Word of the Week: Aufheben

Sometimes language is a complicated thing… so complicated that it can take on a philosophical bent.

Take the German word aufheben. It can have multiple meaning that contradict each other. In the most frequent use of the term people can express both the wish to “abolish” as well as to “preserve” something. It all depends on the context.

The famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel used this antipode to explain the motor of dialectic functions. “Sublation,” he argues, shows the movement of Geist (spirit) or mind and can therefore both preserve and abolish at the same time.

For example: during adolescence we struggle with problems that will soon be forgotten. Those problems did not simply vanish, but instead helped to form us into the adults we are today. The same is true for every part of human life and evolution. In history, politics, art and philosophy: we do not simply forget and move on, but instead always keep a part of what we experienced with us.

Aufheben is the exemplary verb of the German language used to express this philosophical complexity. Still it is pretty safe to say that this dualism is lost not only on non-native German speakers, but also on a majority of Germans who use it in everyday life.

It is amazing to see what one word can do, isn’t it?

Word of the Week: Duzfreund

There are still some formalities implemented in European and German linguistic culture. One of the most known formalities, which sometimes surprises many Americans, is the very important distinction between a more distant and more private way to address people. It is known as honorific which expresses esteem and respect by using the third person of personal pronoun in addressing people. Especially in a professional and demographically more diverse context, it is adequate to approach people in a more formal way which is known in German as “Siezen.” It is considered to be very friendly, more distant and respectful form of addressing people up from the age of 18. Once a relationship becomes more personal it is most of the time the older part’s privilege to offer a switch in addressing each other by replacing the formal ‘Sie’ with a more personal pronoun as ‘du.’ Once it is agreed on interacting verbally in a more personal way (‘duzen’), the counterpart becomes a ‘Duzfreund’ which demonstrates especially in a more professional surrounding a special level of proximity and trust. In a private setting the formal way of verbal interaction is actually not applied anymore although it was quite common up to the 1950’s that children addressed their present in the ‘Sie’ form, which appears totally out-fashioned from a present perspective. The English language covers honorifics as well but more by using prefixes instead of playing with the personal pronoun. The form of Mr./Mrs./Ms. actually serve the very same purpose. Asian languages are even more sophisticated in distinction of honorifics due to the fact that most of these cultures are more status-oriented in a high contextual environment.

Word of the Week: Gemütlichkeit

“Look for the bare necessities

The simple bare necessities

Forget about your worries and your strife

I mean the bare necessities

Old Mother Nature’s recipes

That brings the bare necessities of life.”  – © Disney

Many people are familiar with this song from the famous 1967 Walt Disney movie “The Jungle Book”.

“Bare Necessities” was translated into German as “Probier’s mal mit Gemütlichkeit,” which roughly means “Just try it with coziness”. However, the accuracy of this translation is debatable. “Bare necessities” translates to Lebensnotwendigeiten in German and does not exactly have the same connotation with respect to the imperatives in life. But it shows how varied and vague the definition of the term Gemütlichkeit actually is.

Gemütlichkeit or “coziness” is an abstract noun used to describe a feeling, so individual perception plays a significant role in determining the definition. If asked for an illustrated depiction of Gemütlichkeit most Germans would probably picture something like a well-heated, nicely furnished room with a fireplace on a cold and rainy day and a good book. But it means more than just a description of a place. It also connotates a strong notion of social belonging, a sense of well-being or simply the lack of hecticness and uneasiness.

One could say that the term is also multi-layered, in the sense that it can be applied on a public as well as on a private scale. Very open and crowded places, for example an evening spent at the Christmas Market, can be just as gemütlich or cozy as the silent comfort of one’s own living room.

For the lack of a better English word, Gemütlichkeit has found its way into the English language. Queen Victoria is said to have been the first English native to use the term in the form of the adjective gemütlich. If her idea correlated more closely with Balu the Bear’s or with the association of an eased Sunday at home remains unknown, but we know that Gemütlichkeit can actually be found anywhere. And that is a very “cozy” thing to keep in mind.

Word of the Week: Jeck

Carnival seems to be the best time to have a look at an interesting German word: Jeck.

The word is used almost exclusively in the Rhineland, especially in the city of Cologne and, to a slightly lesser degree, in Bonn and Düsseldorf, the strongholds of German carnival.

Jeck can be a noun (ein Jeck), as well as an adjective (you can be jeck). Originally, it refers to a person who actively participates in a carnival celebration. During Carnival, all inhabitants of Cologne are, or at least should be, somewhat jeck.

But the more important meaning of the word is used year round. In this sense, it is an adjective that reflects the tolerant Cologne way of life and the general attitude of the Rhinelanders, who like to refer to themselves as jeck.

Ein Jeck thus means a humorous person who does not take things – or himself – too seriously. The Jeck may even be slightly crazy, but in a nice way. At least in the Rhineland area, the word clearly has a positive connotation.

Famous Rhineland sayings (Jeder Jeck ist anders – “Every Jeck is different” or Jet jeck simmer all – “We’re all a little jeck”) express this concept of tolerance. Knowing – with a wink– that you are not perfect helps in recognizing that others aren’t either. They are, in fact, as jeck as you are.

Word of the Week: Frühlingsgefühle

Large parts of the countryside may still be covered in snow, but in some areas people have already had the pleasure of taking the first stroll of the year outside without a jacket. The first signs of Spring have sprung!

As the temperatures rise and the days become longer and brighter, our mood often improves. When walking down the street you see more people smiling, the salesperson might be a bit friendlier. Even the security guard seems to get into the spirit.

This seasonal happiness is what Germans call Frühlingsgefühle (literally: spring feelings). Frühlingsgefühle describe the increased amount of energy and vitality that many experience during this time of the year.

Some scientists argue that the cause is the reduced production of Melatonin, a hormone known to cause fatigue. Others say that the advantages of modern civilization’s electric lights has saved the northern hemisphere from this ancient experience.

Regardless of the explanation of this phenomenon the Germany.info team wishes all of our readers nothing but the best as we move into Spring.

Word of the Week: Welpenschutz

Isn’t it great when an expression is created to finally describes something that we’ve seen or experienced, but could never really name?

Welpenschutz does exactly that.

This expression is more commonly used in northern Germany and describes a phenomena that can be witnessed daily at workplaces all around the world.

Picture the following: fresh out of college, Ben starts working at an office. He has lots of energy, is full of ideas, but doesn’t know a lot about the office culture or workplace etiquette. Ben simply hasn’t learned this yet.

Consequently, some older workers in the office get a little annoyed by Ben. But others start treating him like a little puppy that still needs to learn his way around in the real world.

Just as older dogs often protect their young, Ben’s colleagues handle him with a little extra patience and gently correct him.

The literal translation of Welpenschutz is “puppy protection”. So all you “puppies” out there: enjoy it while you can!

Word of the Week: Krass

Have you ever had a friend tell you an amazing story and you just weren’t sure how to react? Enter the word krass, the ultimate comeback word for any situation!

Mostly used among younger Germans, krass is very informal and can mean practically anything. Originally krass had several meanings. Several literal translations are glaring, blatant and complete. However, there is no exact translation for the way krass is used today. In fact, the popularity of the word probably comes from its meaninglessness. This allows it to be used whenever comment on something you maybe shouldn’t or express something there just isn’t a word for. Krass is a word that helps you out in precarious situations.

Word of the Week: Zeitreise

The popular German expression Zeitgeist has, like Kindergarten and Gesundheit, wended its way into the English language (which some might even go so far to claim is “based on German,” which it is – at least partially). Zeitgeist is a fantastic word.

Two of its temporal cousins, however, are less known in the anglophone world – Zeitzeuge and Zeitreise. Both of these words are worth mentioning as close relatives of Zeitgeist, so it seemed only fitting to highlight them together, even if this is the “Word of the Week” column.

Zeitzeuge is composed of two nouns – Zeit (time) and Zeuge (witness). It basically means “a witness to history.” A particularly eloquent chronicler of his or her times could be hailed as an especially effective Zeitzeuge. At the same time, all of us, at the end of the day, are Zeitzeugen of the events we live through that serve to shape our collective conscience.

In a similar vein, Zeitreise brings together “time” with Reise, or journey. A Zeitreise, however, refers not just to “time travel” in the nerdy sci-fi sense, but more broadly and poetically to a journey through time as in a flashback or a panorama voyage through history.

One of Germany’s most highly regarded newspapers is the cerebral, Hamburg-based weekly “Die Zeit.” Like the US newsweekly Time magazine, it simply refers to our times as it chronicles them with in-depth news and feature stories. Even though it is beloved among many well-informed Germans, a common phrase in Germany is: “Wer hat die Zeit die Zeit zu lesen?” (Who has the time to read Time?)

Word of the Week: Alternativlos

First there was that eyebrow-raising and little known German word of the year – Wutbürger (enraged citizen). Now there is the Unwort des Jahres, or ‘un-word’ of the year – alternativlos, literally meaning “without alternative.”

According to an official jury that selected this word, it serves as a loud and clear debate killer to critically underscore the oft-repeated tone of politics and policymakers over the course of 2010 who used phrases such as: “We have no alterantive but to bail Greece out of its euro crisis to stabilize the euro zone.”

The runner-up this year was Integrationsverweigerer – an immigrant who refuses to integrate with the native population. According to the jury, this word was also used unfavorably in 2010 by certain German politicians.

Other contendors, among a field of some 1,120 suggested words, were Steuersünder (tax sinner) and Schwarzsparer (black saver), to denote citizens who evade taxes via offshore bank accounts. The terms Brückentechnologie (bridge technology), ascribed to nuclear energy, and Sparpaket (savings package), used to denote the federal government’s savings’ program, were also considered.

Last year’s un-word of the year was betriebsratverseucht, which can be loosely translated as “plagued by the corporate employee board.”

The German prefix “un” is incidentally a great way to totally change the meaning of a word in the language. For example Kraut means cabbage or herbs, but Unkraut means weeds.

Word of the Week: Fingerspitzengefühl

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different “Word of the Week” in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Fingerspitzengefühl

Compound nouns abound in the German language. One that applies well to a variety of scenarios yet is difficult to translate precisely into English is “Fingerspitzengefühl.”

The literal translation of this expression – often used to connote someone who deftly handles all manner of tricky social situations, accurately assesses various signs of the times, or cleverly strategizes solutions in a range of contexts – is “finger tip feeling.”

Most German native speakers would use it to positively describe an individual or his or her actions.

For instance, if an employee named Klaus had done a great job of sussing out a new consumer trend and implemetend a successful marketing event for his company related to it, while cleverly stroking the fragile egoes of various colleagues and/or potential clients in the process, he would probably reap praise for his keen business acumen by keeping his finger on the pulse of his field as well as assessing any interpersonal pitfalls that could throw up roadblocks to sealing a successful deal.

“Klaus showed real Fingerspitzengefühl in masterminding that sale,” is what one of his superiors might say to another, for instance.

Unbeknownst to many modern Germans, the origins of the word seem to stem at least in part from the world of military strategy.

According to an entry in English on the word “Fingerspitzengefühl” in the popular global online encyclopedia Wikipedia, it refers to “a stated ability of some military commanders … to maintain with great accuracy in attention to detail an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield.”

In this vein, the encyclopedia goes on to state, “the concept may be compared to ideas about intuition and neural net programming.”

Most Germans, in day-to-day civilian language, however, would most likely not immediately relate this word to military strategy.

A random, unscientific sampling of German diplomats at the German Embassy in Washington supports this more general connotation of Fingerspitzengefühl, which they would use to describe someone having a deft grasp of a given situation.

In terms of traditional handicrafts or trades such as watchmaking, wood carving or hairdressing, the expression Fingerspitzengefühl, may also be taken literally – namely as someone showing fine dexterity with their hands, or excellent “finger tip feeling.”