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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.

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