Tag Archives: word formation

Words and worth

The „Unwort“ of the year was just announced. What is an Unwort you ask? The prefix »un« can be used as eine Verneinung or a “negation” of the noun that follows it. This suggests that the meaning of the word Unwort, which comprises un + Wort (word), is “non-word.” However things are slightly more subtle than that.

For example, take the word das Unkraut which means “weed.” The word das Kraut means “herb,” “foliage” and “cabbage.”  Thus weeds are “herbs that are not herbs.” For me, with this combination comes the notion that they are of no use to us, unlike herbs or cabbage, or perhaps that they even disrupt the growth of plants that are.

Or consider the word der Unrat. The primary meaning of der Rat is “advice.” Nevertheless der Unrat means “filth” or “muck” and in polite or old-fashioned speech “refuse” (used as a noun meaning “garbage”). I’ve come across Unrat in the historical novels I’ve been reading; and on the red refuse bins here in Hamburg. In this later case, Unrat has been substituted as a play on the expression »Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat« – “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” (dict.cc) or “things have a way of sorting themselves out” (pons.eu). Finally, compare das Heil – “salvation” or “health of the soul” or “well-being” and das Unheil – “mischief.”

Let’s return then to das Unwort which 24 contributors to dict.cc translated as “misnomer” with an added remark categorizing it is an untrue or misleading term. “Ghastly neologism,” “taboo word,” “faux-pas word” and “non-word” also appear. In addition, there is an entry for the full phrase Unwort des Jahres for which the contributor offers “ugliest word of the year.” Consulting Duden online reinforces this impression, stating that an Unwort is an inappropriate word, a negative word and also one whose form is somehow erroneous or fallacious, perhaps leading the hearer or reader astray, just as un + Kraut, un + Rat and un + Heil all do.

Indeed das Unwort des Jahres 2015, „Gutmensch“ fits this pattern given it takes the positive word gut and the neutral word Mensch* and combines them into a word used to describe the people providing help and support for refugees. To say Gutmensch when referring to such people is to say that they are stupid, naive and deluded for helping, nay, even for tolerating, refugees.

Maybe this is a step to far, but I have wonder, are certain users of this word also intending to imply that the refugees (those being helped by the so-called Gutmenschen) don’t quality for the term Mensch? That is,  in direct contradiction to the German constitution, which is founded on the idea that the dignity of man is inviolable, is the intention to suggest that refugees are less than human? If so, there is something particularly invidious about using a word like „Gutmensch“ to defame or denigrate as the insult or threat it holds may be somewhat obscured  for the uncritical listener by the positive connotations of gut.


*Interestingly, the word mensch has come into English from Yiddish to mean “someone worthy of respect, who has integrity,” making the gut almost superfluous.

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Less and more certain?

wahrscheinlich – “probably”

wahr sein – “to be true”

scheinen – “to seem”

I’d known the word wahrscheinlich for awhile, but yesterday doing some exercises that included both wahrscheinlich and wahr sein helped me to see how the former word was constructed.  Something that is “probable” is likely something that “seems true.” Put wahr and scheinen together, a bit like wahr sein, and then tack on the -lich ending to create an adjective (this suffix is quit productive: http://www.canoo.net/services/WordformationRules/Derivation/To-A/Suffixe/lich.html?lang=en) and you’ve got “probably.”

Which reminds me to share with you a site I recently discovered where you can look up a word’s opposites: http://gegenteil-von.com What makes a word like wahrscheinlich interesting is that it has opposites that are both more and less certain. For example unwahrscheinlich –”improbable” or “unlikely” – and weit hergeholt – “far-fetched” – take us toward the uncertain end of the spectrum and bestimmt – “certain” – and definitiv – “definite” – take us toward certainty.

What’s clear is how delighted I was to discover the relationship between the word wahrscheinlich and its component parts!

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Dead satisfied

Yesterday I visited Ohlsdorfer Friedhof. If you weren’t looking carefully, you might miss that this is a cemetery. It is laid out much more like a park or arboretum and is so large that there are bus lines that run through it to take you between different chapels and different sections. It lives up the Frieden part of its name in that it is a place of “peace” and “tranquility” (note that Fried, a delightful false friend if there ever was one, is not word in German as far as I can tell; but when I type the letters F-R-I-E-D, I frequently add an N, which makes sense for English but not for German).  I doubt, however, that anyone ever imagined a “yard” or “courtyard” – two of the meanings for der Hof – anything like this size (it is apparently the largest parkland cemetery in the world).

And then, suddenly, into my head came one of the possible translations of “happy” – zufrieden – that I shared in the post Happy-go-lucky. I had learned this as meaning something closer to “satisfied” or “content” than “happy” and the der Frieden connection suggest another possible rendering: “at peace.” Then, I got to wondering about that zu. I started scanning the zu section of the dictionary and before I tired of it discovered only a few adjectives with what looked like the zu– prefix (z.B., zudringlich – “pushy” (dringend – “urgent(ly)” or “strong(l)y” or “absolutely”)and rather a lot of verbs including zufriedenlassen – “to leave someone in peace” or “to stop bothering someone” and zufriedenstellen – “to satisfy, content or sate someone.”

Therefore, I got to wondering if perhaps there was a verb frieden that might have been the source for zufrieden. While I could not find a frieden (apologies to James Taylor for the very bad partial, cross language pun), canoo did offer some interesting insights on word formation via conversion! They explain two sorts of ways in which you can make an adjective from a verb.  The first is by suffixation (die Suffigierung). There are five types of suffixation options, I’ll only the simplest option for this post: drop the -en ending and add either -bar, –(e)rig, –haft, –ig, –isch, –lich and –sam. For example, ärgerlich – “annoyed” or “cross” from ärgern – “to annoy.” The second method is even more direct, conversion (die Konversion): you use the present or the past participle. For example, ein überwältigendes ‘Nein”  – “a resounding ‘No’ ” – or gefüllte Oliven – “stuffed olives.”

I hope that this leaves you both satisfied (or satt) and hungry for more Earthquake Words.

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