Saturday, January 3, 2004

German connection-I

German is known for its long words. Schadenfreude, for example, refers to the concept of ‘pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others’. In fact, German words normally carry so many syllables that Mark Twain once said about the language: "Some German words are so long that they have a perspective." The Germans were great chemists during the 19th and early 20th centuries, giving English many chemical terms like bismuth and quartz. There are several words like Gestapo, Nazi and rocket that came to English during World War II. Some food words like muffin and strudel also hail from German.

Gestapo was the German secret police under Nazi rule. It ruthlessly suppressed opposition to the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe, sending Jews and others to concentration camps. Its origin is the German Geheime Staatspolizei, meaning ‘secret state police’. Today, it has come to be used for any oppressive authority. Nazi is an abbreviation of the German Nationalsozialist, which means ‘national socialist’. The Nazi party was formed in Munich after World War I and it advocated a right-wing authoritarian nationalist government, developing a racialist ideology based on anti-Semitism and a belief in the superiority of ‘Aryan’ Germans. Its leader, Adolph Hitler, who was elected chancellor in 1933, established a totalitarian dictatorship, rearmed Germany in support of expansionist foreign policies in central Europe and so precipitated World War II. The Nazi party collapsed at the end of the war and was outlawed. This history has given the word a derogatory connotation and it is used today for any person who behaves brutally in accordance with extreme racist or authoritarian views. Nazi has led to the formation of derivatives like Nazidom, Nazify and Nazism.

Two words strongly associated with the USA are also German in origin: dollar and hamburger. Hamburger is named after Hamburg, the city of its origin. Dollar takes its name from the German Thaler, the short form of Joachimsthaler, a coin from the silver mine of Joachimsthal. The term also later made its way into the United States in 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson sought to create a national currency to supplant the various state, local and private currencies then in use. At the time the United States had trade deficits with almost every nation with whom it traded, except for one: Mexico, so the US government found itself with a sizeable quantity of Spanish Colonial silver "thalers" which it then proceeded to use as the basis for the new currency: the US dollar. The dollar sign came from the back of the Spanish Colonial dollar: the pillars on the back represent the Pillars of Hercules, the land beyond; to which the Spanish owed their wealth; with a banner that wove around them in an "S" shape.


Some linguists believe that once upon a time there was a language called Proto-Indo-European that was spoken somewhere in Central Asia or Europe. This language spread and changed and branched into different languages over the course of human history. The speakers of Proto-Indo-European produced a nearly unfathomable number of languages. In addition to English, the modern Indo-European languages include German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Romanian, Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian, Italian, Icelandic, Farsi, Hindi, Greek, Urdu, Pushtu, Kashmiri...the list is endless. Linguists think these languages are related because of the common words found in these languages, words called cognates.