john skinner

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A few useful words

One can intuit a lot about a culture, from the words they find it necessary to invent. For example, the German language does not distinguish between a pain and an ache, it's all just Schmerzen to them. This is what makes translating such a challenge: there may be no equivalent concept available.

Longwindedness. The Germans like to talk, but — unlike certain other national groups — are also willing to listen. They love attending lectures, prize-givings, public speeches by politicians and the like. The speechmaking at exhibition openings at the Staatsgalerie commonly runs more than two hours. Nobody ever walks out; in fact many people clearly have come only for the speeches, because they leave as soon as these are over.
This is incidentally one of the very few cases where the literal translation of a word is also its equivalent in the other language — in both directions! Now what does that say about both German and English?
One might translate this as "the sitting-down muscles". It is in a sense the companion attribute to Langatmigkeit: the ability to sit still for a very long time, e.g. while working or listening to speeches. The implication is that you don't give in to boredom or discouragement, but continue until the job is done. This leads us neatly to:
Throughness, in the sense of not leaving your work unfinished, or of always getting to the heart of the matter. Hodja Nasrudin was sitting one day in the market square, judging civil cases. A man ran up, bleeding and wearing nothing but his undershirt, and cried out: "I've just been attacked on the road, the robbers must have come from this village!" The Hodja replied calmly, "I see they left you an undershirt. Clearly the robbers did not come from our village, we always finish what we start [hier wird nur gründliche Arbeit geleistet]. Next case!"
The secret of the cleanliness of Stuttgart. Few apartment buildings have caretakers or doormen, instead the weekly cleaning chores are taken in turn by the residents. You must sweep the staircase and hallways, and the street in front of the apartment; be sure to do a thorough job [gründliche Arbeit leisten] because your neighbours will check up on you. In order to keep track of whose turn it is, there are hooks set into the wall by each apartment door and little painted wooden signs that hang on them; when you finish your turn at cleaning, you move the sign which was by your door onto your neighbour's hook.
Its companion word is Kehricht, meaning rubbish [litter, garbage, fallen leaves …] which has been swept into a heap. The perceived need to invent this word, speaks volumes about the German attitude towards cleanliness.
Non-Germans believe that the Germans are fanatically punctual. This is a slanderous untruth, it's the Swiss who are the time fetishists. German trains do run on time (even when they are late, they are punctual: if the disembodied voice announces an eight minute delay, then it will be exactly eight minutes) but social life is a different matter. Fifteen minutes late counts as "early", half an hour late is "on time", an hour late is not worth mentioning. I know people who regularly arrive at midnight for parties that began at 9 pm, and they're not even film stars.
The German attitude to invitations is itself worthy of note. It is common to bring people unannounced and uninvited with you to parties, even to dinner parties. I once invited four people to dinner, and fed nine.
The act of being appointed a civil servant. It derives from the bad old days, when the civil service was a polite name for the king's front parlour, and still carries some of the earnest ceremonial flavour of "investiture".
This little cutie appears on school report cards, and means "Body exercises" i.e. gym class. The first time I saw the word was on a prospective secretary's CV (it is common for Germans to include their grade-school report cards in their CVs). I misread it as Liebesübungen i.e. "Love exercises". My first reaction: "They teach that in school?" And half a second later: "So, how were her grades?"
Copyright © John Skinner, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2002.10.03