Word of the Day speaks German

Next week my students have to wrestle with Zeitgeist and schadenfreude, so just to  make it a threefer for all (?) of you, I’ll throw in Weltschmerz here. (Having only this moment learned that apparently it’s a German convention to capitalize the first letters of nouns, I now want to know why my dictionary does not show a capital-S for “schadenfreude”? Anyone?)

As a language, English seems to lend itself to the coining of neologisms, such as portmanteau words, which are “a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel or brunch“.  Or “bromance,” one annoying, relatively recent example I can call to mind. “Slacktivism,” for anemic activism like putting a bumper sticker on your car. “Bridezilla.” Oxford Dictionaries Online has an interesting column here on the coining of new words.

But German—and perhaps this isn’t true, but only my impression, based on the handful of German words I know that have found (relatively) common use in English—seems to be good for generating single words that manage to convey entire concepts or moods or states of being.

To wit:

Zeitgeist: (noun) “The spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation.”*

The free-spending, and freer-borrowing, Zeitgeist of the early 2000s slammed to a halt with the collapse of the financial markets.

schadenfreude: (noun) “Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”

He enjoyed a satisfying moment of schadenfreude when the woman who’d cut in front of him in the line at Starbucks spilled her vente triple vanilla latte all over herself.

Weltschmerz: (noun) “Sadness over the evils of the world.”

Reading the front section of the Times is sure to induce a bad case of Weltschmerz; that’s why I skip straight to the Style section.




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