A few days ago I was re-reading Angela Thirkell’s The Brandons. For pure escapism into a lovely cloud cuckoo-land, Angela Thirkell can’t be beat. Her novels take place in the fictional English county of Barsetshire, which is where Anthony Trollope set most of his books. Thirkell took Trollope’s Victorian characters and wrote about their descendants in the 1930s through the 1960s.
I read the following and I laughed out loud. Delia Brandon, about 20 years old, is speaking at a tea party that includes her mother, her [male] cousin Hillary (about 24 years old) and the vicar, Mr. Miller.
“When I was young and did that thing of Villon’s about the Neiges d’Antan I always thought châtré meant punished. I suppose I was mixing it up with châtié, and no one ever told me. What a lot of words there are in French.”
This last remark gave the opportunity to her paralysed audience, all of whom remembered having made the same mistake and no one ever telling them, to change the subject. Hilary hastily said that Italian had an enormous number of words, and Mr. Miller extolled the vocabulary of the ancient Romans.
“I think German is the worst,” said Mrs. Brandon, “not that I know any Latin. It is really nothing but words. If you try to read a German book you spend all your time looking up words, and there doesn’t seem to be any special reason for them to mean anything and the minute you have looked them up you forget what they mean. And they all begin with a prefix or suffix.”
I really wanted to share this clip, because I wanted someone else to laugh with me. My problem was that there was only a small circle of people I thought would appreciate it. Which wiped my smile and made me rather depressed.
A still more depressing thought is that before too much longer even the small circle of people who can see jokes like this is going to shrink to almost no one. Because even though we are all supposed to be supportive and empathetic, not too many appear to take the time to actually study a culture or language. They leave it to their “feelings” (formed by social media, of course) to guide them in any interaction. And besides, Google Translate can take care of it all without having the bother of memorizing a single verb.
An even more depressing-er thought is that even if someone were capable of making a joke about another language, no will dare because it will be perceived as offensive to someone somewhere. Although perhaps, a joke like the one above would be acceptable because the butt is a western, white culture. And those jokes are always acceptable because after all, the great and important thing is to trample western white culture into the dirt.
In this age of politically correct ignorance, Angela Thirkell is another of those authors, like P.G. Wodehouse, who is in danger of completely losing their audience. In her novels, she alludes to the Bible, the Latin and Greek classics, Shakespeare, world history and poetry. And who understands those references these days? Perhaps the current crop of youngsters who finds nothing of importance in western culture won’t mind the loss. After all, who can expect them to know what they don’t know? To miss what they never had? They haven’t a clue about the riches they are so willing to consign to the dump. And that is so sad.
However, rather than end on a sad note, I thought a list of some of the more fun German words would be in order – although not the extra long ones, all prefixes and suffixes, so lamented by Mrs. Brandon.
Kummerspeck (literally ‘grief bacon’) is the word for the extra pounds that appear when you have been emotionally overeating, as opposed to Winterspeck (winter bacon), which is simply the extra pounds that seem to appear from nowhere during the long, cold months. All this ‘bacon’ invariably leads to Hüftgold (hip gold), aka ‘love handles.’ I suppose if you wanted to be really precise, you could specify whether you were suffering from Kummerspeckhüftgold or Winterspeckhüftgold.
Torschulsspanik (literally gate closing panic.) This is much akin to the idea of a biological clock running out for having a baby, but the Germans don’t limit it to just a biological clock, and use it for any goal or project or milestone when time is slipping away.
Weichei (literally a soft egg.) This is not something you order for breakfast, but a wuss. Other synonyms are Würstschen or little sausage, or my favorite, Sitzpinkler – a man who sits down to pee.
Dreikäsehoch literally means three cheeses high. The English equivalent: knee-high to a grasshopper – so perhaps English is just as inscrutable at times. Although English doesn’t try to jam it all into one word.
Drachenfutter (literally dragon feed), which is a gift you give your spouse when you want to apologize. Generally men give this to their wives.
Kopfkino (literally head cinema.) Your Kopfkino runs your detailed daydreams as it plays out scenarios in your head. It can be used in connection with soft romantic daydreams, but is more often used with angst producing ‘what-if’ situations like when you are sure you are going to forget your notes and blank out when making an important speech. As you obsess about it out loud, your co-worker is apt to say something like: “Can’t you just turn your Kopfkino off?”
Dudelsack (literally tootle bag) which seems a kind way to describe bagpipes.
Verschlimmbesserung (literally make something worse improvement), used so often these days when a tech update takes something perfectly good and breaks it by “improving” it.
Kuddelmuddel I’m not sure this has a literal translation. I just think it sounds like what it means: a huge mess, a hodgepodge, chaos. And I also think we could use it in English to describe so much, whether we want to talk about politics, education, or even the weather. It’s all just a Kuddelmuddel.
*A line from the poem Ballade of the Ladies of Times Past by François Villon celebrating famous women of history and mythology. And while Villon might wonder ‘where are the snows of yesteryear’ (and with it all these clever, wonderful women), I am more apt to wonder where are the times past when we actually educated men and women to know all about the clever women of the past, and in another language, too! But then I am a curmudgeon, not a poet.