Friday, April 24, 2015

Schottenfreude by Ben Schott

As an English major and later an English teacher, I observed a disturbing trend among some of my peers: a startlingly large number of them were positively gleeful about their inability to do math. I was always somewhat horrified by their protests of, "Oh, I'm an English major, I don't do math" -- I mean, it wasn't like I expected them to teach calculus or anything, but they were whipping out calculators to add pairs of two-digit numbers. By the time they stopped groaning about having to do math, found their calculators, and turned them on, I'd already done the arithmetic in my head. Still, they seemed quite content -- proud, even -- that simple math was beyond them. Their einmaleinswiedergabeschwächenstolz astonished and stuck with me.

What, you didn't know there was a word for that?

Well... okay. Maybe there isn't, strictly speaking, such a word as einmaleinswiedergabeschwächenstolz. But word nerd Ben Schott thought there ought to be, and I can't disagree. After all, there is surely no better venue for expressing the inexpressible than the German language, am I right? Any language that includes a word like kummerspeck ("grief-bacon", or the extra weight gained through emotional eating) is just set up for word assemblages like "multiplication-table-reproduction-impairment-pride". 

And so we have my nominee for the German lexicon of the year: Ben Schott's Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition

Within its 5" x 10" pages are 120 German words that ought to exist, along with OED-esque history and references of the concept. There's a word in here for everyone. The concept of gähnverseuchung ("yawn-contamination") is universally understood. Who here hasn't experienced the heart-stopping mini-terror of leertretung, or "void-stepping" -- stepping down heavily on a stair that isn't there? And surely most of us have been caught up in the awkward struggle of dielennystagmus ("hallway-nystagmus"), which Schott defines as "repeatedly catching and avoiding people's gazes when, say, approaching them down a long corridor."

Guys of all ages will get a smirk or even a giggle out of words like pissoirzüruckhaltung and verschneidlichung (respectively, "urinal retention"/the inability to urinate when other people are present, and "bewilliement"/bestowing nicknames on your sexual parts). This is, naturally, an example of the very popular middle-school activity schmutzwortsuche, or looking up rude words in the dictionary (literally, "dirty-word-search"). [Reviewer's note: overall, the book is quite PG and appropriate for any age; this example is pretty much the extent of the more mature content.]

Between bursts of amusements, readers will be struck by many deeper concepts, like unsterblichkeitstod -- the intimations of mortality when your last surviving parent dies -- and sommerferienewigkeitsgefühl -- the chidlhood sensation that the summer vacation will last forever. They will find themselves accidentally learning about the interesting turns of phrase through linguistic evolution as they read the word histories and footnotes. 

And then, if they pay attention to the notes regarding the construction of some of the words, they will find themselves snorting coffee out their nose at the German neologism irreaffentittenturbosuperdupertyp, intended as a replacement for "simpatico". Schott starts with E. M. Forster's lovely and classy definition and ends up compounding "mad-monkey-tits-turbo-super-duper-guy." 

Schottenfreude is a novelty book, but it's one that would make a well-appreciated gift for any Teutophile or logophile you might know. Fun to browse or study, it will not only make readers laugh but will lead them to wonder why such great words didn't already exist. Heck, if lolcat and duckface can be added to the OED, why not make official the delicious notion of kissenkühlelabsal: the ineffable pleasure, and instant relief, of a cool pillow? I think this may be my new favorite word.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Okay, technically I'm more of an English teacher than a Maths teacher (I tutor both, but go to a higher level with English). I still know how to add 2-digit numbers!

But the main point - I loved Schott's Miscellany and this book looks equally entertaining.