Pink-haired woman

No, it’s not the Rolling Stones song, it’s everyday German reality.  Wander around in any German city, and it won’t be long before you see a middle-aged woman with short, spiky, bright-pink hair.  Blue and green are other popular options.  When I was recently in Berlin, I saw a woman with orange, green, and brown hair closing up a day-care center.  She also wore skin-tight leopard-skin leggings and eyed me suspiciously, which I suppose goes together.  The moderator of a debate show on the public-affairs channel Phoenix, Gaby Dietzen, is a modest exemplar of this trend.  Look at those cheeky white locks hovering above her wise, angular face like a tiny pair of wings.  Ain’t they precious? [I rather fancy Ms. Dietzen].

The answer the foreigner seeks is why?  What motivates a woman of a certain age to go into a beauty salon and tell Günÿ, "cut it all off and dye the remainder bright-pink"?  This morning I got one answer.  In the middle of a report about what old people do with their hair on Germany’s version of NPR, they interviewed a management consultant who had bright-pink hair.  Like most electric-haired women, she was a baby boomer (68ers, as they are called in Germany), and their dyeing decision is a little poke in the eye of traditional dirndl-and-pigtails conceptions of female beauty.  Further, she wanted to preserve just a little bit of the 68er spirit, even as she had made her peace with capitalism: "I just wanted to stand out from the crowd."  Finally, she observed, in came in handy for a frequent traveler.  Whenever she needed to meet a stranger in a public place, she just said "You can’t miss me — I’m the one with bright-pink hair!"

German Word of the Week: Lügengebäude

You come home a little bit too late, a little bit too drunk, a little bit too happy. 

The wife eyes you distrustfully and asks what that flowery odor is.  "Aww, we gave a bunsch of flowers to one of the (hic) sexretaries.  Had a little party." 

Is that so.  Well, why didn’t you answer when I called you at work? 

"Uhh, you called my office, and we were all in the resheption area drinking shampagne." 

Oh really.  Well, I called the reception area too.  4 times.  The phone rang and rang. 

"Ohh, thassright!  We all went to a bar, thass right.  Freddy’s place or something…"

At this point, you are living in what a German would call a Lügengebäude — a "Building of Lies."  You pronounce it Loo*-gen-guh-BOY-duh.  In English you can, of course, spin a tissue or web of lies.  But I think the idea of crafting a nice, solid, bricks-and-mortar building of lies is more apt.  It conveys how hard it is to get out of one once you’ve built it. 

I might also add that thinkers who create large, comprehensive philosophical systems — I need hardly mention which country has the leading reputation here — build Gedankengebäude, or "Buildings of Thought." 

I’d to extend this a little down the scale.  Can I live in an Apartment of Lies(Lügenwohnung)?  Drive around in a Car of Thought (Gedankenwagen)?  Hand someone a Box of Lies (Lügenschachtel)?  The answer to all of these questions is: of course!  German is, after all, the super-duper ultra-modular Lego language.

* Actually, this pronunciation isn’t quite right, since the first ü, which has those two cute dots over it (umlauts), is pronounced a little funny.  Germans claim there’s a difference between a regular u and ü.  I thought only dogs could actually hear the difference until I began mixing up Schwül, which means humid, and Schwul, which means homosexual.  I don’t know how many times I told people that Texas has extremely homosexual summers.  That got their attention, I must say.

German Word of the Week: Ohrwurm

A song, or an advertising jingle, that invades your consciousness and won’t leave.  There’s no word for this in English, so here the Germans have the clear linguistic advantage (you can also "pre-pone" an event in German and officially "dis-invite" someone).  Here’s where German comes to the rescue, with Ohrwurm, literally "ear-worm."  You can almost picture the cute little fellow camping out in your ear, singing the inane ditty over and over, cheerfully evading your increasingly desperate attempts to silence him.

I want hereby to start an official campaign to bring Ohrwurm into English.  Shouldn’t be too difficult.  Just start telling your friends "Crap, that new Danii Minogue single is such an earworm."  When they ask you what an earworm is, tell them, and urge them to start using it in their normal conversation.  Note to entrepreneurs: trademark the word "Earworm" while it’s hot!  While on the subject, German has a word for a song that is popular for matter of weeks and then drops into the memory hole.  It’s an Eintagsfliege (One-day-fly), named for the sort of flies that live only a few hours (English: Mayflies; Latin — pricelessly — Ephemeroptera).  One-day-fly doesn’t really work in English, so let’s just call these songs…Ephemeroptera.  OK, perhaps not.

Fondled by the Bony Claw of Death

What treasures the Web can offer the casual procrastinator.  While looking for some texts, I found a short essay about Mahler’s "Songs on the death of Children" (Kindertotenlieder). 

Many things have been written about Mahler’s mournful masterpieces, but none as full of howlers as this one.  In the tradition of Language Log’s poleaxing of the regrettably prolific Dan Brown, I hereby take on this poor fellow (note: he gets the treatment because English appears clearly to be his native language, and thus he should certainly know better.  Those who speak English as a second language need never fear me!). The beginning is promising indeed:

When a classmate passed away from a road accident in the second year of school in college, it came as a slap, a vision of mortality. A split second of pain, then nothingness. It seemed that grief had engulfed us, that death had for a fleeting moment fondled us with its bony claw and left us forever unclean. It was a realisation that the young are fallible too, that the young, too, die.

The tears of laugher were followed by questions.  Do people really ‘pass away’ from road accidents?  I would wager they’re usually, uh, crushed or torn apart.  Are there non-bony claws?  Second, since when can claws fondle?  Finally, is it really so fallible to die?  Don’t forget, the only person on earth who had an "infallible" mode just, er, passed away.

No, my boy, it’s not "nearly a truism that Mahler was a neurotic obsessed with the insistent theme of death;" it’s not a truism at all.  Your observation that "Mahler was an exceptionally widely-read individual and also a most omnivorous one" calls up images of the horn-rimmed Austrian symphonist munching away on glass and bicycle tires.

Now on to: "Whatever the case, it seems that in these Kindertotenlieder, Mahler found a germinal bud which struck a cord with his sensitive character."  This, sentence, as the professors say, is problematic on several levels. 

First, the "no-shit" level: I would imagine that Mahler probably did find the poems pretty touching, because he set them to music for a whole gigantic symphony orchestra.  You could just as well observe that the idea of invading Iraq failed to leave George W. Bush entirely cold.  I’ll overlook the misspelling of ‘chord,’ since English can be bloody that way.  A much bigger problem is the time-sequencing of "germinal bud."  I’m no biologist, but isn’t budding just about the only thing plants do that doesn’t produce seeds?  Finally, why try to strike a chord with a soft, sticky ‘germinal bud’?  What’s wrong with a good old pick?

I leave the rest to you, including several questionable faux-poetic uses of ‘but’ and ‘ever,’ to you, gentle reader(s). 

German Word of the Week: Gebetsmühlenartig

There’s an active debate on the meaning of this word here on the online dictionary (partially in English).  Literally translated, it means "prayer-wheel-like," (i.e., like a Tibetan prayer wheel) a bit more colloquial would be "like a mantra." 

It’s the way you describe the empty, obligatory phrases that litter political discussion — cliches that nobody explains or explores, but are repeated as a source of comfort and to indicate that the speaker is a responsible type.  A German example would be: "We need urgent action to combat unemployment!" or "We must keep in mind our nation’s problematic history…"

My candidates for English equivalents: "Children are our future."  "This problem can only be solved by bipartisan cooperation," and, in certain circles: "Come back with a search warrant."

I’m off to Luebeck, Germany for a meeting of the German University Association.  No, really!  I’ll be back on Wednesday, loyal reader(s).