Word of the Week: Erbsenzähler

Germans have a very specific word that describes someone who is nitpicky, obsessed with details and a control freak: an Erbsenzähler. In German, the word Erbsen means “peas” and Zähler means counter — as in, someone who is keeping a numerical record. Thus, an Erbsenzähler literally describes someone who counts peas — you know, the kind of peas you might find on your dinner plate.

So how did a “pea counter” become the term for a nitpicky individual?

According to a story that has been passed down for over a century, the term originated in the year 1847, when a German publisher was visiting the Milan Cathedral.

Spiral staircase

Karl Baedeker (1801-1859), founder of a tourism guidebook company called Baedeker, was known for being very precise, careful and calculated. When he was climbing the stairs of the Milan Cathedral one day, German Shakespearen scholar Gisbert von Vincke witnessed one of Baedeker’s most peculiar actions: after every twenty stairs, the book publisher would reach into his right trouser pocket, take out a dried pea and place it in his left trouser pocket. After reaching the top of the cathedral, Baedeker could determine the number of stairs he climbed by checking to see how many peas he had in his left pocket and multiplying them by 20.

To verify that his calculations were correct, Badaeker would repeat the same procedure on the way back down the staircase. The story was passed down in German households for years, but it wasn’t until Herbert Warren Wind, a writer for the New Yorker, conducted comprehensive research that precise details about the encounter were recorded.

“When von Vincke was making his way up to the stairs to the roof of the Milan Cathedral, his attention was attracted by the man just ahead of him – a stocky fellow of about five feet seven, with broad features and muttonchop whiskers, who at regular intervals reached into his waistcoat pocket with his right hand, plucked out a small object, and deposited it in a trouser pocket. Back at his hotel, von Vincke spotted this man in the dining room and learned from the headwaiter that he was Baedeker. After the meal, he introduced himself to Baedeker and asked him if he would be kind enough to explain his strange ritual on the cathedral staircase. Oh, Badaeker said with manifest pleasure, he had been counting the steps to the cathedral roof.

To guard against losing his count, he had taken the precaution of filling a waistcoast pocket with a supply of peas. After every twenty steps, he had transferred a pea from that pocket to his trouser pocket.”

– Herbert Warren Wind, The New Yorker, 1975

Because of the encounter at the Milan Cathedral, the word Erbsenzähler became a part of the German language, defining a person who is obsessively careful, calculated, nitpicky and attempting to maintain control, just as Baedeker carefully counted every stair in the cathedral. The word generally has a negative connotation, defining someone who takes his obsessions a little bit too far.

But now you know: next time you see someone obsessing over something small, you can call them an Erbsenzähler.

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

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