Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Monday, January 29, 2018

Word of the Month: Der Richtungsstreit

Word of the Month: Index

Richtungsstreit illustration
We are hearing that within the Democratic Party right now, there is a raging battle between its 'centrist' or 'moderate' wing and its 'liberal' or 'left' wing, recently energized by Bernie Sanders' campaign. At issue is how to respond to the loss the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, suffered in the presidential election of 2016. (I believe, by the way, that these labels are wrong, at least from a European perspective, but that's not the topic of this post.)

The Germans—surprise, surprise!—have a word for this type of debate: Richtungsstreit. The term combines the word for direction, Richtung, with Streit, the word for a controversy in which both sides are fully engaged. It usually involves strong language and may even occasionally end in fisticuffs (but nothing stronger).*

A Richtungsstreit, then, is an intense debate about the direction an organization, especially a political party, should take. One reason why the Germans have a special word for this may be that every political party of any standing in the country gets involved in a Richtungsstreit on a regular basis when it's confronted with a new challenge to which it has no ready-made response: If its base is broad enough, it will be almost impossible to "bring everybody under one hat" right away, to use a German idiom.

A very good example are the Greens (die Grünen), a party that grew out of the student movement of the 60s. To its ever-lasting credit, it succeeded in making environmental protection and climate change mainstream issues supported across the political spectrum in Germany. But the party is also engaged in what seems to be a permanent Richtungsstreit between 'Fundis' (short for 'fundamentalists') and 'Realos'.

The Fundis value ideological purity over everything else and would rather not join a coalition government if that would involve compromising some cherished principle. The Realos, on the other hand, want to participate in government in order to be able to influence the direction of the country and are willing to compromise, to a degree (they may also have doubts about the validity of some of the more extreme positions the Fundis have been taking, like their refusal to sanction any involvement of German troops abroad, no matter what the objectives are).
*Note that the s between the components Richtung and Streit is a Fugen-s (joining s), which we have encountered already in other Words of the Month: Its function is to make the pronunciation easier.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Scherbenhaufen

Word of the Month: Index

Scherben are potsherds or shards, and a Haufen is a heap. A Scherbenhaufen, then, is a heap of shards—think of what happens when a china cabinet topples over and spills its contents on the floor.

Image source: Langerwehe Pottery website

Why is this an interesting word? Because it's used most often metaphorically in German to indicate the complete failure by a person or persons in charge of some goal-oriented outfit like a team, a corporation, or a government. The term commonly appears in phrases such as "she is standing before a Scherbenhaufen" or "he left behind a Scherbenhaufen" when someone's attempt to reach some goal turned into its opposite and resulted in a debacle.

Depending on the context, the term may carry a mix of connotations, from the dashed hopes and heartbreak on the part of the person who failed to glee and Schadenfreude* on the part of observers who thought the effort was hopeless, or too grandiose, to begin with or who wanted it to fail for other reasons.

The very concrete image of a Scherbenhaufen thus can carry multi-faceted connotations, and that's why I like this word: When you use it, you say much more than a simple statement of failure could express.
*I never made Schadenfreude a WoM because it seems to me that it has entered English as a foreign word no longer in need of an explanation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Nervenkitzel

Word of the Month: Index

Nerven are German nerves, and Kitzel is a noun derived from the verb kitzeln (to tickle). A Nervenkitzler, then, is a "nerve tickler", something that significantly raises your adrenalin level.

The Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru are a spectacular example. They consist of three 4-bed cabins suspended from a sheer, 1200ft-high cliff overlooking the Cuzco valley and reachable only by ropes and iron handholds anchored into the rock. Getting and staying there is indeed a "pure Nervenkitzel" as stated in a recent article about the lodge.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Winkeladvokat

Homage to August Sander

Word of the Month: Index

Winkel is the German word for 'angle' or 'corner', and Advokat is an old-fashioned term for an attorney or counselor (replaced in modern German usage by Anwalt). In its original meaning, a Winkeladvokat was someone who gave legal advice 'out of a corner', that is, without proper training and certainly without a license. Nowadays, the term refers to an inept or unscrupulous attorney. It's similar to English 'shyster', but I have the sense that a Winkeladvokat is distinguished more by ineptitude than questionable morals, while a shyster can be extremely clever.

My original motivation for selecting the present WoM was to use it as an excuse for showing a portrait labelled 'Winkeladvokat' by August Sander (1876-1964), perhaps the greatest German photographer of the first half of the 20th century. He spent most of his career building a collection of portraits, which he called Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century). Each image in the collection represents a person identified by his or her profession or status (the farmer, the brick layer, the tramp); that is, in Sander's grand design, the subjects are seen less as individuals than representatives of the role they play in society. But Sanders treated his sitters with great respect—he let them pose however they wished, and as a result, they speak to us very much as individuals. It is this tension between role and individuality that intrigues Sander fans like me.

Sander's portrait of a Winkeladvokat stands out, first of all, because of its caption—it's the only one in his entire work, as far as I can see, that is not purely descriptive. It may be that at the time, being called a Winkeladvokat was less derogatory—I don't know. But the portrait is memorable not only because of its caption. The subject sits at a table surrounded by his tools—pencil, paper, and, prominently, rubber stamps, and he presides over his world with a suppressed smirk as if he wanted to say, "Yes, I'm a Winkeladvokat—so sue me!" And that's why I am so fond of the photo.

Alas, I am not allowed to show the portrait here for copyright reasons. I drew a caricature instead and hope readers feel motivated to google Sander and his Winkeladvokat.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The German Suffix -schaft

The suffix –schaft has a wide range of uses in German that overlaps to a large extent with the way in which the etymologically related suffix –ship is used in English. It may indicate, for instance, a state of affairs or a relationship between the type of persons indicated by the noun it is attached to. For example, Freund means "friend" and Freundschaft "friendship": It's the relationship that exists between friends.

It may also refer to a group whose members have something in common. For example, Leser mean "reader" and Leserschaft "readership": It's the community of people identified by the preceding noun. In German, this type of use may have negative connotations. For example, a Sippe is a clan or an extended family, while a Sippschaft is bad company.

The suffix can also refer to an event or action or their result. The word Erbe means "heir" and Erbschaft "inheritance": If you become an Erbe, you receive an Erbschaft. Analoguous examples for the use of -ship in English are "courtship" and "censorship".

The suffix can also be attached to an adjective. An English example is "hardship". But this use is rare in English. It's more common in German. A well-known and often commented-on example is Gemeinschaft, which is formed by adding -schaft to the adjective gemein in the now almost obsolete meaning of "relating to the larger community". It's often translated into English as "community", but this translation does not capture the connotations of the German term, the sense of belonging, on the one hand, and the rejection of outsiders, on the other hand, that are often implied when we speak of a Gemeinschaft.

There are also instances in German where -schaft is added to a verb. For example, wandern can mean "to hike" or "to roam", and Wanderschaft refers to an extended period of being on the move without having a fixed residence. I cannot think of an analoguous use of English -ship, unless one considers the "court-" and "censor-" parts in "courtship" and "censorship" verbs instead of nouns. In fact, I would consider this a more plausible explanation, but no online source I consulted supports this point of view.

Seilschaft vs. Deep State

Seilschaft is my current Word of the Month. It's a hidden network of people with a shared outlook and common background who work together and support each other inside an institution. Readers may wonder if a Seilschaft is the same as a "deep state", a term used by the Trump administration in its claim that there exists a clandestine network across the intelligence community that aims at undermining the president through leaks.

The notion of a deep state
"comes from the Turkish derin devlet, a clandestine network, including military and intelligence officers, along with civilian allies, whose mission was to protect the secular order established, in 1923, by the father figure of post-Ottoman Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was behind at least four coups, and it surveilled and murdered reporters, dissidents, Communists, Kurds, and Islamists." (David Remnick, "There is no Deep State", The New Yorker, March 20, 2017)
Clearly, a Seilschaft and a deep state have things in common: They are secret networks and established deliberately. But there are also significant differences. A Seilschaft tends to be smaller and restricted to a group within a single institution. Its purpose is, first of all, to provide fellow comrades with cushy jobs—someone gets in and then tries to help others to fill positions that open up. There may be a political side effect because the members of a Seilschaft have a shared world view, which may influence their decisions. There may even be Seilschaften (that's the plural) whose explicit goal is to advance a political agenda. But that is not a necessary condition for something to be called a Seilschaft. A deep state, on the other hand, tends to be large and spread over various institutions, and its members do pursue a common political goal. They spring into action when they see an opportunity to advance it or see it threatened by political enemies.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Seilschaft

Word of the Month: Index

Seil means "rope". If we add the suffix -schaft, we get Seilschaft, a group of people connected by a rope. The term originated in mountaineering, where it refers to a group of climbers connected to each other along a single rope as a safety measure against falling off the mountain or into a crevasse. There is a strong connotation of mutual dependence and shared fate among the members of the group: The rope provides a measure of safety for each climber, but can also lead to disaster when one of them falls and pulls the others down with him or her.

I think this sense of shared fate led to the figurative use of the term, a clandestine network of people with a common background and shared outlook inside an institution—they have the same Stallgeruch. The members of the group work together and support each other while trying to keep their connection a secret. When used in this sense, the term always has negative connotations. For example, it's employed regularly to describe the situation after the downfall of a (dictatorial) regime when members of the old ruling clique heave each other into positions within the new administration.

Further Readings: Seilschaft vs. Deep StateThe German Suffix -schaft