German Word of the Week: Aufgebrezelt

This is a very special two-part GWOW.  In Part I, the GWOW itself, and a very nice one, I might add.  Then, in Part II, a special bonus: sociopolitical ruminations!

Part I: Aufgebrezelt

Aufgebrezelt means "pretzeled-up," and refers to someone who’s gotten all dolled up to go out into the night and attract the attention of the opposite (usually) sex.  These days, German girls who want to ‘pretzel up’ usually go in for white leather belts and pointy white shoes.  Depending on what sort of neighborhood you’re in, you might also see large plastic hoop earings, and — if you’re lucky — feathered hair.  Pancake makeup never went out of style.

Now, you’re probably thinking that the girls in the photo at left aren’t all that pretzeled-up, although I’d say they’re moderately pretzeled-up.  The photo is an illustration from a 1997 short educational film about becoming a woman (g), prStarkemaedchenoduced by a major German public television station in cooperation with the Federal Center for Health Information (g), which still exists.  As does the Federal Center For Political Education (g), not to mention the 16 Consumer Information Centers that exist in every German state (g).  These are all public institutions whose principal goal is to furnish Otto Normalverbraucher (Joe Sixpack) with basic information about his health, his government, and the consumer products he may be interested in buying.

As an ancient philosopher once said, time, in Germany, is like a river with many bends and a weak current.  This means there are hundreds of little eddies in German culture, in which fashions and trends from past decades whirl lazily about, never again to be swept up in the surging current of Progress.  There are still government-licensed chimney sweeps, for example, and any given apartment building in a middle-class neighborhood will have window decorations that look exactly as they might have looked in the 1950s — even if the people who live in the apartment weren’t even born then.  Turn on any German radio station, and you may actually hear an earnest, nudge/wink-free review of the latest Bon Jovi record.

Part II: Sociopolitical Ruminations

Put simply, when Germans find something they like, they stick with it.  For decades.  Thus we return to all these federal ministries for providing information to citizens.  Growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s, I saw lots of wholesome educational TV shows and ads produced by the federal government, or by civic-minded corporations.  The good people from the government would tell you why you should immunize your children, warn you not to litter, explain how a bill becomes a law, or explain why it’s illegal to make racist comments in the workplace.  At the end of the ad or short film, you were told that more information was available to those who wrote a letter asking for pamphlet #755 from the Government Printing Office in Pueblo, Colorado*

As I grew older, these institutions and ads seemed to disappear from public life pretty much entirely.  Sure, there’s still a Government Printing Office, and various federal agencies still give away pamphlets and posters — about nutrition, for instance.  But nobody pays any attention to them, really.  The sense that there was one "America" that could be pulled together for an anti-litter campaign, or that ordinary citizens should expect the government to advise them what to eat or buy, seems quaint, if not positively nanny-state-ish.  Especially in the age of the Internet, who needs some government agency to tell you about consumer products, when you can get a dozen different reviews with a simple Google search?

But you won’t find me sniggering at large German public institutions acting as conduits for practical information to ordinary Germans.  You could make a very good case that many of America’s problems stem from the assumption that the free market alone will take care of citizens’ information needs.  Of course, most of my European readers are saying right about now: ‘How naive can you get?  If you dry up neutral, independent channels of information about things like diet, personal finances, or community involvement, the free market will not step in with adequate substitutes. The free market looks at people at consumers, not citizens, and primarily wants them to spend and indulge themselves.  It doesn’t particularly care about their long-term health, their general knowledge, or their psychological well-being.  And in a consumer-driven economy, the free market is positively opposed to financial responsibility.’

They’re right.  For all you libertarians out there, remember that we’re not talking about well-educated and well-informed people with plenty of leisure time.  They can take care of themselves in any country and will, of course, seek out (and often pay for) high-quality information, in America as they do in Germany.  What all those public-service ads and agencies did was for the benefit of the masses.  Judging from what you read even in American news sources lately, average Americans are getting more ignorant, unhealthy, and selfish.  Plus, they can’t control their spending — America has, overall, a negative savings rate (Germany’s is about 8 percent).  The subprime mortgage crisis is driven in part by huge numbers of Americans who just had no idea how to save money, stick to a budget, or plan for a financial setback.  (If you don’t believe me, click here).  And, of course, lenders who were all too willing to indulge their fantasies.

Could it just be a coincidence that so many of these dumb decisions Americans are making are just the kind of thing the government used to give people good advice about?

* Why Pueblo, Colorado?  Who knows? Probably some U.S. Representative from that Congressional District who amassed 34 years of seniority, and brought a huge government facility to his home district.

8 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Aufgebrezelt

  1. The German savings rate is almost 11 per cent. You should mention though that the ownership quote (percentage of people who own their home) is barely above 40 percent, one of the lowest rates of all industrialised nations. This might mean that Germans save quite a lot, but many also fail to invest their savings for the future.

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  2. I suspect the Stiftung Warentest is what Andrew has in mind when he talks about “basic information about […] the consumer products he may be interested in buying” because the Verbraucherzentralen usually focus more on consumer rights, i.e. the legal aspects. An American equipollent to it would be Consumer Rports.

    By the way, while these largely subsist on public funing, neither one is a government institution, unlike the BPB and the BzGA (“the A is for AIDS”).

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  3. You wrote about “public institutions” and “government agencies” which seems to have different meanings in the US and Germany.

    Both the “Federal Center for Health Information” (BZgA) and the “Federal Center For Political Education” (bpb) you mentioned are public institutions in the meaning of “staatlich”. They are financed by taxes and politically dependend on the particular ministry, so what they are is doing is comparable to public programs and offers of information the HHS, ED, USDA, EPA etc. provide. I don’t see any differences in respect of content and I’m sure they are as negligible as their German counterparts.

    In contrast, the “Consumer Information Centers” or the “Federation of German Consumer Organisations”, the umbrella organization, are no “government agencies” or “public institutions”. They are better described as NGOs – correctly “gemeinnützige Organisationen” – which are partly financed from public funds. Therefore, it’s quite common for them to critizise the government or individual ministries or to take collective legal actions.

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  4. @Mann i/M: So it all boils down to that the US has no public TV channels?
    @Andrew: Weren’t these ads in the fifties not also pretty, uh, bromidic and barely factual (in contrast to what Stiftung Warentest / BPB / BZGA and such organisations are doing)?

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  5. Intersting link, the one to the Irvine Housing Hell blogger. Irvine is a nice California community which was not much directly affected by the subprime crisis, because most of the buyers there aren’t poor and many may have had decent down payments.

    According to the blogger that won’t save them, because the collapse of prices in subprime areas fairly near Irvine will ripple out to them. Oops. There also seem to have been a considerable number of speculators who took 100% (or more) mortgages on Irvine property. They’re already walking away and the banks who leant to them are taking a real bath.

    The most amazing thing (to me) is to see the income requirements needed to support these properties. The sticker prices are high but I live in Outer London so obscene prices are assumed. Inner London is far, far worse of course.

    According to the blog a yearly income of between $150,000 and $200,000 to support such a property. I make a fairish salary by British standards but could not BEGIN to be able to afford one of these places! Maybe one of the smaller ones, barely.

    If Housing Hell blogger is correct, I will be able to do so; he predicts a 40% price decline before it’s over, with 30-35% of the decline still to come.

    Gotta feel for those people, but I’m very happy I didn’t buy in London, because I think the same thing is going to happen here. My rent hasn’t gone up a single pence since 2003 when I moved in despite a doubling in prices, and for now count me a happy renter.

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  6. you probably do not get AFN were you live, i do and so from time to time i get to listen to one of these priceless u.s.army personal advice messages. my all time favorite being the one telling soldiers that it is more likely than not a good idea to place the furniture in the living room so you can access the telephone without hazard to life or limb.

    “moderately pretzeled-up”, you’re killing me, this shall become part of my active vocabulary.

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