Postcards from the Edge Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny suspects that Britons would be lost for words without wunderbar German imports into our language
While English is recognised as a global language (sometimes now called ‘Globish’) it’s remarkable how many German words and expressions we now understand, and use.
Where would we be without the indispensible Schadenfreude? It’s brilliant because it puts a name to the ignoble thoughts most of us have entertained, ‘glee at the misfortune of others’: there’s no English equivalent. And we’d surely be lost without Zeitgeist, Kaput, Kitsch, Schmalz and Schlepp – the latter from the German via Yiddish. All Woody Allen fans grasp the good-egg meaning of Mensch!
We don’t spring-clean our kitchens any more: we Blitz them. We don’t just prudently stay silent on certain occasions: we keep Stumm.
’Tis true that some of the German expressions we recognise come to us from movies, new and old, about Nazis. We know Schnell!, Achtung! and Verboten, not to mention Schweinhund!, Raus! and Herein! – what the swastikaadorned commander calls out when the French resistance heroine knocks on his door to beg for her lover’s release.
But let’s leave unhappy memories aside and concentrate on the positive. Thanks to dear Dame Vera, we can all say Auf Weidersehen, and some of us can sing it. Posher music fans may perhaps follow more serious Lieder, by Schubert and Schumann. And every car enthusiast can recite Vorsprung Durch Technik. Progress through technology, indeed.
German is unique in the construction of portmanteau words (even if portmanteau is French), which express a range of complex ideas or emotions. One of my favourites is Schlimmbesserung. It means ‘the improvement that makes things worse’. There’s an awful lot of that around, as when high street banks tell you to ‘go online’, since this is so much better for customer services. Ach, Schlimmbesserung!
A poignant German compound word is Kinderlostraurig – sadness at being childless. A condition that exists, as anyone facing IVF cycles will attest. Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times on German compendium words such as Lügenpresse (lying media), and new ones such as Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin), and Umvolkung (forced change in a population’s ethnic grouping).
Brexiter or Remainer, we all know more German than we realise.
Earlier, historical issues between Britain (or perhaps England) and continental Europe might be said to have involved the Armada and, even then, Ireland was not entirely sympathetic to England’s difficulty. Indeed, a small town in County Sligo has recently been awarded with an honorary plaque of the Order of Isabel the Catholic by the current King Felipe of Spain, for its contribution to conserving the Armada shipwrecks along its shore.
The wrecks occurred at Streedagh, North Sligo, near the town of Grange, on 21st September 1588, when thousands of Spaniards lost their lives. ‘After their battles in the Channel, the ships were on their way home, having sailed north and then west around Ireland,’ says Eddie O’gorman, curator of the Grange and Armada Association. There were twenty-five Armada wrecks, of which three are now conserved. Over the years, the people of North Sligo have annually commemorated them. The local clan leaders in 1588 – O’rourke of Briefne and Macclancy of Dartry – gave shelter to the Spaniards.
A Spanish galleon captain who survived, Francisco De Cuéllar, wrote about his experiences, and the Sligo association has published his archive. A fascinating small chapter of Irish, British and European history.
Back in old Fleet Street days, we were taught to respect the work of newsagents and news vendors. The newsagent rose at 3am to prepare the day’s newspaper sales. The vendor sold newspapers in the streets in all weathers. I remember barefoot children selling newspapers in Dublin streets in the late 1950s.
In Deal, our longstanding newsagent, King Street News, closed in September, after nearly sixty years serving the print trade. Phil Powell, the amiable proprietor for the past two decades, says that being a newsagent was a hard-working life, with that 3am start. Since the 1980s, supermarkets took many a newsagent’s trade. Then came online reading.
Phil’s shop was a community hub. He also kept French, Italian and Irish newspapers and magazines. Every newsagent should keep a Continental newspaper available, but the big chains don’t see it that way. Good to see the new Monocle newspaper – in old-fashioned newsprint – that became available in European newsagents in August.
Phil and his partner Karen now run a guest house in Deal, ‘Sunny Croft’, and many of their guests are German and Dutch. The strength of the euro has been a boon in our Channel ports. Armadas come in friendlier forms nowadays.