A WORD IN THE HAND: ZEITGEIST
The ghost of the poison dwarf past and other hauntings
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Zeitgeist is a word that goes in and out of fashion. It seems to be taking a holiday at the moment, but don’t say that too loudly in case it overhears us and thinks we’re missing it. I’m not. I really wouldn’t want zeitgeist to cut its leave short so it could get back to haunting us.
Germans are fond of compound nouns, many of which have been adopted into English. Some, like zeitgeist, have been used to death. Zeitgeist literally translates as “time ghost” but it means “spirit of the time”.
The spirit of the time that one person means when they say “zeitgeist” is no different from or more interesting than the spirit of the time that another person means when they say “spirit of the time” (assuming they are speaking at the same time). The only difference is in the pretentiousness of the speakers.This doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Perhaps we have entered a more tolerant zeitgeist, or perhaps it’s a sign of age.I have also finally accepted that Americans have every right to say “different than” instead of “different from”. This surrendering of principles might show a lack of backbone but it has enabled me to watch TV with other people in the room.
Speaking of age and TV, it is 40 years since Dallas was first broadcast in SA, and I am old enough to remember the vital importance of Tuesday evenings in those heady days of test patterns and epilogues. When it got to 9pm, we of tender years were supposed to be safely in our beds – I think this was so we wouldn’t get ideas about working in the oil industry – but of course we sneaked out and our elders were so spellbound by JR’s cartel and Pamela’s eyeliner that they did not notice us.
My favourite character was Lucy Ewing, universally referred to as “the poison dwarf”. Every adult who called her this would say it as though they’d just made it up – the same way they did when they talked about “the screwings of the Ewings”.So I was interested to find, while studying German compound nouns (as one is forced to now there is no Dallas) that the first poison dwarves were found not in Texas but in Germany, where they were known as giftzwerg. In German, gift means poison and zwerg is an obnoxious mythical creature of short stature.
In an online debate about giftzwerg’s origins, a Quora contributor penned a delightful post in which he claimed that a battalion of Scottish soldiers based in the German town of Midden were called giftzwerg by the locals because they were not very tall and frequently got into bar fights.
There’s a lot that is suspect about this tale, not least that a midden is the archaic English word for a pit latrine rather than a town in Germany. Still, it’s as good an explanation as any.I’m not sure Lucy Ewing would be pleased to be related to Teutonic mini-trolls. She might prefer to be known as überzwerg, which in English means superdwarf.
Except she probably wouldn’t, because überzwerg is German slang for the type of creature the English call a jobsworth – someone in a position of minimal authority who uses every petty drop of power they can squeeze from their long and meaningless title to make other people maximally miserable.
Queen of the überzwerg is Pauline from The League of Gentlemen – not the film, the satirical TV series set in Royston Vasey, where dark deeds go unpunished but at least no one says “different than”.
Speaking of über, it used to mean “over” in German. Now it is a taxi that doesn’t stop for umlauts.
It’s all fine though. It’s time we stopped minding so much about these things and learnt to go with the zeitgeist.