Word of the Week: Ohrwurm

What are your associations when you think of earwigs? They crawl on patios in search of human ears, they look – well – not that nice and they are obviously a specific species of bugs? To give you some more information, earwigs are called Ohrwürmer (or Ohrenkriecher) in German, they belong to the group of flying insects (Pterygota) and eight out of its 1,800 species can be found in Germany. If you’re not very sure what this has to do with the word of the week, then you’re partly right.

However, the word Ohrwurm (literally “ear worm”) also has a second meaning in German. You use it to describe a situation in which you have a song stuck in your head. Figuratively speaking, a certain part of a song crawls into your ear and lingers there for a while – exactly like an earwig and symbolized by the frequent repetition of that song in your head.

Yet there are some quite remarkable differences between the zoological and the musical Ohrwurm. Whereas the intention of the earwig to get into your ear is deliberate, the musical Ohrwurm only occurs unintentionally. Try to anticipate its time of occurence – it won’t work. Some musicians pretty desperately attempt to find certain combinations of notes which trigger it, a specific recipe has however not been found or has been well hidden. Moreover, in contrast to the slightly negative connotation of an earwig, the musical Ohrwurm can be both a song you very much like and a song you very much dislike. The primary premise for its occurrence is a strong emotional reaction to the song, whether negative or positive. Interestingly, songs with lyrics trigger an Ohrwurm way more often than songs without lyrics. Likewise, an Ohrwurm occurs in more than 70 percent of the cases in everyday situations (e.g. when you clean up, wash the dishes) or in situations where you just laze around (e.g. waiting for something) and are cognitively relaxed.

Maybe you are not too surprised that Sigmund Freud had his own theories about the Ohrwurm. To him, an Ohrwurm was as you might guess an unsconscious articulation of wishes. In that case, you will certainly not be able to treat an undesired and annoying Ohrwurm with the amusing anti-Ohrwurm devices you find on the Internet. They try to cure you and eliminate your Ohrwurm  by playing specific new melodies/songs.

However, some doubts remain whether even the most elaborate devices can make you get rid of a classic Ohrwurm.

Word of the Week: Fernweh

What would you think Germans are proud of? Beer? Their legacy of famous writers and poets such as Goethe, Schiller and Eichendorff? The ability to have a great party going when it’s time again for a Soccer World Cup? Without a doubt these things make Germans proud. However, Germany is neither world champion in soccer (as you might know Spain is) nor in beer exports (as you might not know China is, which you probably find odd considering the unique taste of German beer and the – well – maybe not so unique taste of Chinese beer). Still, Germans are proud of being world champion in a different category: traveling (72.6 million trips abroad in 2010).

There is one simple explanation for why Germans like to travel: Germans “suffer” from Fernweh. In contrast to its opposite Heimweh (homesickness), Fernweh describes a deep inner urge to visit other countries/cultures, to be at a place faraway from home and to have new experiences. Maybe you have sometimes felt bored at home and while watching a documentary about an exotic country have yearned to visit that country and discover all its cultural and scenic diversity. Or while sitting at the ocean you might have strongly desired to see the world that is beyond the horizon. In both cases you “suffered” from Fernweh.

The best English translation for it is probably “wanderlust”. Since “wanderlust” is derived from German, “Fernweh” indeed seems to be something typically German. Actually, Fernweh is used as the new “wanderlust” in German. Whereas wanderlust was mostly used in German in the era of German Romanticism during the first half of 19th century and then immigrated to English, where it was first detected in 1902, it is nowadays virtually not used anymore in German. Fernweh sort of replaced it and added an international meaning to it – not just the desire to hike and discover nature but also to go abroad to lands that are far, far away.

Word of the Week: Tollpatsch

Have you recently watched the German national soccer team play? If you did not, you probably at the very least saw Germany’s performances in the World Cup in 2010. During the World Cup it was quite popular to write about the multicultural composition of Germany’s team. Let’s start with some name-dropping: Özil, Khedira, Boateng, Podolski…

Interestingly, German language shows a pretty similar multicultural mix that is representative of Germany’s society. The informal word Tollpatsch (schlub, klutz, clumsy person) is a good example of that. Exact synonyms are difficult to find, Tölpel however comes close to it and Tollpatsch bears some resemblance to an Elefant im Porzelanladen (Bull in a China Shop).

Etymologically, Tollpatsch stems from Hungarian (talpas) and meant shoe sole. In the 17th and 18th century, the term was used to describe Hungarian foot soldiers as they presumably wore very basic shoes, with the soles of their shoes tied directly to their laces. Later it became a universal expression for a Hungarian or Slovakian soldier whose language was simply incomprehensible.

At this point, one has to mention with some sadness the awfulness of German spelling reforms. Tollpatsch has often been referred to as the perfect embodiment of the “meaningfulness” of the major spelling reform of 1996. In the context of this spelling reform it was decided to write Tollpatsch with two –ll’s in the middle instead of writing just one –l as before. As ironic as it might sound, the advocates of the spelling reform favored this change because it would bring Tollpatsch in line with the word toll (crazy or awesome, depending on the context) – which unfortunately does not have any even remote etymological connection to it.  Thus, the advocates of the spelling reform created the big mess we find ourselves in now, in which almost everyone seems to be completely clueless about the correct spelling.

Maybe this was also one reason why the Goethe-Institut picked “Tollpatsch” as the best immigrated word in German in 2008. The scope of the competition (3,500 words from 42 languages) demonstrates the popularity of Tollpatsch in German society. Why is that? Well, imagine Mr. Bean or Goofy (Mickey Mouse’s loyal friend), who are the most perfect examples of a Tollpatsch. You just have to take these endearing, sweet-tempered, chaotic and simple-minded characters to heart.

Word of the Week: Spaßgesellschaft

Germans are serious, cold and not very outgoing people who don’t like dancing and rarely laugh or smile – fact or lie?

Especially in the end 1990’s and the early years of the last decade, quite many members of German society were clearly convinced that the latter was true. They were concerned about a seemingly frightening tendency in German society/youth culture – the tendency to become a Spaßgesellschaft (fun society, hedonistic society).

You might ask yourself the question how come a society where people have fun is considered a major problem… The term Spaßgesellschaft, or Spassgesellschaft, appeared for the first time in an article by the Berlin-based, left-leaning newspaper TAZ on January 23, 1993. The first substantial article about the Spaßgesellschaft was published by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in August 1996 (“Sei schlau, hab Spaß – be smart, have fun”).

The term Spaßgesellschaft was created as a sort of derogatory description of the alleged evolution of German society from a collectivistic, family-oriented culture (including values such as a sense of responsibility, selflessness, assiduity, work discipline) to an individualistic and depoliticized society, which is characterized by hedonism, egoism, compulsive consumption, shallowness and a focus on leisure time instead of work.

According to the critics, the Spaßgesellschaft was symbolized by fun events such as the Love Parade, by the increased importance of private television with its talkshows, reality shows (i.e. “Big Brother”) as well as permissive comedy series’, and it ultimately reflected the stultification of German society (shocking…).

Interestingly, against the background of today’s increasingly politicized youth culture (demonstrations against tuition fees, nuclear energy and a planned new train station in Stuttgart), Spaßgesellschaft is nowadays mostly used by Germany’s youth itself – obviously not in its original derogatory meaning, but in an ironic and amusing way. This version is full of self-mockery and subtly ridicules how exaggerated fears at the turn of the millennium were. Thus, the original statement is suprisingly both – a fact and a lie.

Word of the Week: Tohuwabohu

Common descriptions and stereotypes depict Germans as disciplined, tidy, dutiful and organized people who in one way or another seem to have a deep inner  desire for order. If this description is right, how come there is this exotic sounding word Tohuwabohu in German?

An online dictionary even lists 66 synonyms for it, which clearly reflects its societal importance – especially as the main meanings are first Durcheinander (confusion) and secondly Unordnung (disorder/chaos). It almost appears that this single word points out a whole new dimension of “German-ness”.

In its historical context, Tohuwabohu stems from the Hebrew original of the bible and can be found in the Old Testament in the First Book of Moses. It is used to describe the state of the earth before God started creating it. Accordingly, Tohuwabohu is composed of three words: “tohu” (desert, desolate place), “wa” (and) as well as “vohu” (emptiness).

The great thing about the modern sense of the word is that the sound of the word matches its actual meaning (=chaos). Looking for associations in order to figure out the sense of the word will be a hopeless and desperate quest. Likewise, Tohuwabohu is unique because in contrast to its 66 synonyms, it feels way more friendly and congenial, almost ironic and amusing. Therefore, it is more an informal than formal expression.

Interestingly, Tohuwabohu is relatively often used in a political context, when members of the parliamentary opposition intend to attack the governing coalition by depicting it as chaotic.

Thus, Tohuwabohu is without a doubt relevant for German society. It might be at odds with common stereotypes about it, but mainly is what a messy kids’ room or your apartment look like after a house party.

Word of the Week: Aufbrezeln

When someone is heavily made up, sporting a dramatic hairstyle, and/or wearing flashy clothes, they could be described as “aufgebrezelt,” which has nothing to do with looking like a pretzel.

Essentially, “aufbrezeln” (OW f bray t sell n) means “done up” or “dolled up.” This expression is more often than not used to describe women who’ve taken a lot of time getting ready to go out on a Saturday night.

But it could also be used to describe fancifully dressed and heavily made up stage actors, dancers or drag queens – basically anyone who has spent a lot of time getting ready to look absolutely fabulous, albeit perhaps a tad “over the top,” depending on your point of view regarding style and good taste.

Although the German word for pretzel is “Brezel,” obviously “aufbrezeln” really is only indirectly associated with this soft or crunchy universally beloved snack.

At the same time, “aufbrezeln” is derived from this tasty noun, as it basically means “to get all pretzeled up.” (The German verb for on, as well as – in certain contexts – up, is “auf” – as in “aufsteigen,” or “to climb up,” etc.)

Perhaps the twists and turns made in the pretzel’s dough before it is baked inspired this expression.

Either way, it is a fun, tongue-in-cheek word often used in a lighthearted, jocular fashion, sometimes by exasperated male partners of the women in question spending a lot of time getting “aufgebrezelt.”

Word of the Week: Heimat

Heimat is a loaded word in the German language. Translating it simply as “home” does not fully do it justice. The powerful emotional ties it evokes in many German citizens when speaking about their hometowns or home regions would best be described as “a sense of belonging”.

Heimat also, alas, has some cheesy connotations in the German language. Some films popular in the first half of the 20th century known as Heimatfilme are viewed as cinematic versions of pulp fiction by serious film critics. These flicks sought to hark back to kinder, simpler times allegedly free of political, economic or social strife. Featuring bold boys and buxom milkmaids usually found frolicking in bucolic, pastoral settings, they were produced – not unlike today’s more fantastical summer blockbuster movies – to help people forget about the ravages of war, uncertain economic times and other disasters. (An exception to the saccharine variety of Heimat films is the critically acclaimed, award-winning German TV miniseries called Heimat, which is well worth watching.)

Word of the Week: Knuffig

The digital age has brought about an era that could be described as extremely knuffig – a saccharine yet sweet term of endearment commonly used to suggest something or someone extremely cute and cuddly and, well, just plain downright adorable, huggable and loveable.

Hello Kitty is knuffig. Knut, the Berlin Zoo’s late celebrity polar bear, was knuffig. Most toddlers are knuffig. Friends, children, lovers, grandparents, husbands, wives – all of them can be knuffig too, depending on your point of view.

Knuddelig is a similar expression which basically means the same thing as knuffig – cuddly and cozy. A more direct translation for cute would be niedlich, süß, or putzig.

Cute and cuddly, in any case, is “in”, at least if the Internet is anything to go by. A gazillion videos on You Tube, for instance, feature all manner of fluffy baby pets, pandas or humans. Some videos have become global sensations, such as the legendary “Charlie Bit My Finger” featuring two little heart-melting boys from the UK. Still other websites feature “cute things falling asleep,” “the cutest cats in America,” and so on and so forth.

While some may find all of this knuffig stuff adorable, others are less amused. Some media commentators have, for instance, insinuated that our obsession with all things cute is a psychological response to the traumas and stresses of an unstable world.

Wherever our urges to adore all things knuffig or knuddelig or niedlich come from – evolution certainly plays a role here (if babies werent’s so gosh darn cute, making us want to take care of them ’round the clock, they would be in big trouble!) – it should be embraced as one of the most compelling of all human quirks, alongside empathy, altruism and honesty (which remain, often, alas, very lonely words in a very competitive world).

After all, what would the world be like if no one ever felt the urge to find anyone or anything else knuffig?

A sad place indeed.

Word of the Week: Plaudertasche

A “Plaudertasche” is a slang expression for “chatterbox”. It is generally used as a cute term of endearment to describe a very wordy person.

While it may also of course be applied in a critical sense, it is more often than not merely a fun way to describe someone who enjoys long, in-depth conversations, preferably (for many task-oriented Germans) laced with some deep thought and analysis.

“Plaudertasche” can also be used, however, as a moniker for someone who is more than a tad gossipy.

This is yet another of the myriad existing compound nouns that is derived from two separate words – the verb “plaudern”, which essentially means to make small talk or to chit chat, and the noun “Tasche”, which means bag. (A handbag, for instance, is a “Handtasche”.)

This noun is not always used in everday language, and is most likely not listed in official dictionaries as it is more of a slang expression. But it could be whipped out to impress German speakers as a cheeky way of describing a chatty friend.

Word of the Week: Muttermal

In German, a “Muttermal” is a birth mark. A more literal translation would be “mother’s mark”, though of course hardly anyone would ever say that in English.

A more negative expression oft cited by media outside of Germany in reports comparing public sector childcare policies in various countries is “Rabenmutter”, which literally means “raven mother”. A woman might be referred to as a “Rabenmutter” if she flees the nest by going to work or otherwise leaving her children up to their own devices, even if she ensures that a grandparent, nanny or daycare center are providing adequate childcare for her offspring in her absence.

This is a real hot button issue in Germany, with people arguing for or against mothers going to work, or seeking out a mix of employment outside the household coupled with traditional maternal childcare duties.

“Muttertag” means the same thing in German as it does in English – “Mother’s Day”. In Germany and the United States, as in many other countries including Austria, Australia, Brazil, Japan and Italy, it is observed on the second Sunday in May.

And of course the word “Mutter” conjures up mostly warm and fuzzy feelings for most Germans, who adore their Moms just like everyone else all over the world.