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.

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