Political Analyst Really Likes German Words

February 12, 2001. Washington DC.Carlton Fitzgerald has been a political analyst for twenty years, having worked for both Newsweek magazine as well as CBS news, and he currently writes a column for the Boston Globe. In his expert opinion, “there are some German words that just explain things so much better than any English word or phrase”.

Take the recent headline-grabbing story of Jesse Jackson’s extra-marital affair. “The English language doesn’t have a word to describe the glee that conservatives and Republicans felt upon hearing that story,” Fitzgerald said in a telephone interview. “In German it’s called schadenfreude. Trying to come up with a one-word translation would be something like, ‘badness-joy’,” he explained. “But a complete translation consumes a whole phrase of English words. Schadenfreude is the joy or satisfaction one person feels over the misfortune or dismay of someone else. See, that’s so much more cumbersome,” Fitzgerald said. “Schadenfreude just rolls right off the tongue.”

Some German words have been adopted into the English language, but their meanings have changed. Such borrowed words include “schmalz”, “spiel”, and “erzatz”. In German schmalz is grease, spiel is either a game or the verb “to play”, and erzatz is a replacement or substitute. In English, the same words mean different things, though: “schmalz” is used to describe something that’s maudlin or cheesy; a “spiel” is a pitch, speech, or routine; and “erzatz” refers to a cheap, shoddy replacement.

Then there are borrowed words that retain their original meaning. These are the ones that Fitzgerald enjoys. “But they aren’t incorporated into American vernaculars enough,” he complained. “For example, everyone knows kitsch when they see it, be it a velvet Elvis painting, a lawn full of pink flamingos, or a gaudy window display of pop-culture icons. But few Americans use the word kitsch or know what it means.”

The word kitsch doesn’t come in handy in political discussions very often, Fitzgerald acknowledged, but many other borrowed German words do. “I use the terms weltanschaung and zeitgeist all the time,” he explained. “They can be very useful. It’s far easier to speak of ‘the Reagan Weltanschaung’ than it is to say ‘the comprehensive conceptualization of the world and humans’ relation to it as defined by the Reagan administration’s policies’,” Fitzgerald added.

Fitzgerald sees several obstacles to greater acceptance of these useful terms, admitting that some Americans feel apprehensive about using German words. “I think that comes from leftover fear and hatred of the Nazis,” he speculated. “People hear these words, and they remember when Anschluss and Sieg, Heil were thrown about in the thirties and fourties, and it just unsettles them. It’s unfortunate.” He also added that, “some people also confuse Yittish words, such as hutspah and verklemt, with German ones, and there’s a feeling that, if you’re not Jewish, you can’t use these words.”

He concluded the interview by urging Americans to increase their personal literacy and “just open up a dictionary some time. Also, you English teachers out there, familiarize yourself with borrowed words and teach them to our kids. Anyone and everyone can enjoy these words, and you can often get your point across using far fewer words.” Before hanging up from the interview, he added, “plus, a lot of them are damn fun to say!”

(c) Hylo Bates, 2001
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