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Word of the Week: Schlitzohr

Do you know some of those people who manage to turn the tables even in the worst situations? Or those who seem to handle difficulties with extreme cleverness? So you probably already met a Schlitzohr at least once in your life.

Translating Schlitzohr (ripped ear) as “chiseler”, “bandit” or “artful dodger” does not, even approximately, reflect the sense of Schlitzohr in German. Schlitzohr usually referred to a certain type of punishment in the Middle Ages. At the time craftsmen of numerous professions wore earrings to openly display their affiliation to a guild, as well as a symbol of their integrity and honor. Hence the earring stood for perfect behavior and the trustful character of the craftsman.

In the Middle Ages physical integrity was also one of the most important symbols of honor, since criminals used to get punished physically: thieves lost their fingers or their hands, blasphemers their tongue and the murderer his head through the henchman’s axe. Likewise if a craftsman committed any wrongdoing which affected his honor, he got punished by pulling out his earring – and so the craftsman became a “Schlitzohr”. The stigma was that of having lost his honor and the Schlitzohr served as a clear warning signal for anyone who may need to engage in future dealings with the craftsman to proceed with extreme caution.

The stigma of a Schlitzohr has also been used for cheaters who in any dishonest way tried to acquire other people’s wealth, or any other kind of advantage. People usually cut a tear into the cheater’s ear, which was a sign of being considered an outlaw and served as a stark testimonial to all others tempted to act in a similar fashion.

Whereas the Schlitzohr in the Middle Ages was considered an outlaw, and therefore his return into established society was nearly impossible, the literal sense of Schlitzohr nowadays is slightly different. Calling someone a Schlitzohr today is usually a reference to him displaying his cleverness or his smart character. A Schlitzohr is someone able to leverage even tough situations. He is associated with “positive cleverness”.

Therefore the International Club of Schlitzohren in Germany, since 1985, has awarded the Golden Schlitzohr to personalities who turned out to act in a very clever way to deal with huge problems of our times.  Laureates have included Ephraim Kishon, a well-known satirist, Johannes Rau, the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Jean-Claude-Junker, the prime minister of Luxemburg and current president of the Euro Group, a meeting of the finance ministers of the eurozone.

Perhaps one day you would be happy hearing somebody calling you a Schlitzohr? Goodness knows…

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