The Magic of German Compound Words
I was born in Linz Ober Donau, which was at that time of my birth annexed to Germany by the “Anschluss,” but now is Austria. For you to understand the landscape, I need to go back over 100 years to 1918, the end of World War I. Austro-Hungary was a kind of United States of Europe, sort of what the European Union is now, but much more organized and effectively one country. Both my parents were proud citizens of Austro-Hungary from birth. In 1918 that ceased to be. Woodrow Wilson would not accept the reconstitution of the empire as part of his 14-point plan, and Austria became a minuscule shadow of its former self. Austro-Hungary was a mega-nation of 239,977 square miles and a population of 52,800,000. The Versailles Treaty reduced it to 32,386 square miles, with a population of 6,478,000. To give you a comparison, New York City has a population of 8,622,698. Austria, a once-proud world power, became a miserable dwarf country. The Versailles Treaty did many other things that turned out to be colossal errors of historic proportions. One of these allowed the emergence of a German leader (Führer) who got many things wrong, but he knew that the Versailles Treaty was a boneheaded mistake for Europe that would have devastating consequences. His annexation (Anschluss) of Austria was one of those efforts to reverse Versailles. Woodrow Wilson, with the historic retrospect scope, was a dwarf thinker, not the brilliant peace-maker status he still is accorded by history today, despite his Johns Hopkins’ credentials and the Nobel Prize. Were it not for him and the Versailles Treaty, Germany, its culture and language would have been much more influential in the current Weltanschauung, and would have made a much different world than we have now.
Speaking of Weltanschauung brings me back to my discussion of the German language. German culture and language have many unusual aspects. German has great literary giants, Wolfgang Göthe, Friedrich Schiller, Reiner Maria Rilke (not only a great poet but also friend and secretary to Auguste Rodin), Heinrich Heine, and Bertolt Brecht among many others who could match Shakespeare’s gift of gab.
Because German is my first language, I am familiar with many exceptionally descriptive words, yet they cannot be adequately translated into English, which leaves a palpable void in my ability to express myself at times. Weltanschauung is one of those words. In one word, it conveys a comprehensive concept of the view an individual has of the world philosophy, culture, universe, and humanities relation to it. It takes at least one sentence to explain it in English, and it still is just an approximation of the full meaning.
Tor-Schluss-Panik is one of those words that, with one word, conveys a whole chapter of a gynecology textbook diagnosis. When a childless woman nears the age when she can no longer conceive, she often is overcome with a deep-seated fear that we would call “the biologic clock is ticking,” nothing as elegant as Tor-Schluss-Panic. If she does not conceive now, she will miss the chance to have a baby, the only opportunity to fulfill the universal human desire to multiply, and leave something of herself for the next generation. Translated word for word it means “gate closing fear.” You must admit “Tor-Schluss-Panik” even if you don’t speak German is so much more descriptive.
Fahrfergnügen is another one of those words that have no English equivalent. It was used very effectively in a VW commercial that sold a lot of VW’s. It means “the joy of driving.”
Schlimbeßerung is a word that needs a paragraph to explain. Schlim means worsening, and beßer means to make better. If you are in a situation where things are good enough, but you want to make it better, but in the process of attempting to improve a situation you actually make it worse, that is schlimbeßerung. Incidentally, the ß is an old German designated letter that stands for double s (ss).
Handschuh is a hand shoe, thus “a glove.” “Wanderlust” the enjoyment you get from wandering. If you want to describe a sad or pitiful person, you would call him “ein Häufchen-Unglück” a “little heap of disaster.”
The absolutely worst insulting name you can call someone is “Ein Schweinehund” “a pigdog” ( see above picture). Zeitgeist is literally “time spirit” but means the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era. “Weltschmerz” –“the pain of the world” has been used by many authors such as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Heinrich Heine, and the Marquis de Sade, which connotes deep sadness about the imperfection or inadequacy of the world. A Fledermaus is a fluttering mouse, a bat.
But one of the better compound words is “Schadenfreude,” “Schaden” is misfortune or damage, “Freude” is joy or glee. It is that feeling when you experience happiness at other’s misfortune, not exactly an uplifting or noble sentiment, except sometimes when you follow it with “I told you so!”
It was Richard Wagner who gave us the “Gesamt-Kunst-Werk.” The word and concept that a musical composition in order to be complete must satisfy all the human senses (“a total work of art”). The sound has to be heroic and melodic, but the orchestra being on stage, as it used to be, is distracting. It needs to be heard but not seen. The orchestra pit is his invention, which he incorporated at his Opera House in Bayreuth, and is now the standard. Also, the house lights need to be turned off during the performance to focus on the action on the stage, something quite simple, but no one else had thought of before. The drama has to be a literary work of emotional significance dealing with profound human challenges, and the stage scenery and costumes should be spectacular. It is Wagner who added the horns to the Viking helmets, something he just made up. The real Viking helmets never had horns. It is now the symbol of German Opera.