German Word of the Week: Stichwort

Stichwort — literally, stab-word or sting-word, is common in German, but it's hard to define. Originally, it refers to the words on the top of the pages of dictionaries which show the reader about where they are in the alphabet. Now it's also used as to sum up the general theme of a conversation, as in: 'Dann haben sie haben sie eine halbe Stunde lang über die Gaza-Krise diskutiert — Stichwort Menschenrechte' 'Then they discussed the Gaza crisis for half an hour — the main topic being human rights.' It also is used for search term or rubric — i.e. you might search a health website for articles related to the Stichwort asthma.

So far, so dull. But here's the sort-of-interesting part. When I was learning German, many German friends asked me what the English word for Stichwort was. They would point to the word at the top of a dictionary page and say 'That's a Stichwort. Surely there must be an English word for something that's so common.'

I had zilch. bupkis. NFC.

Before you laugh at my ignorance, do you know what the English word for a Stichwort in a dictionary is? No, you don't. It's not 'heading' or anything like that. It's a very specific word for just this concept, and I bet ya don't know it. Answer after the jump.

I found this out last night listening to an oldish episode of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. 99% is all about engineering and design — the episodes range from CD packaging to the barcode to emergency lighting. The episode which delivered the goods about StichwortTitle TK, was about naming companies, which come up with the synthetic words like iPad, Yahoo, Amazon, etc. which we use hundreds of times a day.

It turns out naming has come a long way since 1955, when Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to suggest names for a new car and she responded with suggestions like 'Bullet Lavolta' and 'Utopian Turtletop' (they turned all the suggestions down and went with Edsel). Now naming is done by small, specialized companies staffed by young creative types with trendy glasses. You know, the people who sold out to corporate America and don't care that you despise them for it, because every night they go to sleep on top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies. And as I listened to the podcast, I suddenly spat out huge chunks of my gooseberry-Doppelkorn smoothie:

One of the naming companies' names is the long-sought, hyper-elusive English word for Stichwort:

Photoshop was looking to market a less-expensive version of their software, which they wanted to market as having all the capabilities of regular Photoshop but without many of the “bells and whistles.” Adobe hired Oakland-based naming company Catchword to come up with something. Catchword went through a month-long exploration of every word that might apply: “essentials,” “basics,” “light,” etc., but they all sounded compromising.  Finally, they came across  Elements, which implies  both simplicity and necessity; the parts that are basic but important.

(Catchword, by the way, got its name from the guiding words at the top of the dictionary pages. Those are the catchwords.)
Hot damn! My decade-long itch has just been scratched. A Stichwort, in its narrow technical sense, is a catchword. Thank you, 99% Invisible. Thank you, Catchword. And thank you, Internet — teacher, mother, secret lover.

Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson


In Which I Explore the World of Nail Care

A few days ago, I half-chopped off a fingernail trying to open one of those Satan-designed plastic shell cases with a knife. Blut! Überall Bluuuut! Blood everywhere!

I put a band-aid on the hideous mess and refused to look at it for days. I was afraid to touch the broken nail for a while, fearing that I might somehow tear it off. Then I became convinced I should have torn it off at the very moment of the accident. Now the shattered nail would grow into my infected wound, and the finger would have to be amputated. Then I'd have to wait months for the bloody thing to grow back: 

It is safe to say that never in my life have I dedicated so much thought to my fingernails.

But then I thought: hey, isn't there some kind of womanly cosmetic goo for this kind of thing? Something from the tiny bottles you see on women's bathroom shelves? Women are, after all, a lot less squeamish about fingernails. They're always screwing around with them: painting them, polishing them, buffing them, cracking them, chopping them off, adding and subtracting extensions — the variety is endless, and horrifying.

So I — a 112.04% heterosexual, red-blooded American man — watched the video on fingernail repair at the beginning of this post, in which some cute Aussie wench drops some very useful science. I then betook me to the local drugstore, where for the first time ever I devoted serious attention to the endless particolored rows of polishes, brushes, lotions and removers. I found some nail glue, which smells like toxicity itself. I then mutilated a hapless tea bag, applied the fix, waited 30 minutes twirling my hand in the air and complaining to my BFFs about total losers I've dated, and finally gave the nail a few cautious taps.

Solid as a rock. Thanks, ladies!

That $23.6 Billion Florida Tobacco Verdict is Meaningless

Both the BBC and the German media (g) have reported on the $23.6 billion verdict a Florida jury handed down against R.J. Reynolds tobacco company for damages she suffered after her husband died of lung cancer. The jury found that R.J. Reynolds had purposely concealed the addictive and harmful nature of smoking. Most of the $26 billion is in punitive damages, which can be awarded in Florida if the jury finds that "[t]he defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct."

These sorts of stories come out a few times a year, and are always covered by the German media. They serve an important function for the German journalistic class: they instruct obedient German news consumers that the American jury system is a crazy lottery in which ignorant, envious bumpkins are given free rein to milk large corporations on behalf of other ignorant, envious bumpkins.

By implication, therefore, these stories support the Panglossian narrative of German superiority. After all, am deutschen Wesen soll sich dereinst die Welt genesen – the German way will heal the world. There are no juries in German civil trials, nor are there any punitive damages in the American sense. German judges award damages according to fixed schedules, and the amounts are smaller than American courts.

To apply the necessary corrective: No, the tobacco company will of course never have to pay the $23.6 billion verdict. An appeals court, following rules laid down by the American Supreme Court, will reduce it to a tiny fraction of that size. Punitive damages awards are extremely rare in American courts, and usually modest in size. A recent study sums up the situation:

Contrary to popular myth, punitive damages are rarely awarded.

  • In 2005, the most recent year studied by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), punitive damages were awarded in only 5 percent of civil cases where plaintiffs prevailed at trial.


Most punitive damage awards are modest in amount.

  • In 2005, the median overall punitive damage amount awarded to plaintiff winners in civil cases was $64,000.15 The median punitive damage award for all tort cases was $55,000.16
  •  In 76 percent of the 632 civil trials with both punitive and compensatory awards, the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was 3 to 1 or less.

Of the 45 states that allow punitive damages in this country, at least one-third have enacted some form of cap, or limit, on the ability of judges and juries to award punitive damages. Over 30 state legislatures have made it more difficult for injured consumers to prove punitive damages by raising the standard of proof required for awarding them. Several states order victims to pay a portion of punitive damages into state-designated funds. Other states require or permit bifurcated trials where the injured person is forced to essentially try a case twice, first proving liability and second, arguing the size of the award. And in some states, juries are prevented from deciding the amount of a punitive damages award — only the judge is permitted do that.

That's been today's corrective to the German media.

American Books in German Stores

Tim Parks on the market for American books in Europe:

How does it happen that a reader begins to feel at home with the literature of a foreign country? The simplest scenario is when we begin to think of ourselves as involved in that country and its destiny. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men … was written in California in the 1930s and is intensely engaged in an American social debate. But it is written in English and historically the British share a great deal with Americans. British cinema and television are overwhelmed by American productions, and we hear so much about their elections we sometimes wonder why we’re not allowed to vote in them. It’s not such a big step to read Steinbeck.

This openness to American literature is general across Europe. Go into any European bookshop and you find 50 per cent to 70 per cent of novels are translations, the vast majority from English, above all American English. Since the 1960s European readers have grown used to reading fiction set in a society quite distant from their own. So constant is the presence of Americana in their lives that no mediation is required beyond the act of translation. Jonathan Franzen can pack his descriptions with every kind of American paraphernalia – mechanised recliners, air-hockey tables, refrigerated beer kegs – and still be widely read.

The same is not true the other way round. American and English readers are not overwhelmed by foreign texts and, with the exception perhaps of crime novels, show significant resistance to the minutiae of countries they know little about. Only three per cent of the novels on British and American shelves are translations. But then Europeans show the same resistance towards cultures they do not know. A writer from, say, Serbia, offering the same density of local cultural reference Franzen has, would require significant editing, or some radical act of mediation before being accepted for publication in Italy or Spain.


Public Defecation, Religion, and IQ In India


(World map by average IQ, from here).

In the new atheism debates, you sometimes see two people — most prominently, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair — sparring on the subject of whether religion does more harm than good. I'm not going to weigh in on this question, except to note that a recent study of sanitation in India delivers ammunition for the does-harm side: scientific proof that religion (in this case, Hinduism) literally makes people stupid.

The mechanism is public defecation. Anyone who has been to India has seen this happening routinely, and it's impossible to get used to. Large urban areas in India are literally covered in a thin film of human waste, which is dangerous. It gets on crops at their origins, and flies deposit it on food all over the country, which is why Delhi belly is an all-too-horrifying reality for any visitor. (The irony is that all the Green/lefty friends of mine who accompanied me on my India trip ate everything so as to respect the cultural heritage blah blah blah, and stayed healthy. I politely refused to drink the water, ate practically nothing but crackers, and got a mild case of DB anyway.)

But I digress. It turns out the consequences are much farther-reaching than a few inconvenienced tourists:

As a result [of public defecation], children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.

“These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”

…This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to reduce malnutrition.

And why is public defecation so prevalent? The Economist explains:

Hindu tradition, seen for example in the “Laws of Manu”, a Hindu text some 2,000 years old, encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity. Caste division is another factor, as by tradition it was only the lowliest in society, “untouchables” (now Dalits), who cleared human waste. Many people, notably in the Hindu-dominated Gangetic plains, today still show a preference for going in the open—even if they have latrines at home.

So there you have it: a religiously-based custom causes profound developmental problems in children, leading to stunting and irreversible losses in intelligence. Christopher Hitchens, call your office! Oh wait…

Help Me with This Crossword Puzzle, Internet

LiartownUSA has branched out into crossword puzzles, and the first one's pretty hard. In fact, I've been at it for days now:

Crossword Puzzle

I've solved most of it, but these clues still have me stumped:

  • Dutch raccoon holiday
  • Popular govt. perfume
  • Aka Baltimore caviar
  • Popular French breakfast crime
  • Brand of personal lubricant, also childhood nickname of Sir Winston Churchill
  • This famous comedian was stillborn
  • Actor despised for his role on HBO’s ‘Dog Exploder’

Any help in comments would be greatly appreciated.

Remigius-Ekkehard Scores!


Look at the German men in those photographs. Erect, athletic, courteous, stylishly-dressed, sexually chaste* and happy. They surely bore, with pride, real Teutonic names like Wolfram, Ekkehard, Adalbert, Friedhelm, Karlheinz, Ulf-Wotan, or Eike-Siegfried. Names that evoke crystalline mountain lakes, Wergeld, jousting tournaments, roving bards, sacred groves, and unmixed ancestry.

Yesterday the German men's national soccer team won the World Cup. But what sort of names did these "'Germans'" have? Per and Philipp are just barely acceptable, but Toni? Kevin? Mario? Sami? Manuel?


Did we lose a war, people?!

(picture here)


* This 1925 poster, from the collection of the German Hygiene Museum (!), reads: "Strive to remain chaste! The best way to do so is bodily exercise! Sports and games, swimming and hiking — along with serious work, these make it easy to remain sexually continent. Continence is not harmful."

Speak for yourself, German Hygiene Council.

UPDATE: I bet these guys had Real German Names®:



China Rethinking Capital Punishment?

The New York Times notes China's softening stance on the death penalty: 

Last month, China’s Supreme People’s Court overturned the death sentence of a woman who brutally killed and dismembered her husband. The landmark decision to send the high-profile case back to a provincial court was yet another sign that the country’s embrace of the death penalty is loosening.

China is believed to execute more people each year than the rest of the world combined, and 43-year-old Li Yan initially seemed a likely candidate for death row. In 2010, she beat her husband to death with an air gun, chopped him into pieces and boiled his body parts. But police photos and a medical report backed up Ms. Li’s claims that her husband had abused her — stubbing out cigarettes on her body, banging her head against the wall and threatening her with the air gun. The Supreme Court determined, rightly, that these circumstances justified a retrial.

China is putting the brakes on the death penalty. According to Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, between 2007 and 2011 the annual number of executions in China fell by half. Many violent offenders are now given so-called suspended death sentences, which are invariably downgraded later to life in prison. Such restraint has drawn broad public support.


Interviews conducted by criminologists suggest that international criticism has had an impact as well. In 1977, a mere 16 countries had abolished the death penalty; today 140 countries — over two-thirds of the world’s nations — have done so in law or practice. Chinese legal scholars and judges are fully aware of their country’s role as the outlier.

In 2006 a group of reform-minded justices began formally advocating moderation in punishment. Led by Xiao Yang, then the Supreme People’s Court chief justice, they pushed the maxim “kill fewer, kill cautiously.” The following year, the high court began reviewing all capital cases, creating a strong disincentive for lower courts to hand out death sentences. The substitution in many cases of suspended death sentences — which in practice means offenders spend about 25 years in prison — was the result.

The shift met resistance from hard-liners who warned of a spike in crime. But pandemonium did not ensue. Some criminologists now argue that the harsh campaigns of the past in fact sparked violent crime, by making criminals reluctant to leave witnesses behind.

Readers! Your clairvoyant blog host, Me, totally predicted this in my 2010 book (pp. 234-235):

[China]  has one unified national penal code (adopted in 1979 and modified many times since), and a political structure which insulates ruling elites from popular opinion. Were China’s ruling elites to be convinced that abolition was a desirable step, they would be able to implement it without fearing a formal political backlash. Even if Chinese leaders were not swayed by humanitarian concerns, there is a pragmatic case for the move: abolition of capital punishment by China would generate an avalanche of favorable coverage from the international media, and would be a potent weapon against critics of China’s human rights policies. In par- ticular, China could point to the continued use of capital punishment by the United States to parry American denunciations. Given the sensitivity of Chinese officialdom to critiques of its human rights policies, it would seem that abolishing capital punishment would be a low-cost way to project a more sympathetic image on the world stage.

You can buy this masterpiece by clicking on the box to the right. Whatever the price in your local currency, it's a bargain at twice that price!

A Modest Proposal to End Love Locking on Bridges Forever

Everywhere you go in Europe, you see eyesores like this:


Ever since some moron decided that attaching pieces of metal to public walkways was a thing, the scourge has proliferated. There are so many locks on the Pont des Arts that its railing partially collapsed last month

Here's my proposed remedy, which I might turn into a kickstarter campaign.

  1. Buy 10-15 bolt cutters. 
  2. Give them to the people who usually root around in public trash cans looking for deposit bottles to redeem for money.
  3. Promise these folks 50 cents for every lock they cut off and return to a central collecting point.
  4. Take the locks to a recycling center.

I bet this would have the entire bridge cleared in days, if not hours. There are lots of bottle collectors out there, they are extremely resourceful and persistent, and they have nothing but time on their hands.

You might ask: is this legal? I am sure it would be under American law. (How about German law? Help me out, readers!). Since the custom is apparently to throw the keys away after attaching the lock, whoever put the locks there has manifested an intention to permanently abandon the property. Or in less legal language, they've decided to throw away the lock in a public place. Which is littering, and is illegal. Removing litter is not only legal, it's a public service.

My proposal kills three birds with one stone: the bridge is cleared, the poor make money, and the metal gets recycled. I think I'll start a kickstarter project for this. Who's with me?