Dog Eared

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Ben Schott Gives German the Sniglet Treatment

In 1835, Charles Follen wrote, "The German language is sufficiently copious and productive, to furnish native words for any idea that can be expressed at all." In Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition, Ben Schott proves Follen correct, while establishing himself as the Rich Hall of German with this wonderful collection of Sniglet-like terms.

In Schottenfreude, Schott uses the famously elastic German lexicon to coin words for those little feelings and experiences we've all had but never been able to name. For example, there's Traumneustartversuch: "The (usually futile) attempt to return to the plot of a dream after having been woken." Then there's Vernissageversuchung: "The urge to test whether paint marked ‘wet paint' really is still wet." Sometimes the word and concept are wonderfully juxtaposed. New car smell is a familiar concept that's concisely stated in English, but when rendered in German, it almost becomes a haiku: Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss. Easy for you to say.

This book covers diverse territory, and I imagine each reader will relate to different words. I recently felt a strong surge of Sozialpflichterfüllungsstolz ("The satisfaction you feel after performing minor acts of altruistic civic duty") when I was on a grand jury. Then I felt even more the day I bought cookies for my fellow jurors. Though I spent only five bucks, I felt like a hero: a selfless, inspiring, American hero, dang it. It's nice to have a word for such a ridiculous feeling.

The design of this book is elegant and pleasing. On the right, you'll find the words and their definitions, as well as a literal translation. For example, Frohsinnsfaschismus means "The god-awful mediocrity of organized fun," and the German roots literally mean "cheerfulness-fascism." On the left, there are notes which illustrate the terms further. Some of the illustrations of terms are literally illustrations, as in a series of lines that visually demonstrate Dreiecksumgleichung, which is "When two friends you've introduced form a new friendship that excludes you." Some words are explained via long lists. For example, "Intimate moments of personal grooming" (Popelplaisir) is defined by a gross list that includes "Peeling away a perfect arc of toenail" and "Mining a solidified nugget of snot." The notes include a wide range of references, from classic literature (Coleridge, Dickens, and Shakespeare) to more contemporary references (The Kinks and The West Wing).

Speaking of TV shows, it's hard not to think about Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm when reading this book, which Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would love. I reckon Schottenfreude is a manual for a German language version of Seinfeld. Just as Larry and Jerry coined new words for familiar stuff — like kiss hello, low talker, shrinkage, unshushables, sponge-worthy, regifting, and kavorka — Schott does the same. One term was actually the basis of a Seinfeld episode: Gaststättenneueröffnungsuntergangsgewissheit, which is "Total confidence that a newly opened restaurant is doomed to fail." This was the basis of the episode "The Cafe," in which Jerry watched helplessly as Babu Bhatt opened a restaurant in a location that had worse luck than Spinal Tap drummers. More generally, many episodes of Seinfeld and Curb involved clashsyndrom: "Moments of etiquette perplexity, when there is no polite way of behaving." In fact, you could say both shows are all about Clashsyndrom.

I did a little market research on this book by showing it to my friend John, who has a love for all things German (for example, he named his son Oskar). John greedily picked up the book, trying to decipher the words, then testing his translation against Schott's. If not for the siren smell of Oskar's diaper needing a change, John could've kept doing this all day. His glee supports my theory that German enthusiasts will go bananacakes for this book.

Schottenfreude is an amazing gift book and an immortal bathroom book. If you like learning about mega-specific words like defenestrate — to throw someone out a window — you'll love this book. If you like learning words for the Seinfeldian minutiae of life, you'll love this book. If you like words period, you'll love this book. If you care about German at all, you need this book. It's a lexical version of Brillenbrillanz: "The sudden, enervating clarity afforded by new glasses." Language and life will be freshened up, German-style.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 16th 2013, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Fantastic review of an inspiring book, Mark, which is now on my Christmas list. Oh how we will laugh, ha ha ha, when I read good bits to my kids in a fit of postprandial frohsinnsfaschismus!
Tuesday December 17th 2013, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Ooops! There is a typo...
It should read: "Sozialpflichterfüllungsstolz".
It is "Pflicht" (with an "h" between c and t): duty, obligation.
Also notice all nouns in German are to be written starting with a capital letter.
As to "defenestrate", the origin is from Latin; window = "fenestra".

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Tuesday December 17th 2013, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Sorry, on my previous comment, the "u" with Umlaut came out as a mysterious "Ä1/4".
I'm glad my name is shown properly with "o" and Umlaut.

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