German Word of the Week: Schneckenkönig

Yesterday I biked near Lake Unterbach south of Düsseldorf and noticed something white in the path. It was this snail:

1-2019-06-12 19.23.22

This is a Roman or Burgundy snail in English, in German they’re called Weinbergschnecke: vineyard snail. These big, juicy bastards are common here (these are the snails from which escargot is made), but I’d never seen one with this light coloration before, perhaps it’s an albino, but I’m no malacologist. I posted it on Facebook, and one of my friends there said it looked at first like it might be a Schneckenkönig — a “snail-king”, but wasn’t.

So of course the question became: what in tarnation is a Schneckenkönig? And lo and behold, I found another German word that, if you trust Wikipedia (g), has no equivalent in any other language. A Schneckenkönig is a snail whose shell (Haus in German, ain’t that cute?) twists counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise. In English, this is known as inverse chirality, which is not very fun to say.

Left-coiling snails only occur about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000, so their title of ‘snail-king’ is well-deserved. Apparently there are people who devote a lot of time (g) to searching for one of these elusive beasts.

But even ordinary snails are electrifyingly bizarre creatures. Let Isabella Rossellini explain how:

German Word of the Week: The ‘Knapsack’ Mystery

Image result for knapsack problem

As I found out returning from a weekend in Luxembourg, Knapsack is a town in Germany. It’s also a common word for a backpack in English, as in the notorious “knapsack of white privilege“, or the “knapsack problem”. Yet Knapsack is not the word for backpack in German — the modern German word is Rucksack.

So many mysteries: Why is the English word for a kind of backpack, ‘Knapsack’, in reality a German word? When did it first enter English? Did Germans ever use it? If so, why did they abandon it? What is the significance of the fact that there is a town in Germany named Knapsack? Was the Knapsack invented there? Which came first, Knapsack the bag or Knapsack the town?

Anyone have any ideas?

German Words of the Week: Renaturierung and Eisvogel (Spring Birdsong Bonus)

Four years ago, the city of Düsseldorf undertook a project of Renaturierung — literally, “re-naturing”. This refers to taking land which was being used for agriculture, quarries, buildings, or perhaps nothing at all, and allowing it to revert to a more natural state. In this case, the land was the Urdenbach Marshes, a wetland area on the southern edge of Düsseldorf. The Rhine river changed direction long ago, and the area between the old course of the Rhine and the new course became a wetland frequented by many bird species. Then, in the 1950s, housing was built in the area, a dike was built to prevent the summer flooding of the wetland and create a pedestrian path

In 2014, a project began to restore the wetland (g) by opening up the dike in two places and building bridges and other amenities to preserve the pedestrian path:

ApplicationFrameHost_3lmaBDLaYb

Was the project successful? Judge for yourself. Yesterday I rode my bike to the marshes, picked a spot, and made a short film. It lasts about 5 minutes. I count at least 10 different kinds of birdsong, some of it downright deafening. If you just want the highlights, a kingfisher (Eisvogel, or “Ice-Bird”, in German) hovers and strikes at 4:12. Enjoy:

 

German Word of the Week: Retortensiedlung

A while ago, I needed to get a document from one of the “citizens’ offices” (Bürgerbüros) in Düsseldorf. There are about ten of them. You request an appointment online, and get pointed to whichever office can give you an appointment the soonest. This time, it was in the neighborhood of Garath.

Yes, Garath. At the mention of these two syllables, Düsseldorfers will hear ominous string music — or perhaps a song from a band with a name like Nahkampf or Erschießungskommando.

Garath is a neighborhood at the very southern tip of Düsseldorf, a 13-minute S-Bahn ride from the center. It’s the dark-gray bit in this map of Düsseldorf. Its basic design was laid out inLage im Stadtgebiet 1959 by the notorious (and notoriously auto-friendly) Düsseldorf architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms (think of him as the Robert Moses of Düsseldorf) as a planned community of medium-rise apartment buildings, 8000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. Because it was largely a designed community, critics call it a Retortensiedlung — a test-tube town, as opposed to a neighborhood which grew up organically. Tamms’ plan, with many modifications and additions, was realized in stages during the 1960s and 1970s. The overall style was mild Brutalism, described (g) as an “explicitly solid and respectable style which affords no room for architectural experiments or reforms.” In other words, cheap buildings for workers.

Today, Garath is a solidly working-class section of Düsseldorf. It’s mostly white, with a percentage of foreigners of only 12.5% (g), well under the city’s average of 19.2%. There seemed to be a strong Eastern European and Russian presence — they wouldn’t affect the foreigner percentage, since many of them would be Russians or East Europeans of German descent (g), who are entitled to German citizenship.

Garath has a reputation as one of the social burning points of Düsseldorf, a cluster of sterile pre-planned buildings stuffed with the resentfully unemployed. There are stories of rabid football fans, right-wing violence, mass fistfights, urine-soaked undergrounnd passages, the whole nine yards. But people from Garath tend to be loyal to it. It ain’t fancy, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or desolate as its reputation. People know each other and help each other, and there’s plenty of green space and even a small castle (g).

Garath city center is like a small throwback to the idea of a socialism-infused, egalitarian model of German society. There are large paved squares with benches where local day-drinkers can soak up the sun:

09-DSC08643

There are also funky small modular orange shops under the train overpass, looking as if they were plucked straight from 1974. One of them houses the “Altschlesische Speisekammer” (The Old Silesian Pantry), a which sells Polish food, including delectable sausage:

There’s a bunch of government offices right next to the main train station, and right next door, a “Leisure Center”, made of modest red brick, where people can go spend time for free, or at least a modest fee. This building was designed by Olaf Jacobson in 1974. It’s made of interlocking cubes of different sizes stacked on top of and next to one another, faced in handsome red-brick. Inside, pathways lead from one modular cube to the next, creating interesting, inviting spaces.

When I stopped by the auditorium, there was a group of at least 80 old ladies settling into their seats for some sort of concert. The local library branch is located inside the building, and offers this inviting reading nook:

13-DSC08651

On the side of the leisure center is a quote from Heine about Old Düsseldorf’s funky nooks and crannies:

11-DSC08647

Of course, there’s an ice-cream parlor:

08-DSC08641

And a little bit of urban decay:

01-DSC08627

But also delectable fruits right across from it:

04-DSC08632

And a bar next to the train station with this oddly charming…whatever it is:

07-DSC08639

And is there public art? Yes, the “Sunwheel” by Friedrich Becker, erected in 1976 (obviously):

10-DSC08645

Behind it you can see the housing blocks typical of Garath. They’re nothing special, but at least they’re not Corbusian nightmares. Facing the train tracks, there’s “Countdown”, by Hans-Albert Walther:

12-DSC08649

There’s too much concrete in the heart of Garath, a common problem with 1960s and 1970s town planning. But still, there are some interesting buildings, and a bit of funky pre-planned quasi-socialist charm. Infinitely worse things have come out of test tubes.

German Word of the Week: Machtwort

Here’s a headline from the German daily Die Welt: “Impeachment? Democrat Pelosi speaks a Machtwort“.ApplicationFrameHost_ujsNtxY00A

I provided no translation because there isn’t one. A Machtwort — literally “power-word” is a word that only someone in power can speak. It’s something like a command or order, usually with a specific purpose: to shut down debate among underlings once and for all.

This word needs to be transferred into English. However, it’s a bit too hard to pronounce (“mocht-vort”). Thus, as Ohrwurm became earworm, we’re going to need to finesse Machtwort a little bit.

First we ditch the voiceless velar fricative in the “ch”. This sound — something like a cat hissing, transposed down an octave or two — is notoriously difficult sound for non-German speakers to make. So we’re going to just turn it into “mocked”.

Why keep Macht instead of just going with the English “power-word”? Because we want it to sound at least a little German. After all, the Machtwort is concept built on authority imposing order through intimidation, and what could be more German than that?* Plus, Macht is such a common German word that many English speakers will have at least some familiarity with some form of it, from the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” to the Yiddish term macher, for “big shot”.

We’re just going to turn Wort into “word”, though. No need to overdo things. So I propose that people start using “Machtword” in English:

“The chatting students were silenced by the teacher’s Machtword.”

“Listen, your ideas have been stimulating, but time’s pressing and we need to move on. Machtword!”

When people ask you what you just said, tell them it’s the hippest new concept from Germany. Maybe add a slight trace of a condescending sneer that they don’t already know about it.

Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Machtwort”

German Word of the Week: Fundschlange

ApplicationFrameHost_6d7NvXHGsf

The German for find is finden, and the past tense is gefunden. Carve out the middle 4 letters of gefunden, and you have fund. Which doesn’t mean fund in English, that word, in “German”, is Fonds, pronounced the French way, since it’s a French loan word (g). Oddly enough, Fonds, in German, is a singular masculine word, even though it has an ‘s’ at its end: “I invested in a Fonds.” Go figure.

Fund is one of those German prefixes which can be attached to almost any word — in this case, to describe something which was found. The lost and found office is a Fundbüro (find-office), and the objects stashed in it are Fundsachen (find-things). Fundkind (find-child) is one German name for a foundling. I can’t be sure (little help, anyone?), but I suspect the English word “findspot” might be derived from the German archeological term Fundort. These words, by the way, are called Determinativkomposita in German.

And now back to the image above. It’s from the Munich Reptile Rescue Center, and describes the woeful condition of a Fundschlange (find-snake) brought into the center by the Unterbiberg Fire Department. The poor bastard had been chewed on by rats, but is expected to make a full recovery.

And in case you’re wondering, a rescue dog is, in fact, a Fundhund (“foond-hoond”) (g), which is one of those German words which gets funnier every time you pronounce it.

German Word of the Week: Thingstätte

This GWOW amuses English-speakers because it begins with a false friend. But then it gets very German, in all senses of that word.

A ‘Thing‘, Wikipedia tells us, was “the governing assembly of an early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers.” In other words, a sort of proto-parliament, usually held outdoors at a symbolic grouping of stones or large tree (perhaps a Gerichtslinde or “court linden”). There are very few records of Things left, and few ruins which can be positively identified as Thingstätte (Thing-places, pronounced approximately TING-steh-tuh). Nevertheless, they were important institutions — many Scandinavian parliaments have some form of the word “ting” in their official title.

But Germanic Thingstätte had a disturbing second life, as with so many things Germanic. The völkisch movement in Germany, and later the National Socialists, decided to revive the ancient tradition of the Thingstätte. The new versions weren’t supposed to be parliaments, but rather outdoor gathering places where the faithful could assemble to revere nature, the Germanic soul, and other nationalist topoi*.

Party groups, or the Hitler Youth, would assemble at the Thingstätte for Thingspiele, multi-disciplinary events which might feature torchlight processions, speeches by academics or ideologues, choral singing, patriotic dramas, sporting contests or similar collective celebrations of things young, healthy, vigorous, and Teutonic. Nazi-era Thingstätte in Germany — of which 400 were planned, but only 40 built, are often huge, with oval-shaped amphitheaters with seating for thousands, usually set on hilltops. This means they’re quite hard to get rid of, and still generate controversy, since they are massive and indelible reminders of the Third Reich. They attract visitors from the unsavory right-wing fringes of German society, as well as from people who want to revive ancient Germanic traditions such as Walpurgisnacht (there is some overlap between those groups, but it’s far from 100%). I once visited perhaps the most famous Thingstätte, in Heidelberg, and saw only yuppies jogging up and down its steps.

And today I just learned, from the magnificent ars publica düsseldorf** site, that Düsseldorf had its own Thingstätte, way off in Gerresheim, a working-class suburb in the eastern part of the city. It was built in 1935, partly as an employment-generating measure for World War I veterans. Now, it’s pretty much completely abandoned, and surrounded by privately-owned houses:

It included a big 220-step path up a large hill, at the top of which was a massive boulder with a memorial inscription. I bet a ruined Thingstätte would be pretty interesting to visit (after getting necessary permissions, of course), so it’s now at the top of my list of things to see and do in this endlessly-fascinating city. Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Thingstätte”

German Word of the Week: Zwiebellauch

The other day I dropped by Pizzeria Cemo, one of Düsseldorf’s best, where the pie has the thin, crispy crust. The owner sings merrily (as merrily as Turkish songs ever get) while preparing your order. I scanned the menu:

Boring Pizza.

Tuna fish, calzone, and then “Boring Pizza”.

Let’s look at what makes this pizza “boring”. The first ingredient is Pastirma. Pastirma (g) is dried beef. It was originally invented by Turkic nomads, who hung specially-prepared cuts under their saddlebags to dry as they rode in the desert. It may well be the origins of Pastrami, which was brought by Romanian Jews into Europe. Although only the shape is similar; pastrami is not dried.

The next ingredients are mushrooms and artichokes, which are boring enough. But then comes Zwiebellauch. Odd: I can’t figure out exactly what Zwiebellauch (onion-leek) is in English. There’s no entry for it at the LEO website. There’s only one entry for it at linguee, which is pretty startling. They call it “chives“, but I don’t think that’s right.

Wikipedia re-directs you to Winterzwiebel (winter onion), one of whose alternate names is Lauchzwiebel — but not Zwiebellauch.

So what the hell is Zwiebellauch anyway? Little help here?

Also, why is this pizza boring? I asked the owner, but he only smiled. I’d say an exotic delicacy from the Inscrutable Orient™ and an unclassifiable mystery vegetable makes this the most exciting goddamn pizza on the menu. But what do I know?

German Word of the Week: Reanimieren

Here’s a headline from Austria about an accident during a youth outing. A boat capsized, and two girls were rescued from drowning and resuscitated:

reaminated

The German word for resuscitation is “reanimate”. Which makes me think two things:

1. That’s a lot less fussy and pretentious than “resuscitate”.

2. H.P. Lovecraft would approve.

Ähnliches Foto

German Word of the Week: Bruchwald & Hörsturz

I don’t travel in the summer, too hot and sticky. But the past few weeks have brought a spell of dry, sunny weather that has tempted me out on my Bulls cross bike several times a week. I’ve been riding to the east of Düsseldorf, to the hilly areas which mark the far eastern outskirts of the Bergisches Land , an area of low mountains and hills west of Düsseldorf and Cologne.

One discovery during these rides was the Stinderbachtal (g) nature preserve. A stream called the Stinder flows in the middle of a marshy area set among rolling hills and cliffside forests. A sign by the hiking trail identifies this as an Erlenbruchwald, where Erle is the German word for alder and Bruchwald (literally, break-forest), is the German word for…what, exactly?

Once I got home, I looked it up, and it means “carr“:

carr is a type of waterlogged wooded terrain that, typically, represents a succession stage between the original reedy swamp and the likely eventual formation of forest in a sub-maritime climate.[1] The name derives from the Old Norse kjarr, meaning a swamp. The carr is one stage in a hydrosere: the progression of vegetation beginning from a terrain submerged by fresh water along a river or lake margin. In sub-maritime regions, it begins with reed-swamp. As the reeds decay, the soil surface eventually rises above the water, creating fens that allow vegetation such as sedge to grow. As this progression continues, riparian trees and bushes appear and a carr landscape is created–in effect a wooded fen in a waterlogged terrain.

I make my living with words and I have a pretty damn big vocabulary, but I had never heard of the word “carr” before.

This is an example of the back-door second-language vocabulary enhancement effect, or BADOSLAVEE. The German term Bruchwald is not technical, Germans probably have a vague idea what one is (valley forest), even if they may not be able to identify it in precise geological terms. But its English counterpart is exotic as hell. And I would never have run across the English word had I not learned its German equivalent first.

Learning a second language exposes you to words that are ordinary in that language, but exotic in yours. Another example of this is Hörsturz, a German word which literally means “hear-fall”, and refers to a sudden loss of hearing.

The first time I heard this word, I said, “What? A sudden loss of hearing? You mean like after an explosion?”

“No, silly,” my German Interlocutor (GI) said, “it’s because of stress or overwork. You suddenly lose your ability to hear. It’s happened to me a few times. Happens to everyone now and then.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “You’re otherwise healthy, just sitting there, and you suddenly go deaf for no reason? And then you regain your hearing again at some point? How? Why? Never happened to me or anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Are you crazy?” GI said. “I though it was universal. Are you sure there’s no English word for that?”

And in fact, Germans consider a Hörsturz to be an ordinary sign of stress. You can call up your boss here and say: “I’m not coming in today because I suddenly lost my hearing for no reason, probably because you worked me too hard. But it will return on its own in a day or two, and I’ll come back then.” And your boss will say, “OK, get better soon.”

But you won’t be able to hear him.

Try that in any other country.

To check my suspicion that this was a German idiosyncrasy, I turned to Wikipedia, and sure enough, there’s a detailed entry for Hörsturz (g) including sections coverage by medical insurance, as well as treatment by vitamin-C infusion, “corticosteroids”, and “fibrinogen reduction” by apheresis. All for a medical syndrome that appears to be a by-product of some sort of Sapir-Whorf effect (language shapes perceptions of reality, things become much more common and recognizable if there’s a word for them), or generation-spanning mass hysteria.

Sure enough, there’s no entry in any other language except…Japanese. Intriguing, that.

Anyhow, as a reward for reading to the end of this post, I give you a few photos from the Erlenbruchwald, or “alder carr” of the Stinderbach Valley, plus surroundings:

German Word of the Week: Bekenntnisschrein

This GWOW is special, because it’s new.

It occurs in a short piece by Christoph Seils in the German politics mag Cicero about the hapless German Social Democratic Party, which has been circling the drain along with every other Western European center-left party. The title, appropriately, is Warten auf den Untergang — ‘Waiting for the Collapse’.

As I read along, I came across this sentence: “Das Bemühen das Thema soziale Gerechtigkeit aus dem Bekenntnisschrein zu holen und für die unterschiedlichen Zielgruppen der Partei konkret herunterzubrechen, wirkte ideenlos.”

“Efforts to take the subject of social justice out of the shrine of beliefs and to break it down for the party’s various target groups made the party seem out of ideas.”

Bekenntnis is the German word for a profession of belief or an article of faith; lip service is called Lippenbekenntnisse. Schrein is a shrine, obvs. “Shrine of beliefs” is just my clumsy way of translating Bekennnisschrein. And why did I have to resort to a clumsy approximation?

Because the word Bekenntnisschrein does not exist. Check out this Google search:

He made it up!
He made it up!

Seils, you magnificent bastard, you made it up! You used German’s endless, Lego™-like flexibility to create a brand-new word that never existed before, at least according to Google. And if Google don’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing.

It conjures up a great image, too. I imagine the Bekenntnisschrein to be a sterile, vacuum-sealed chamber, let’s call it the Brandt Chamber, where the temperature is kept just above absolute zero. Whenever elections time rolls around, a senior operative of the SPD party dons a clean suit and enters the Brandt Chamber:

Bildergebnis für clean room

Here, the Sacred Core Principles of Social Democracy (SCPSD) are arranged, in careful alphabetical order, in glass cubes. Each sentence is composed of glowing, ethereal script composed of pure Bebelium. Upon contact with ordinary oxygen and party infighting, the principle slowly deteriorates, but the original, inside the Brandt Chamber, regenerates using a mystical source of energy: the Simple Faith of the Common Man.

But lately, the SCPSDs grow dimmer and dimmer. The Simple Faith is depleting with each passing year. One day, the glowing sentences will eventually flicker out and die forever. And, joined my millions of doughty dockworkers and contumacious costermongers, I will shed a silent tear.

And then return to absolutely slaying it on Grand Theft Auto IX.