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.

6 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Stichwort

  1. Perhaps another more succinct translation for your example would be
    “… think human rights.”

    What made the term Stichwort so popular probably wasn’t dictionaries.
    The most important use was the prompt in theater, by which actors know when to start their part.


  2. A Stichwort is, in a dictionary, a “lemma”. Stichwort is not limited to the words on the top of the page, it is the bold word that starts every entry in a lexicon or dictionary.

    The best translation may depend on the context (cue? catchword?? headword???)

    A Schlagwort is used in catalogues to find books related to a topic (key word?, item??)

    A book title “Die Abschaffung der Todesstrafe” has “Todesstrafe” as a Stichwort.
    A book title “Die Geschichte der Guillotine” can have the Schlagwort “Todesstrafe” in the book catalogue.


  3. Andrew, would you agree with me that the best translation for “Stichwort” in its nowadays, common language use would be “cue”? Although “catchword” might also be nice, “cue” has the auditory attachment to “key”, which in turn resembles the German term “Schlüsselwort”, which can be used as a synonym to “Stichwort”, also in its English resemblance as a “keyword”.


  4. In the German example you used, another English rendering might be “buzzword,” which also contains the idea of a stinger.


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