Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I've run across various things relating to words recently; they don't really fit together in any way, but I thought I'd mention them here anyway.

1.) The most important German word of the year, at least as determined by the German Language Society is 'Wutbürger', which means 'enraged citizen'. This has been quite a year for Wutbürger in Germany, what, the controversial building of train stations. And, um, the lowest unemployment rate in two decades.

Lots to be angry about here, indeed.

Perhaps this word, Wutbürger, will become a glorious part of our export-oriented economy and have a great career in other--potentially more justifiably angry--societies, just as Schadenfreude once did; or perhaps, more like Fremdscham, it may remain an under-utilised gem.


2.) Also under the heading of interesting Germanisms: I ran across something unexpected while walking around in Mainz a few weeks ago. I saw a man in a uniform (and with, I think, a gun) emerge from a car on which was printed the striking phrase word Polizeipuppenbühne.

I read that a couple of times, wondering whether my non-native German had it quite...right: was it really 'police puppet stage'?.

I made a point of looking it up when I got home, and, indeed, there is, in our state of Rhineland-Palatinate, a police puppet theatre. And our state is not the only one: Wikipedia (German only, unfortunately) tells us that police puppet theatres emerged in the 1950s as part of various forces' public education activities.

Now, police puppetry is interesting enough; however, research along these lines led me to the wonderful German word Verkehrserziehung, which means, essentially, 'road safety training', and is, of course, one of the main activities of the police puppeteers.

It's a lot more fun as one word, and the success of childhood Verkehrserziehung is part of the reason for the charming German habit (one that I've taken on for myself) of waiting to cross the street until the light says you can.

Not all Germans do this, of course, but still, a large enough number of them do to make it a national characteristic.

3.) Finally, thanks to Andrew, I have been made aware of Google's new Ngram viewer.

This new toy is a certain way for me to lose hours at a time on intriguing but economically worthless inquiries, so I've been trying to avoid it since finding out about it.

However, having written a recently published article about the (American) origins and use (in Britain) of the phrase 'the third degree' (in the sense of illegitimate interrogation), I couldn't resist putting the comparative phrases 'give him the third degree' and 'give her the third degree' into Ngram. (Submitting 'the third degree' would give too many false positives on this topic, as this might refer either to burns or freemasonry.)

This was the result (click to make it larger):

Which is interesting.

My suggestion in the article is that the concept of 'third degree' interrogation was introduced into Britain around 1900 (the first press reference I found was from The Scotsman commenting on the police treatment of Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901).

In the graph above, the references emerge first in the late 1890s. The peaks between the 'him' and 'her' versions match in pattern (if not in magnitude) rather well (most of these seem to come from fictional contexts, i.e., crime thrillers), except for the post WWII period, when the 'him' version is clearly dominant.

Given that I'm still not entirely sure of the nature of the source base, I would rather not make too much of this result, but I find it interesting.

My research stopped in 1939: the rise in references to 'the third degree' since 1990 is a bit of a mystery. I'm wondering whether it has to do with an increase of re-prints of early 20th-century works?

Anyway: that was enough thinking for an evening this close to Christmas.


Kris said...

Wutbürgers annoy me.

John Carter Wood said...

They tend to annoy me too.

They should spend some time in countries with real problems.

Like Britain.

mikeovswinton said...

Being a vegan I prefer Veggieburgers to Wutburgers. Ho Ho.

More seriously on your police puppet theatres, did one of the most ferocious Freikorps leaders reinvent his band as a travelling childrens' puppet theatre? I think it might have been Ernst von Saloman. This sort of thing might have a bit of history.