Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Seilschaft

Word of the Month: Index

Let's start, for a change, with the second component of our current WoM, the suffix –schaft, which is used in German sometimes the same way as the etymologically related suffix –ship is used in English. For example, Freund means "friend" and Freundschaft "friendship". That is, the suffix indicates a state of affairs. It may also indicate a group whose members have something in common. For example, Leser mean "reader" and Leserschaft "readership".

It is in this second function that –shaft is used in our current WoM. Seil means "rope", and a Seilschaft is a group of people connected by a rope. The term originated in mountaineering, where it refers to a group of climbers attached to the same rope as a safety measure against falling. There is a strong connotation of mutual dependence and shared fate among the members of the group: The rope provides a measure of safety for each climber, but can also lead to disaster when one of them falls and pulls the others down with him or her.

I think this sense of shared fate led to the figurative use of the term, where it indicates a group of people who work together and support each other within an institution while trying, at the same time, to keep their connection a secret. When used in this sense, the term always has negative connotations. For example, it's employed regularly to describe the situation after the downfall of a (dictatorial) regime when members of the old ruling clique help each other to positions within the new administration.

It's interesting to compare the notion of a Seilschaft to that of a "deep state", a term that
"comes from the Turkish derin devlet, a clandestine network, including military and intelligence officers, along with civilian allies, whose mission was to protect the secular order established, in 1923, by the father figure of post-Ottoman Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was behind at least four coups, and it surveilled and murdered reporters, dissidents, Communists, Kurds, and Islamists." (David Remnick, "There is no Deep State", The New Yorker, March 20, 2017)
The current administration uses the term to claim that there exists a clandestine network across the intelligence community that aims at undermining the president through leaks.

Clearly, a Seilschaft and a deep state have things in common: They are secret and established deliberately. But there are also significant differences. A Seilschaft tends to be smaller and restricted to a group within a single institution. Its purpose is, first of all, to provide fellow comrades with cushy jobs—someone gets in and then tries to help others to fill positions that open up. There may be a political side effect because the members of a Seilschaft have a common background and shared outlook after all, which may influence their decisions. There may even be Seilschaften (that's the plural) whose explicit goal is to advance a political agenda. But that is not a necessary condition for something to be called a Seilschaft. A deep state, on the other hand, tends to be large and spread over various institutions, and its members do pursue a common political goal. They spring into action when they see an opportunity to advance it or see it threatened by the actions of political enemies.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Stallgeruch

Word of the Month: Index

A Stall is a stable or a coop, a building for sheltering and feeding domestic animals, be they tall (like horses, as in Pferdestall) or small (like chickens, as in Hühnerstall). Geruch means "odor" or "smell". Stallgeruch, then, refers to the odor emanating from a Stall. But it's used today mainly in a figurative sense: When we say that someone has a certain Stallgeruch, we indicate that this person shares the background, values, or attitudes of a specific group or belongs to a certain milieu.

The term is used frequently to explain why someone was or was not hired to fill a certain position—he or she had or did not have "the proper Stallgeruch". I like the term very much because it is so evocative: I always picture a bunch of dogs subjecting a newcomer to the smell test.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Extrawurst

Word of the Month: Index

Extra is a prefix that has in German the same meaning it has in English: It indicates a quality exceeding or a position outside some established range or norm. Wurst probably needs no explanation—boiled or grilled, it's the ur-German comfort food. For readers who have yet to hear of it: It means "sausage".

An Extrawurst, in the narrow sense, is an additional sausage, like the one a mother may put on her son's plate because "the boy is still growing". In the figurative sense, and that's how the term is mainly used, it stands for the special treatment someone is demanding or given, and when it's used in this way, there is at least a whiff of disapproval in the air.

The term pops up regularly in German media in discussions of the role Britain has played in the European Union, and it's typically said with some exasperation. The claim is that the Brits always demanded an Extrawurst in the resolution of an issue, and this may be the explanation why expressions of regret about the Brexit vote are remarkably muted in Berlin—or Brussels, where some officials seem only too eager to get the exit negotiations started.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Gleichschaltung

Word of the Month: Index

Gleich is an adjective/adverb/prefix indicating that something is the same as or indistinguishable from something else. For example, if two people have "die gleiche Meinung", they have the same opinion. Schaltung refers to the sum of the connections between the components of an electrical, electronic, or mechanical device as depicted, for example, by the wiring diagram of an appliance. In a car, Schaltung refers to its gear mechanism.

Combining the two words we get Gleichschaltung. The term refers to the enforced uniformity of opinion and purpose in the administrative and cultural institutions of a country—the goal is to have them all "wired the same" in the end. The emphasis is on "enforced": Gleichschaltung doesn't happen by itself, but is always ordered and orchestrated from above, like when independent reporters at state-owned media are fired and replaced by conformists.

Gleichschaltung typically accompanies the beginnings of an autocratic regime or a dictatorship, starting with the media and moving on to the civil service, especially the judiciary; the police; the military; the arts; and eventually the universities, when professors critical of the regime are fired, if not put in jail, and research challenging the official propaganda is suppressed.

Getting the media under control is always an important first step because it takes away peoples' ability to receive uncensored news and to learn what's really happening in their country. We saw this taking place when Putin came to power in Russia and now in Turkey, where Gleichschaltung has already reached the universities.

Acknowledgment. I would like to thank Al Rodbell for pointing me to this term, which has lost none of its relevance [more about this in my comment].

Monday, January 23, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Dauerbrenner

War on Christmas
Word of the Month: Index

A Brenner is a burner (derived from brennen—to burn). Dauer means "duration" and refers to the time something lasts. Used as a prefix, it indicates that something lasts seemingly forever. Thus, a Dauerbrenner refers to an oven that continues to burn while consuming hardly any fuel and without human intervention. Used figuratively, the term refers to something that seems to be going on forever or to someone who has been performing for a long period of time.

Here are some examples demonstrating how broadly the term can be applied: The Lion King has been a Dauerbrenner on Broadway. Willy Nelson has been a Dauerbrenner in country music. And if you're looking for an issue that can be considered a seasonal Dauerbrenner, the so-called "War on Christmas" comes to mind (more on this in my first comment).

And here's an example from a recent issue of a popular German soccer magazine: Under the heading "Die Dauerbrenner" (note that the plural is the same as the singular), it identified the handfull of players who haven't missed a single minute of play so far in the premier German soccer league (the Bundesliga).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Wiedergänger

Don Giovanni Wiederganger
Word of the Month: Index

A dark winter night, a fire in the fireplace illuminating with its flickering light an otherwise dark room—the perfect time to tell a ghost story, perhaps one that involves a Wiedergänger.

Wieder is an adverb meaning "again", and a Gänger is a person who walks. In combination, the two words refer to someone who "walks again", i.e., rises from the dead to take care of some unfinished business. Perhaps the most famous Wiedergänger in literature is the ghost of Hamlet's father.

One could also view the Guest of Stone from the Don Juan legend as a kind of Wiedergänger: He is a statue on the grave of a man slain by the libidinous Don. The statue comes to life and appears as a dinner guest at the Don's castle to send him to hell as punishment for his sins. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni tells the story in unforgettable music (my drawing on the left depicts the climactic scene).

Note that a Wiedergänger is not the same as a zombie: He has a mission and will disappear once this mission has been accomplished, whereas zombies, or the undead, represent a more general menace.
Remark 1: The adverb wieder (again) its not to be confused with the preposition wider (against). Even many Germans are not aware of the distinction and misspell wider as wieder, an understandable mistake as the two words are pronounced exactly the same. Note also that both can be used as a noun or verb prefix. For example, wiederholen (literally "to bring again") means "to repeat", whereas widersprechen (literally "to speak against") means "to contradict".

Remark 2: Gänger appears only as part of a compound noun, never by itself. An example is Doppelgänger, which has made it into English as a psychological term. Other examples: Fuß means "foot", and Fußgänger is the German word for "pedestrian", while Kost means "food", and a Kostgänger is a person who shows up regularly at some place to be fed.

When my wife and I lived in what was then West Berlin in the 1970's, the bell rang one evening, and when we opened the door, there were two boys out there, not older than 10, who asked for dinner. We gave them what was left of ours and let them stay over night. When we told the story to a friend, he called them Trebegänger, a term we had never heard before. It refers to children who ran away from home, or from a home, and are living on the streets. The origin of the word Trebe, which indicates a state of homelessness for children, is not known.

I dedicate this post and my drawing to my late friend Bernd Kraneis, who introduced me to the world of opera. Don Giovanni was one of the first operas we went to see together at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin.

Friday, December 2, 2016