German Word of the Week: Schmähgier

I've been reading (well, listening to) Martin Gregor-Dellin's magnificent biography of Richard Wagner and came across a word which may well have been invented by Wagner himself. During his early years of pretty much unrelieved poverty, Wagner wrote feuilletons and music criticism to earn money while he desperately tried to get his early operas and overtures played. And they're still worth reading. This was before Wagner developed the pompous, semi-messianic tone that marks his later writing, including his autobiography. Gregor-Dellin cites some elegant turns of phrase to prove his point.

In 1840, Wagner met Heinrich Heine, the German poet who had been forced into Parisian exile for his political views. (Heine was Jewish, this was before Wagner's anti-Semitism became more pronounced.) Impressed by Heine's wit and strength of character, Wagner publicly defended him (g, pdf) against the withering attacks in the German press, which Wagner denounced as a product of Schmähgier.

This is brilliant German portmanteau word. Schmähen is a German verb meaning to viciously criticize or vilify. If you yell it it's a Schmähruf (vilify-call). If you criticize someone so harshly that it amounts to vilification, you may be legally liable in Germany for Schmähkritik (g).The German federal constitutional court has stated that although harsh criticism is protected by freedom of speech, criticism that is intended primarily to humiliate and insult and heap scorn on someone, without engaging in serious argumentation or debate, can be prosecuted under Germany's laws protecting personal honor. A lawyer who called his opponent (who apparently had a title of nobility) a 'chiseler' and 'Prince of Bullshit' (Flunkerfürst (g)) got dinged by a court in Hamburg for Schmähkritik.

Gier is greed or desire. Habgier is the greed to have (haben), i.e. avarice. Neugier is the greed for the new, or curiosity. You can have Gier for anything, there's even Mordgier, for those with an uncontrollable compulsion to kill. So Schmähgier is yet another short German word with tons of meaning packed in: the compulsive desire to vilify someone else.

I can't readily find this word anywhere before Wagner's use of it, so I would like to believe the master invented it himself. 

8 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Schmähgier

  1. In Vienna (and perhaps other places in Austria), “Schmäh” is synonymous for a very specific state of mind, which is difficult to describe, sort of morbid, humorous, cynical, melancholy and grumpy all at the same time. You either have Schmäh or you don’t. But the word can also mean hoax, prank or trickery. And probably various other things which only a real Wiener could explain.

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  2. In Vienna (and perhaps other places in Austria), “Schmäh” is synonymous for a very specific state of mind, which is difficult to describe, sort of morbid, humorous, cynical, melancholy and grumpy all at the same time. You either have Schmäh or you don’t. But the word can also mean hoax, prank or trickery. And probably various other things which only a real Wiener could explain.

    Like

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