From Language arts


My last essay was on German compound words.  I forgot one of the better ones until my own Doppelgänger showed up to haunt me.  You may ask what a Doppelgänger is. It literally means “double goer,” in essence, one’s twin or double. It goes back to ancient Egypt.  Ka is a spirit double of you.  There are a series of apparitions in other cultures that are similar.  Euripides conjured up a look-alike Helen of Troy in his play Helen.  The look-alike manages to mislead Paris, Helen’s abductor, to end the Trojan war.  Göthe, the German poet and author, describes meeting himself on horseback on a dark and stormy night, riding in the opposite direction, in his work Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth). Izaak Walton writes what he swears is the truth that his contemporary author and friend, John Donne, met his wife’s double on the streets of Paris the night that she delivered their stillborn daughter.

The concept that we all have a Doppelgänger has been used often in literature.  George Gordon, Lord Byron used the idea to show the good and evil duality of our own personality.  The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote a whole novel, The Double, about a man whose Doppelgänger exploits the man’s character flaws to take over his life.  Steven King in The Outsider has his protagonist copy individuals’ DNA to become near perfect copies of them.  Even Disney films use the motif.  Donald Duck is imitated in “Donald’s Double Trouble” by a duck that has no “duck accent,” speaking perfect English and acting the perfect gentleman.  And even Madonna used the Doppelgänger theme in her music video “Die Another Day” where she battles her evil self in a duel.

I am not much of a believer in the occult phenomenon, but recently I experienced something that makes me wonder if I need to re-assess.

To comprehend the situation, you should know how I came by my first name, Gösta.  For reasons that are totally unknown to me, my mother gave me a Swedish first name.  I am not Swedish; no one in my family is or was Swedish.  The name originates with a Swedish author who wrote a novel, The Saga of Gösta Berling. It was made into a Hollywood blockbuster silent movie in 1924, starring Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson. My mother saw the film at the height of World War II right before I was born, in Hinterstoder, the town my father was assigned by the Nazi High Command to replace the doctor who was drafted into the Wehrmacht (but that is another story).  In the movie, Gösta was a defrocked vicar because of his alcoholism and womanizing, but eventually was redeemed by a woman’s love, played by Greta Garbo.  Why on earth, my dear mother would name me after an alcoholic skirt-chasing priest is above my paygrade to comprehend much less explain.

Back to my Doppelgänger. Two decades ago, I opened a brokerage account with Vanguard.  I signed up for the account with my full name, Gösta Iwasiuk, but Vanguard, for some reason, decided I should be G. Iwasiuk.  Perhaps the clerk that created the document thought the name was complicated enough, so he just put down the first initial and last name, thinking that would be adequate. They have faithfully sent me monthly statements for twenty years with that name.  (I might add that S&P 500 stocks have done quite well for me.)  I recently changed banks and needed to delete my old bank account and link my new bank account to Vanguard.  My new bank account was under my full name, Gösta Iwasiuk.  This is where my Doppelgänger, G. Iwasiuk, comes in.  Vanguard assumed that “Gösta” Iwasiuk, despite being the good twin, was attempting to usurp my evil twin, “George” Iwasiuk’s account and steal all his assets.   Another factor that made Vanguard doubt my identity was that I failed the secret identification question Vanguard had set up to positively identify me twenty years ago.  The secret question was, “What is your favorite hobby?”  I recounted my top five favorites, but none of them were the correct ones. In twenty years favorite hobbies do change.  But George would have known.  It became quite clear to me that George was a real person in their records, who happened to live at the same address as I, with the last four numbers of our social security card being the same.  They wanted a notarized statement that G. Iwasiuk and Gösta Iwasiuk were the same person.  I needed to find a document that showed G. Iwasiuk’s social security number was the same as Gösta Iwasiuk.  Of course, George had cleverly destroyed that document, and I was unable to prove my identity.  No notary would vouch for me.  My own bank also balked because I could not produce the proof that George was not a real person.  After a week of debate and exchange of various documents, I finally convinced them that George did not exist.

I almost blew it, though.  The Vanguard agent that had seen me through all this, as a parting gesture, asked me the obligatory question,  “Is there anything else I can do for you?”   I could not resist,  I said yes.  He said, “What?” I said, “I will need help in burying George’s body, because I had to murder him, to get rid of him!”  Silence at the other end of the line.  I broke the silence by saying, “ I am kidding!!
After a perfunctory faked laugh, he hung up.

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.