Nerdy Notes: Got Gemütlichkeit?


As you likely know, the English language is rife with words from other languages.  In fact, almost all of our words are derived, to one extent or another, from the various Indo-European languages, most of which sound nothing like English and often enough, little like one another.

While most of our words have segued rather smoothly from their old-world origins into modern, spoken English, there are a few which have stubbornly retained their original pronunciations.  You’ll notice that we don’t pronounce the ‘z’ or ‘s’ in rendezvous, for example.  The word being essentially the same in English as in French does not stop us from knowing quite well what it means.  We know this mostly because there is no distinct English word for rendezvous, nor need there be; the French word works just fine.

There are some far less well-known examples which we’ll visit today.  These are words essentially identical to their etymological ancestors which can be found in any quality English dictionary despite being, for all intents and purposes, not English.  In particular, we’ll focus on German’s contributions.  The value of these words is not really in their eccentricity relative to the rest of English, but in what they mean.  In each case, there is no English equivalent, making the words priceless.

To begin, let’s consider the somber sensation of weltschmerz.  You may have experienced this; you may not.  It usually comes with age.  When you read the newspaper and learn of the evils of the world—some of them pretty horrific—or perhaps when you look back at history and some of the truly atrocious things humans have done to one another, you may feel weltschmerz.  It may come about as you drive through downtrodden neighborhoods, areas of urban blight, or visit nations wallowing in penury and hunger.  Perhaps you’ll experience weltschmerz when you think of the things you could be and reflect, with some element of resignation, on all the unnecessary and frustrating barriers which have kept and may yet keep you from ever getting there.  One way or the other, weltschmerz is sentimental sadness over the evils of the world, an intimate sorrow one accepts as part of one’s lot in life, a sort of heartfelt, earnest pessimism.  It is not good, and certainly not something to drag yourself through regularly, but inevitably, it affects us all at some point in life.  That’s just the way the world works, and sometimes, it kind of sucks.

Weltschmerz is pronounced in accordance with several standards of German pronunciation.  The “w” is pronounced as a “v”, and “z” as “ts”, thus: VELT’shmerts.

Next up is schadenfreude.  We have all experienced this, although we may not be so quick to admit it.  When someone you particularly dislike trips and falls, you are experiencing schadenfreude if you think, “Hah!  Serves ‘em right!”  Although it’s cruel, you just can’t help but laugh when someone ends up dancing around, trying to remain upright as they slip on a concealed patch of ice on the sidewalk.  That, too, is schadenfreude.  So, what does the word mean?  Quite simply, it means pleasure or satisfaction felt as a result of someone else’s misfortune.  Usually, schadenfreude is encountered when we’ve had a disagreement with someone who immediately thereafter gets what we feel to be their comeuppance.  We can’t help but feel a little smugly satisfied inside that they got what they were asking for.  That’s schadenfreude.  It could be something as simple as watching your dog lap up spilled hot sauce, knowing full well it will go into a fit of pawing at its snout trying to alleviate the burning sensation.  Though it’s not really nice, it’s sure funny to watch.  Schadenfreude is pronounced: SHAH’den’froy’duh.  The “duh” on the end should be kept kind of quiet, but still included.  Emphasize the “shah” at the beginning and you’ll be all set.

Marching right along, we find ourselves dealing with that old favorite, zugzwang.  This is a word which any accomplished Chess player will know all too well.  Even if you’re not a grand master at board games, you’ve likely encountered zugzwang either when playing Chess casually or in other, metaphorical senses.  Zugzwang is the situation where, in a game of Chess, you must make a move (because it is your turn and you cannot “pass”) but any and all moves will cost you or have a damaging affect on your situation.  In other words, you have to do something, but there are no good options.  That’s zugzwang, and it is a pain.  Although used primarily to describe just such a situation in the game of Chess, it is not hard to envision or relate to situations in real life which feel very much like we’re in zugzwang.  We have to do something, but whatever we do, it won’t be pretty.  This word is pronounced: TSUKE’tsvahng.  As with the “z” in weltschmerz, each “z” should be pronounced as a “ts”, and the “ang” at the end should have more of an “ah” quality to it.  Also, the “zug” syllable’s vowel should be somewhere between the “oo” sound of “look” and that of “snoop”.

We’ll end on a positive note, with gemütlichkeit.  This—you may be surprised to learn—is something you want.  When you go into a new place, join a new group, or take a vacation to a foreign land, that thing which will make just about any place enjoyable is gemütlichkeit.  It means a warm, welcoming, cordial, congenial, friendly, and amicable atmosphere.  You can always tell, relatively quickly, when you’ve checked into a hotel which does not have gemütlichkeit, and, likewise, it’s always rather a nice surprise when you go to a place you’ve never been to or attend a meeting of a group you’ve never been with before and find yourself surrounded by the common gemütlichkeit of the members.  Gemütlichkeit may seem like an unimportant thing, but it is an essential marketing ingredient in many business plans, such as those of cruise operators and hotels.  Additionally, gemütlichkeit is fundamental to the success of support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

The word is pronounced as follows: guh’MOOT’likh’kite.  (The only hard bit is the “likh”.  To make this sound, make a “k” but keep exhaling.  There should be a distinct break between the “likh” and “kite” syllables, the first of which should have a back-of-the-tongue airy sound to it interrupted by the glottal stop of the ‘k’ in “kite”.)

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs, an editor at The Jet Fuel Review.  He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer.  Mark is a sophomore and will be working a few hours as a tutor in the Writing Center in the 2011-2012 school year.

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