Sunday, January 20, 2013

Response to German words

When you wake up and discover that a blog post you wrote the evening before has already been viewed over 300 times when you normally struggle to get 50, you know that Something Has Happened. Sometimes, as in this case, it turns out that you’ve had a brief moment of fame on Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”.

That’s very gratifying, and thank you to “Aschebescher” for submitting my post, but it does mean that all the interesting discussion is over on Reddit instead of right here, and if you don’t have and don’t particularly want to have a Reddit account, you can’t join in. Seriously, I already fritter away enough time on various bits of the web here and there, I don’t need another distraction from my real life.

So let me just pick up on a few things that are being said over at Reddit:
I’m still confused as to why he listed “Fernweh” on there, if wanderlust is not comparable conveyance of it.
I may be wrong, but I think that Fernweh and Wanderlust are two subtly different things. Wanderlust is generally the desire to get out and travel, while Fernweh very specifically is the longing for faraway places in a much more wistful manner. In any case, Wanderlust is itself a German word and so we still don’t have an English word for it.
No worries, there’s an English word for [Treppenwitz]: staircase wit.
I had to look this up and check it, and in fact it seems you’re right. I’ve never heard this word actually used in English before — I’ve only ever seen it as part of an explanation for what the German word or its French equivalient esprit d’escalier means, as in this Wikipedia entry. It doesn’t seem to be a very common expression, so perhaps we should lobby for it to become more widely used. Or, even better, one of the alternatives I’ve seen listed, “afterwit”, a word I never knew existed before but which I have enjoyed immensely.
To rebook?
This was a suggested translation for umbuchen, but I don’t know how current it is. It’s hard to google for it, because Google automatically assumes you meant “Reebok”. The American Heritage Dictionary does give “to change a booking” as one of the meanings of this word, but also lists the meanings I’d have used it for: to book again, or to cancel the original booking and make a completely new booking. I’d love some more input on this: have you ever had to alter a booking, such as changing a table for six to a table for eight, and would you use “rebook” to describe this?
I don't think I’ve ever heard “umtüten” at all.
Well, the word was eintüten, although umtüten (which would mean “to remove something from one envelope and put it in a different envelope”) is a very nice example of how one language can very easily encapsulate a concept which another language cannot. For logophiles, the key is the German prefix um-, which denotes change, alteration, swapping or circular motion, as in beschreiben “to describe” versus umschreiben “to paraphrase”, that is, to describe something using different words, or “to circumscribe”.

For the record, I have encountered the word eintüten in normal conversation: “Sorry, I’m running late: I’ve just printed off a hundred invoices and I’m still eintüten them.”

Thank you, people of Reddit, for this fruitful discussion.

UPDATE: More comments trickle in over on Reddit.
I fail to see why not having a single word for taking something down is a problem. If you really must have a single word, you could just use “unhang”, though you'll likely get odd looks.
Apparently, “unhang” does exist, although I have never heard it or used it myself. But I don’t want to get odd looks. As a translator, if I deliver a text that makes people look oddly when the original was perfectly clear and natural, I have failed. Also, of course, not having a word for this isn’t a problem per se: the article was really just a bit of fun.
really? no Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung? Come on now...
Excellent suggestion. If I ever decide to write a Part Two, that word’s going in. Thank you.
Regrettably, there are many ways to translate this word: “busy”, “assiduous”, “hard-working” and “studious” are just a few.

UPDATE 2: A list of suggested translations has appeared.
  • Allgemeinbildung = common sense: It’s a great deal more than that. Common sense is things that anyone can work out for themselves: if you put your hand in a fire you will get burned, and if you put too many heavy books on a shelf the shelf may collapse. Allgemeinbildung also includes general knowledge: fresh fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamin C, and Paris is the capital of France.
  • eintüten = to stuff: This is incorrect, as the word “stuff” implies the use of force due to the bulkiness of the things you are trying to insert into the container; by extension it can also imply a certan slapdash approach. None of this is implicit in the German word.
  • Spießer = a square: A square is any person ignorant of current fashion. This is not necessarily true of a Spießer: such a person may be all too aware of current fashion, but disapprove of it. A square is merely a dull person, while a Spießer wishes everyone else to be as dull as he is. Additionally, “square” in this meaning is hopelessly outdated and people who use it reveal themselves to be out of touch with modern trends.
  • Treppenwitz is translated from the French, as is the English version: The English version has already been discussed here. As for it being a translation of a French expression, that makes no difference to whether or not there is an acceptable and concise English translation.


  1. Your take on the difference between "Wanderlust" and "Fernweh" is right on the money!
    You can fulfill your need for Wanderlust without having to travel very far. If you wanted, you could just leave your house and start running, Forrest-Gump-style.
    Fernweh, on the other hand, is expressed by the numerous boards on Pinterest displaying pictures of interesting and beautiful faraway places that you dream of seeing. Some people who feel Fernweh just want to be someplace else without actually having to do a lot of walking in the process. Planes and rental cars totally do the job.

  2. As for "staircase wit", I once had a similar discussion with an internet user who claimed there is a word for "Schadenfreude" in the English language called "morose delectation".
    For one thing, the definitions are not 100% synonymous (morose delectation describes a delight for bad or evil thoughts in general rather than merely thoughts of something bad happening to someone else). But, more importantly, Schadenfreude ist widely used and understood by all Germans, even children, while the use of morose delection will do nothing but raise eyebrows.

    Digging out obscure words that come close to equivalents for the German examples listed may mean you're persistant at googling. But it does not mean that you got the point.

  3. Hi rewboss, thanks for the shoutout :-) I'm a long term subscriber to your youtube channel and blog and because I am on reddit a lot I tried to support your work by submitting some of it to relevant subreddits. I hope you are fine with this, if not I will stop doing this of course.

    1. It's perfectly fine, Aschebescher. If I wasn't fine with this, I wouldn't be writing a blog. :)