pimpf

An acquaintance recommended to me Walter Kempowski’s Tadelloeser & Wolff, an autobiographical novel about a young man’s coming of age in Rostock just before and during World War II.

It’s told from the young man’s point of view, the way a child might tell it: as a series of short vignettes consisting mostly of direct sense-impressions. Sentences often incomplete. It sounds a bit strange, but I find it fresh and strangely innocent, and it’s productively unsettling to see war-mongering propaganda, pervasive anti-Semitism, political persecution, and hideous battle injuries reflected through the uncritical, curious eyes of a child. It’s also a vocabulary exercise — a stumper on every page. Kempowski’s father, for instance, constantly refers to things as total verbumfeit, and camping trips bring us words like Eichelhaeher.

At one point, the young male narrator starts referring to himself as a Pimpf, which means "little squirt" in German. Many English-speakers find German words with seemingly extraneous ‘f’s at the end particularly lovable (yes, you do pronounce them). But, I think to myself, why is he calling himself a little squirt? It gets even odder when he begins talking about all the Pimpfe getting together, putting on shiny new uniforms, marching, chanting, and doing collective chores like sweeping the streets.

You guessed it — they’re little Nazis. Before you joined the Hitlerjugend, there was a preliminary stage for boys of 10-14 called the Jungvolk. A former Pimpf named Wolfgang Herchner remembers (G), on the homepage of the German Historical Museum:

1938: Finally, we were ten years old and could (had to) join the Hitler Youth, or more precisely the Jungvolk. We were "Pimpfe", as people said back then, often a little dismissively. In our fantastic uniforms, however, we felt really manly. On weekends and Wednesdays we were ordered to perform service.

We were drilled in everthing that would makes us as hard as steel, as agile as greyhounds, and as tough as leather. Sport training, skill in cross-country marching with camouflage and orientation exercises. Survival training, shooting, throwing hand grenades, and first-aid, as well as test of courage — everthing encouraged the youthful ambition to grow into battle-ready young men.  In holiday camps, we got a taste of soldierly communal life, and the boys were taught to wean themselves from their parental home. We were given the feeling that we were to serve the Fatherland and, most of all, the Fuehrer, which was of course the highest and most worthy goal for a member of the Hitler Youth. At that time, we had never learned or experienced anything else.

If you follow the link at the beginning of this post, you’ll see that the Bild tabloid newspaper has brought out a special bargain edition of the book, which weighs precisely 522 grams. The book was apparently also made into a television series in 1975, of which many people seem to have fond memories indeed.

4 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Pimpf

  1. >Sentences often incomplete

    A mannerism not of the author, but of Prussian Officer’s Schneidigkeit (=~edginess), Kempowski makes fun of. Fontane has an—somewhat—enlightened example of that species expounding somewhat disconcertingly about Pflicht and Schneidigkeit. The latter was popular then in German petite, grande and imperial bourgeoisie, e.g. Abgetreten! (dismissed!) meaning Treten sie ab!, but without being extraneously verbose, as would sissy civilian intellectuals – who even would have a word for it.

    The novel’s nasty bits about the heros’ time in Russian run GDR jail are autobiographical, it made a lasting impression on the author – some say, that he missed e.g. Grass’ fame, because he always was staunchly anti-Soviet since then, this not being too popular among the post-war literati. Should I comment on what they worship nowadays, saying the naughty I-word? OK, not this time. In his early novel “Im Block” he wrote about his Bautzen experience – a someone from the NZZ gives some background, sensibly so except for the last paragraph, which somehow smells funny, the last sentence being outright moronic (though Gitmo is bad, you don’t have to wedge it in every time you hit the keyboard – did you see me using the I or the M word today?).

    >Pimpf, which means “little squirt”

    Wikipedia gives some info on the expression’s scatological origin. It doesn’t cite its sources, but words beginning with p(f)i or p(f)u (or having the f wedged in elsewhere) mostly have a nasty etymology in Indo-Ger…European languages. Messagebord poster jheem has more on PIE’s *pu stuff – Proto-Indo-European language for the unenlightened or elitist clubbers. Not really much of a source, but I read in erstwhile in some quality paper I don’t remember the name of, so, ugh, take our word for it.

    >television series

    It’s cult among some, and deservedly so, as e.g. Ekel Alfred, though quite different. It features German actor’s best (not meaning well known necessarily) like Gert Haucke, Edda Seippel and Karl Lieffen. Only the later gained some faint reputation elsewhere as—eerily—likable former Gestapo myrmidon turned post-war chauffeur in Wilder’s One, Two, Three, driving his irascible boss (J. Cagney) mad by clicking heels after receiving orders – sitzenmachen! wouldn’t help. Tadelloeser & Wolff is a two part mini-series, so getting the DVD is an option. Unlike the latter episodes of Ekel Alfred, which drag on a little sometimes, T&W is about three hours of sheer bliss.

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  2. My typepad trickery backfired a little, so my first posting’s linkage went awol: typepad possibly has a delete button to deal with that.

    >Sentences often incomplete

    A mannerism not of the author, but of Prussian Officer’s Schneidigkeit (=~edginess), Kempowski makes fun of. Fontane has an—somewhat—enlightened example of that species expounding somewhat disconcertingly about Pflicht and Schneidigkeit. The latter was popular then in German petite, grande and imperial bourgeoisie, e.g. Abgetreten! (dismissed!) meaning Treten sie ab!, but without being extraneously verbose, as would sissy civilian intellectuals – who even would have a word for it.

    The novel’s nasty bits about the heros’ time in Russian run GDR jail are autobiographical, it made a lasting impression on the author – some say, that he missed e.g. Grass’ fame, as he always was staunchly anti-Soviet since then, this not being too popular among the post-war literati. Should I comment on what they worship nowadays, saying the naughty I-word? OK, not this time. In his early novel “Im Block” he wrote about his Bautzen experience – a someone from the NZZ gives some background, sensibly so except for the last paragraph, which somehow smells funny, the last sentence being outright moronic (though Gitmo is bad, you don’t have to wedge it in every time you hit the keyboard – did you see me using the I or the M word today?).

    >Pimpf, which means “little squirt”

    Wikipedia gives some info on the expression’s scatological origin. It doesn’t cite its sources, but words beginning with p(f)i or p(f)u (or having the f wedged in elsewhere) mostly have a nasty etymology in Indo-Ger…European languages. Messagebord poster jheem has more on PIE’s *pu stuff – Proto-Indo-European language for the unenlightened or elitist clubbers. Not really much of a source, but I read in erstwhile in some quality paper I don’t remember the name of, so, ugh, take our word for it.

    >television series

    It’s cult among some, and deservedly so, as e.g. Ekel Alfred, though much different. It features German actor’s best (not meaning well known necessarily) like Gert Haucke, Edda Seippel and Karl Lieffen. Only the later gained some faint reputation elsewhere as—eerily—likable former Gestapo myrmidon turned post-war chauffeur in Wilder’s One, Two, Three, driving his irascible boss (J. Cagney) mad by clicking heels after receiving orders – sitzenmachen! wouldn’t help. Tadelloeser & Wolff is a two part mini-series, so getting the DVD is an option. Unlike the latter episodes of Ekel Alfred, which drag on a little sometimes, T&W is about three hours of sheer bliss.

    Like

  3. Huh, coincidences… I’m willing to bet that the “acquaintance” recommending Kempowski was none other than acclaimed Mr. Goldt, Kempowski-reader of some reknown that he is, while also being the one responsible for me finding this entry (and this blog) by mentionnig the latter in “Zimbo”. It only took me 3 years to find this – I’m on the fast lane of the digital highway!
    Anyway, re: “a vocabulary exercise — a stumper on every page” This is essential for T/W, as the vocabulary of the little boy narrator is fraught with expressions taken from a kind of family vernacular that he employs to describe a world that grows increasingly complex all around him, simplifying the “greatest disaster” to fit into familiar (in every sense of the word) patterns and world-views; all the while, the reader cannot help but notice how these tried-and-believed-true structures come apart at the seams without the family realizing this.
    I’d like to submit a vote (if I may) for “(völlig) verbumfeit” (yes, it’s “total” iben, but “völlig” verbumfeit) as the next “German Word of the Week” – or how about “erlederitzt”, a charming Kempowski portmanteau? Or “Miesnitzdörfer”, “DFUTSCHES REICH”, or even “Tadellöser”? The Fechner miniseries casts Martin Semmelrogge and Jens Weisser as Robert Kempowski (the older brother) and both actors can be held responsible for the “Zählebigkeit” ((dunno how to translate this; is there a positive version of “insidious”? Like insidious but without the meaning of “with malicious intent or harmful consequences”?)) of many of Kempowski’s expressions.
    Finally, I simply have to mention the Kempowski Gesellschaft e.V. to all of his readers – you might like to check it out at http://www.kempowski-gesellschaft.de
    It’s like any other literary society there is, only without the usual academic snooti- or stuffiness affiliated with such clubs – we do road trips!

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