Word of the Week: Alter Schwede

From your personal impressions, what do Sweden (the country of picturesque landscapes and beautiful blond people) and Germany (Europe’s economic powerhouse with its atmospheric old towns and tasty beers) have in common? Well, you might observe that there are at least similar value systems and extensive social welfare systems in both countries, that Swedish and German both belong to the group of Germanic languages and that the two countries are members of the European Union.

But there is more than that: considering the very popular informal German expression “Alter Schwede!” (Old Swede!), Sweden and Germany seem to have an even stronger relationship. The first meaning of Alter Schwede as an “old friend” or “old chap” (for the Brits amongst you…) symbolizes that very well. When Americans say “Hey Buddy!” to a friend, Germans might for instance say “Na, alter Schwede!”.

Clearly, there must be a reason for that. Somehow, Swedes have apparently earned their reputation as good friends. Before we get to that, let me quickly explain the second meaning of Alter Schwede. In case something unexpected happens or the magnitude/scope of something surprises you, you might shout “Alter Schwede!” as an equivalent to “Wow!” or “What the heck!?!”. German synonyms would be “mein lieber Schwan!” or “krass“.

So now let’s get to the reason for this seemingly deep friendship. The expression Alter Schwede first occurred in the 17th century and is related to the Thirty Years’ War. After the end of the war, Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (elector of the Holy Roman Empire) recruited war-proven Swedish soldiers as instructors for his army. They mostly held the rank of sergeants as they were very experienced in tough military exercise (drilling). Because of that, they were soon referred to as “the old Swedes”, which explains the described first meaning of Alter Schwede as a buddy/friend.

And regarding the second meaning (“Wow!”), just think of a tourist who is visiting New York City for the first time in his life and is overwhelmed by all the skrycrapers in Manhattan. There is a pretty high likelihood his first words will be Alter Schwede!

Word of the Week: Paragraphenreiterei

Who hasn’t experienced the following yet? You go to an administrative office and want to get something done. It might be an application for visa, for a social security card or something similar. Usually, you have to fill out a detailed application and then go to the public servant to hand it in. But guess what – the person behind the counter explains to you in an uncompromising way that your application is simply not acceptable, because you didn’t specify this and that or forgot to bring some sort of “super” important document with you.

In case that happens, Germans have a wonderful word to express their frustration with that kind of strictness. The word is Paragraphenreiterei. It means something like “obsessive adherence to rules” or “pedantry”. If your complaint is directed toward a specific person you could call him a Paragraphenreiter (a “jobsworth”). In doing so you emphasize that this person is a close-minded, unrelaxed and stubborn moralizer who is not willing to interpret the law or rules in a liberal, modern way. Obviously, that is not necessarily the nicest way to address a person. The chances you get that application successfully processed after mentioning the word Paragraphenreiter are probably below zero.

However, the literal meaning of Paragraphenreiter is quite funny and might help you to get over your frustration as well as to be patient and put a good face on the matter. Paragraphenreiter is composed of the two words Paragraph (paragaph, clause, article) and Reiter (rider, equestrian). Thus, just think of an equestrian who rides a clause when you approach that person. Maybe, it will actually get you to put a smile on your face and charm the person, so the application gets processed.

Word of the Week: Pappenheimer

Have you ever heard of a town called “Pappenheim”? Probably not … and frankly why should you? With its 4,030 residents, its castle ruin and its picturesque location in Bavaria south of Nuremberg, Pappenheim is just one of many beautiful and atmospheric small towns in Germany. However, somehow Pappenheim cannot be that ordinary. Why else would there be the popular word Pappenheimer in German. Most often, the expression “ich kenne meine Pappenheimer” is used, which means something like “I know my cardboard homies” or “I know my peers”.

Interestingly, this expression dates way back to the Thirty Years’ War. One of the cavalry units that fought against Sweden was led by Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim. Since his unit was widely known for being courageous, brave and loyal, Graf zu Pappenheim used the expression “ich kenne meine Pappenheimer” to emphasize his trust in his troops. The expression was then picked up by famous German writer Friedrich Schiller in his drama “Wallensteins Tod” (Wallenstein’s death), which is the third part of his Wallenstein trilogy. At one point in the drama, Wallenstein, who was the chief commander of the imperial troops in the Thirty Years’ War, acknowledges the loyalty of Graf zu Pappenheims’ cavalry unit by saying “Daran erkenn’ ich meine Pappenheimer” (That’s why I know my peers). Thus, Pappenheimer was a very positive expression at that time.

Nowadays that cavalry units are slightly outdated, the meaning of Pappenheimer has also changed. When you call somebody a Pappenheimer then you know his weaknesses and guilty pleasures very well as well as what you have to expect of him or what he got up to. Thus, on the one hand the expression is slightly derogatory. On the other hand, a Pappenheimer is someone who makes mistakes but because he actually has a good heart you can’t really be mad at him. Pappenheimer has hence also an ironic and nice touch.

Imagine for example you have kids who, after playing soccer in the backyard, come to tell you with guilty looka that for some unknown reason (of course it was not them…) two flower vases are broken. Then you might say with a knowing smile “Ich kenne meine Pappenheimer“.

Word of the Week: Affentheater

Germany is a well organized and calm country where everybody is always obedient and dead serious, right? To tell you the truth, that’s just one side of the story. Sometimes, living in Germany can be quite different – at least when you consider the word Affentheater and its societal relevance.

Literally translated Affentheater means “ape theater” (or monkey theater) but a “complete farce” probably describes its meaning most accurately. It is an informal and derogatory expression that you use to characterize human behavior as exaggerated, ridiculous and annoying. It is also often used along with a verb (e.g. “ein Affentheater veranstalten” – literally “to stage an ape theatre”).

Interestingly and despite the not very exotic wildlife in Germany, the emergence of the word Affentheater is linked to a specific historical context. Ape theaters were quite popular in Europe, especially in the second half of the 19th century. They were used for entertainment purposes on fairs, in inns or in theaters. Disguised apes performed acrobatic shows and impersonated human behavior in little sketches. As you can imagine, nowadays this is not really a common event anymore – the German entertainment industry has certainly moved on to other ventures. Whether these projects are more sophisticated and less trivial than the ape theaters is, however, a tough question. Just think of some talk shows which from time to time end up in an Affentheater when the invited guests start to attack each other in a very “civilized” way.

Hence, people sometimes seem to behave like these disguised apes and that is why Affentheater is still such a prominent word in German. Often, an Affentheater is also characterized by lots of noise and chaos. Thus, some teachers might associate an Affentheater with what their school trips look like.

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.”