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Column: Art / Music / Theatre

Without joint or seam: the pleasures of unstitching Schottenfreude

by Belle Place , December 3, 2013Leave a comment

I took German lessons, begrudgingly, for three years in high school. I don’t remember much now, aside from elementary pleasantries and a spattering of mostly unhelpful nouns, but I do remember my friends and I making up German sounding words, stitching clunky (made-up) compounds together to create Germanic gobbledygook to annoy our teacher.

I never mastered German though; I was later pleased to learn that Mark Twain, too, wrestled with the language. In his 1880 essay, ‘The Awful German Language’, he remarks on German’s use of complex compound words, ‘six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam–that is, without hyphens’. He took the German vocabulary to task, picking on linguistic marathons like Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen, writing, ‘These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.’

I wonder then what Twain would have made of Ben Schott’s Schottenfreude. Here, Schott, surely a linguist wizard, knits together strings of real German compounds to create imagined German words that acutely describe the idiosyncrasies of the human condition.

Schott, a contributing columnist to the New York Times among his many roles, has been playing with words and language for some time. Of note, in the early 2000s he conceived the Miscellany series, books rich with lists of curious trivia–they have gone on to sell in the millions. In Schottenfreude, Schott continues the tradition of neatly presenting the mundane beside the monumental.

Dipping into Schottenfreude feels like you’re in on a very clever trick: Schott’s concatenated words allow readers to succinctly name previously unclassifiable ‘intimate emotions and inexpressible sensations’. Each entry is structured to include his German word, its pronunciation and also the compound construction. On the opposing page are accompanying explanatory notes, and a sequence of footnotes which illuminate or expand the reference. In other words, Schott presents layer upon layer of sharply curated knowledge, which you can peruse as deeply or flippantly as you like–though this isn’t to suggest Schottenfredue is piecemeal. Despite the brevity incurred by the list format, Schottenfreude isn’t lacking in profundity. Schott offers a bespoke encyclopaedia on topics from ancient philosophy to contemporary literature: it’s bitty in size, but meaty in thought.

There are 120 words in this book, and you’re likely to side with your own preoccupations. Just two that struck a particular chord with me were Mahlneid: Coveting thy neighbours restaurant order and Witzfindungsstorung: The inability to remember jokes. Under the entry Mahlneid, Schott offers his readers a surprising piece of information; his reference reports that guards stationed at Guantanamo Bay experienced a form of Mahlneid, complaining that detainees were fed strawberries while troops received only tinned fruit. Mixing the slightly absurd with the cultural and political is something Schott has a knack for.

Further on, references accompanying Extrawursttagsgefuhl: An irrational sensation of specialness on your birthday, rests in the philosophical, but also in the pop cultural arena of Winnie the Pooh (Schott notes that a consequence of this sensation is ‘the deflation you experience when others forget your Special Day’, as happened to Eeyore when no one took any notice of his birthday). While many of the entries here are very funny, there are many that are acutely poignant–it’s a quality of Schottenfreude that I wasn’t expecting.

Schott taps into broader social arrangements with entries like Schlafchauvi: One who takes pride in getting little sleep, a phenomena that Schott reminds readers was glorified by Margaret Thatcher. Elsewhere, Entlistungsfreude: The sense of satisfaction afforded by crossing thing off lists, references Dickens’ Great Expectations, describing the ticking off of items on a list as a ‘luxurious sensation’. Perusing Schottenfreude is likely to leave readers with a similar sensation–and for me, presents a German lesson I’m happy to be in class for.

Schottenfreude by Ben Schott is published by Text Publishing. 

Belle Place is editor of the Readings Monthly. She has worked as a copy editor with Rainoff, a Sydney and New-York based publisher of art books, and is a co-editor of Offline, a cultural journal published by The Blackmail. 

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