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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. 


An old saying goes like this:  “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is something to fight over.”  In 1913 the Los Angeles Aqueduct started to divert the Owens River water to Los Angeles, and the Owens Valley that used to be called “The Switzerland of California” began to be transformed into a desert.  The man most responsible for this transition was William Mulholland.

In 1877 when Mulholland arrived, Los Angeles was all of 9000 inhabitants.  He was born in Belfast, Ireland, and ran away from home to join the British Merchant Navy at age 15.  He became a civil engineer, by mostly self-education, and worked for the LACWC (Los Angeles City Water Company, eventually to become the LADWP) of which he became superintendent.  Mulholland’s vision was to see a “megalopolis” in the desert climate of the Los Angeles basin.  What prevented LA’s growth was lack of water!

His famous line was, “If you don’t get the water, you will not need it!” He tried to get water from the Colorado River but was denied.  He then looked to the Sierra Nevada, and realized that he could get all the water he needed, by gravity feed, from the Owens Valley.  He promised the farmers that he would only take the excess water they would not use anyway, and then built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile system to move water from the Owns Valley to San Fernando just north of Los Angeles.  He deceived the farmers and actually took all of the runoff from the Sierra Nevada!  The Owens Valley dried up. 

The farmers took up arms and explosives and fought back violently, which became known as the “California Water Wars.”  The aqueduct was blown up with dynamite in several locations, and people went to prison.  But Mulholland prevailed, and commented it was too bad that all the trees in the Owen’s Valley died because there were not enough trees left to hang all the malcontents that opposed his grand design!

With more water, Los Angeles grew.  By 1920 the population was 576,673.  Another large reservoir was needed to store the water.  Mulholland picked a narrow canyon north of Los Angeles. The San Francisquito Canyon was ideal as it narrowed at a spot that would not require a very large dam.  What was not known then was that there was an ancient landslide that was the likely cause of the narrowing and contained rock, called Pelona Schist, that was soft, at the eastern abutment of the dam. This did not serve as a strong enough foothold and later would have devastating consequences. 

It took two years to build, and the  St. Francis Dam started taking water on March 12, 1926.  It took nearly two years to fill.  Almost immediately, cracks and leaks were noted.  On the morning of March 12, 1928, Tony Harnischfeger, the dam keeper, telephoned Mulholland that he noted a larger leak on the west abutment of the dam that was discharging dirty water.  This would indicate that the leak was eroding foundation cement.  Mulholland came out himself to inspect the dam by 10:30 AM.  For two hours he walked around and by 12:30 PM declared the dam was safe. Two minutes before midnight a brief flickering of the lights in Los Angeles marked the dam’s failure in a dramatic collapse of the right and left parts of the dam, leaving the center stand, later called the “tombstone” by the steady stream of spectators that came to see what was left of the dam.  A 10,000-ton piece of the dam was found a mile downstream,   and 12.4 billion gallons of water surged down the San Francisquito Canyon and then through the Santa Clara Valley on its 54-mile path to the Pacific Ocean that started as a 135-foot high water wall. The communities of Castaic, Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula were devastated. It barely took 70 minutes to empty the reservoir.  

Harnischfeger, who had misgivings for some time, had built a set of stairs to higher ground to give him and his six-year-old son an escape route should the dam break, which he never got to use.  He, along with his son, were the first victims.  Their bodies were never found.  Fourteen months after the tragedy, the dam claimed its last life.  An eighteen-year-old man climbed the remaining central monolith, by now, called the “tombstone” and fell to his death.  After that, the City of Los Angeles decided to demolish the remaining pieces to prevent any more accidents. Only the 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused more destruction and deaths in California.  The dam disaster cost at least 431 lives, bodies having been found as late as 1994! 1200 houses and 10 bridges were washed away.  An unknown toll of animals drowned.

We are always fascinated by the worst, the best, the first, etc. This was “the worst disaster” ever that was due to the failure of a human-built structure.  There is a sculpture near the Santa Paula train station memorializing the heroism of two motorcycle police officers, Stanley Baker and Thornton Edward, that at the risk of their own lives, rode ahead of the wall of water to wake people up and warn them to get to higher ground, saving hundreds of lives.

Mulholland took full responsibility for the dam’s failure.  His statement to the board of inquiry was telling, “The only ones that I envy about this whole thing are the ones that are dead!” He resigned as Supervisor of the LACWC in November 1928, and lived in relative seclusion, devastated by the disaster. He died in 1935. 

 The financial cost of the St. Francis Dam collapse was estimated at 13.5 million dollars ($196,281,000 in today’s money).  The coroner’s inquest declined to prosecute Mulholland criminally, but blamed him for poor construction.  His home was in Acton about 35 miles from the dam.  It was entirely constructed with massive amounts of concrete that, some say, was diverted from the dam. 

To demonstrate the difference between then and now, all the claims were settled out of court and not one lawsuit was filed.  Los Angeles became the second-largest city in the US by population (4,000,000), but the largest by square area (502.7 square miles). 

I owe a debt of thanks to John Nichols’ book,  St. Francis Dam Disaster, that served as a source for this essay.