German Word of the Week: Stichwort

Stichwort — literally, stab-word or sting-word, is common in German, but it's hard to define. Originally, it refers to the words on the top of the pages of dictionaries which show the reader about where they are in the alphabet. Now it's also used as to sum up the general theme of a conversation, as in: 'Dann haben sie haben sie eine halbe Stunde lang über die Gaza-Krise diskutiert — Stichwort Menschenrechte' 'Then they discussed the Gaza crisis for half an hour — the main topic being human rights.' It also is used for search term or rubric — i.e. you might search a health website for articles related to the Stichwort asthma.

So far, so dull. But here's the sort-of-interesting part. When I was learning German, many German friends asked me what the English word for Stichwort was. They would point to the word at the top of a dictionary page and say 'That's a Stichwort. Surely there must be an English word for something that's so common.'

I had zilch. bupkis. NFC.

Before you laugh at my ignorance, do you know what the English word for a Stichwort in a dictionary is? No, you don't. It's not 'heading' or anything like that. It's a very specific word for just this concept, and I bet ya don't know it. Answer after the jump.

I found this out last night listening to an oldish episode of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. 99% is all about engineering and design — the episodes range from CD packaging to the barcode to emergency lighting. The episode which delivered the goods about StichwortTitle TK, was about naming companies, which come up with the synthetic words like iPad, Yahoo, Amazon, etc. which we use hundreds of times a day.

It turns out naming has come a long way since 1955, when Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to suggest names for a new car and she responded with suggestions like 'Bullet Lavolta' and 'Utopian Turtletop' (they turned all the suggestions down and went with Edsel). Now naming is done by small, specialized companies staffed by young creative types with trendy glasses. You know, the people who sold out to corporate America and don't care that you despise them for it, because every night they go to sleep on top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies. And as I listened to the podcast, I suddenly spat out huge chunks of my gooseberry-Doppelkorn smoothie:

One of the naming companies' names is the long-sought, hyper-elusive English word for Stichwort:

Photoshop was looking to market a less-expensive version of their software, which they wanted to market as having all the capabilities of regular Photoshop but without many of the “bells and whistles.” Adobe hired Oakland-based naming company Catchword to come up with something. Catchword went through a month-long exploration of every word that might apply: “essentials,” “basics,” “light,” etc., but they all sounded compromising.  Finally, they came across  Elements, which implies  both simplicity and necessity; the parts that are basic but important.

(Catchword, by the way, got its name from the guiding words at the top of the dictionary pages. Those are the catchwords.)
Hot damn! My decade-long itch has just been scratched. A Stichwort, in its narrow technical sense, is a catchword. Thank you, 99% Invisible. Thank you, Catchword. And thank you, Internet — teacher, mother, secret lover.

Order, Security, Cleanliness and Discipline

I hope you like the redesign. Until recently, Typepad only gave you two options: the center column could be either 500 pixels wide, or no border at all. I chose no border because 500 pixels is too narrow for many embeds and pictures.

Thanks to a recent upgrade, though, you can now have a broader main column, so I've done that. I also changed the banner, to reflect this blog's Signature Values™ of Order, Security, Cleanliness and Discipline. The recognition plaque comes from the former East Germany. During the last years of Communism, the government tried to compensate for empty store shelves and crumbling infrastructure by giving nearly every citizen a prize, plaque, or award of some sort.

It didn't work. Or did it?

Coming to the Rescue of Starving Artists

Whitney Kimball looks at why American visual artists don't profit from resales the way European artists do:

U.S. copyright law protects “published” works, and a work of art is not “published,” simply made and sold—so once a work of art is out of an artist’s hands, the future profits, too, are gone. This system is unique to the art world; in other fields, artists are understood to have the right to a share of the proceeds of their works long after the works are first made….

…Meanwhile, artist resale royalties (or droit de suite) have long been a basic right in 70 other countries; France has had such a system since 1920, and the European Union standardized it across the continent in 2001. They’re so common that the U.S. Copyright Office specifically revised its position on artists’ royalties last year, recommending that Congress revisit the issue.

Now, Congress has that chance: the recently proposed American Royalties Too (A.R.T.) Act, a bill which would give artists a 5 percent cut of the profits when their works are resold at auction. The bill has its flaws: It applies only to auctions and not private dealings. But 5 percent is also a slim and fair share, compared with the auction houses’ 12to 25 percent buyers’ premiums—though even 5 percent looks too fat to slip under the door. An earlier version of the bill, the Equity for Visual Artists Act, failed to attract a single co-sponsor in 2011, and over the past few years, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been raining upward of $1 million on lobbying against royalties. At this writing, gives the A.R.T. Act a 2 percent prospect of being enacted.

It’s telling that in more than 70 countries that have now adopted some form of artist royalties, the only major debate has come from the U.K., which has the second largest art market after the U.S., and adopted artist royalties in 2006. When droit de suite was proposed for the U.K. in 2000, the British Art Market Federation forecasted implosion: Even a 4 percent royalty could send thousands of jobs overseas, they warned, and affect five times as many sales as covered by droit de suite. The alarms managed to stall the implementation of droit de suite in the U.K. until 2006. But years after implementation, studies have shown that the law barely affected sales.

If that’s any indication, artists’ royalties don’t harm the market. They can provide some measure of security to artists, especially later in life; they are common most everywhere in the world; and they are recommended by the U.S. Copyright Office. But all this is beside the point. America forgot about a basic rights law, and for many, the conversation comes a lifetime too late.

The U.S. Copyright office report linked to in the article is a model of thorough yet readable legal analysis. Among other things, it recounts that the origin of the droit de suite was a French engraving (from p.4, edited for clarity):

The resale right, or droit de suite, as it is often called in Europe, derives from a bundle of privileges commonly and collectively known as “moral rights.” Where other moral rights assure attribution (paternity) or protect against mutilation (integrity), the resale right provides visual artists with an opportunity to benefit from the increased value of their works over time by granting them a percentage of the proceeds from the resale of their original works of art. France was the first country to implement droit de suite in 1920, after a widely published lithograph by artist Jean-Louis Forain poignantly portrayed “starving artists.” … Forain’s lithograph, which depicts two impoverished children looking into an auction house window where a painting, apparently created by their father, is on display for a high price, with the caption “Un tableau de Papa!” (“One of father’s paintings!”)