The Compulsive Copyeditor

October 20, 2009

Hals- und Beinbruch! [UPDATED]

Filed under: etymology,other languages,translation — amba12 @ 6:36 am
Tags: , , , , ,

If I haven’t been around here for a while, it’s because I have a new compulsion:  a translation compulsion.  My brother’s crash course in reading scholarly German has lured me back into that Gothic thorn-thicket.

Und das hat mit ih-ih-rem si-ING-en

Die Lor-e-lei getan.

*     *     *

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

spontaneous joy and natural content

out of my heart.

Sorry, my brain has a line of verse for every occasion lately.  Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So when not copyediting for a living, I’ve been wading into the dense passages of theology David had to translate, wondering how I would do it, admiring the persistence of Herr Heggen’s 45-year-old operating system installation, and trying to figure out how to give clues and tips to someone who’s lost in German — a trail of breadcrumbs through the Black Forest of the Brüder Grimm.

His exam was today.  And it was predictably grueling.  If he flunks, I flunk as a guide.

UPDATE: He passed!!  High pass!  A triumph for him, and for me, and a tribute to Herr Heggen!

Two things.

David has been an actor, so I wanted to wish him “Break a leg,” and it immediately echoed in my head that in German it’s Beinbruch . . . but it’s “Something-else-and-Beinbruch.

I looked it up.  No need to suffer from middle-aged memory impaction now that there’s Google.  Who says there’s no progress??

It’s Hals- und Beinbruch. In German, you don’t just say, “Break a leg.”  You say “Break your neck . . . and oh, while you’re at it, a leg, too.”

I figured David would Grimmly appreciate that upping of the ante.  But better yet, then I came upon this:

It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.

What could be more perfect for someone who is learning to decode scholarly German for the purposes of a doctorate in Jewish studies?

The other thing:

Coming across the word Zweifel, doubt, I remembered that in German Verzweiflung is despair — a higher octave, a compression and lethal concentration of doubt.  (Take any verb in German and add “ver-” or “er-” to make it first thumbscrews and then fatal.  Ertrinken means to drown.)  For us it’s desespoir — a loss of hope.  For them it’s too much of something — a busy mind, too busy tearing down, a good image for the obsessive negative rumination of depression.  For us it’s too little of something — the departure of Glinda the Good Witch, perhaps, with her gauzy gleam — dream, desire, illusion.  There’s something passive about it.  Hope leaves, what can you do?  A German, by contrast, can’t stop doing.  Doubting.

Thinking about it some more, though, I realized that linking doubt and despair is in fact theological.  Like so many things we don’t give any thought to — like the fact that genus and species names are in Latin — it’s a living fossil of the overwhelming importance and omnipresence of God in every corner of our culture until less than a hundred years ago.  Despair was the loss of faith, and doubt risked it.  It was called acedia, and it was a sin.

So I look for a link for you, and what a surprise, I turn up a completely contemporary one:  this year, Kathleen Norris, aspiring contemplative, author of The Cloister Walk and more, published a book called Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Its starting point:  the deep apathy Norris fell into, understandably enough, after both her father and her husband died.  USA Today not only did an interview with her, but gave it a sidebar of quotes on acedia that Norris collected, from the Psalms to Chesterton, Kafka, and James Bond.

So there you go.

P.S. Zweifel has “zwei” in it — two. Doubt in German comes from there being two possibilities.  Maybe God exists, maybe He doesn’t.  It’s the tortured, busy, pre-quantum theory form of ambivalence where you still think it’s a matter of life and death that you decide, before you reach the befuddled peace of “neither/nor,” “both/and,” “maybe.”



  1. Zweifel is such a duplicitous word. I don’t know why (has nothing to do with etymology) but I’m reminded of the word Zwiebel/i> (The Onion?) to explain alles. I’m looking for a book in my shelf that details the High German consonant sound shift to explain myself but it’s late and my wife is sleeping right next to where I think the book is, so I’ll have to get back to you tomorrow. Given the track record of people actually being interested in what we discuss here, I think a short delay could be excused. :)

    “Doubt” is another dubious, two-faced word that never settled on a single meaning either.

    What is it about theology and linguistics, such that we must have such doubts?

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 20, 2009 @ 7:47 am | Reply

  2. I, too, irresistibly thought of “Zwiebel.” (My great-grandmother thought it not only explains but seasons everything. All her recipes, probably even the one for pound cake, began, “Tek a honion . . .”) But if you’ve ever studied German it is impossible to confuse “ie” and “ei” as English speakers casually do. It is impossible to think, as many casual acquaintances do upon seeing my name, that I am Annie Leibowitz. Whom I am actually very glad not to be, just now.

    You know, there are times when you’re singlehandedly keeping this blog going. I know that if I knock “shave-and-a-haircut” (obscure Roger Rabbit reference), at least one faithful reader, unable to resist, will burst through the wall with, “Two biiiiiiits!!!”

    Comment by amba12 — October 20, 2009 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  3. It is impossible to think, as many casual acquaintances do upon seeing my name, that I am Annie Leibowitz. Whom I am actually very glad not to be, just now.

    LOL! You’ve got her beat by miles in so many ways!

    You know, there are times when you’re singlehandedly keeping this blog going.

    Well, you know, as Theo Boehm said, you have a special talent for bringing out the best in in people; maybe that’s your gift (Germanic pun?). But so long as you write, I shall read. :)

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 20, 2009 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  4. Come to think of it, Zweifel has “zwei,” two, very prominently in it. Maybe it means ambivalence.

    Comment by amba12 — October 20, 2009 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  5. D’you suppose that’s the origin of “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”? One man’s gift is another’s Gift.

    Comment by amba12 — October 20, 2009 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  6. Ahem- that was my unspoken intent!

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 20, 2009 @ 8:40 am | Reply

  7. Zweifel has “zwei,” two, very prominently in it.

    Ah-ha! you get the duplicity! Now explain the theology!

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 20, 2009 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  8. What’s funny is, depending on what language I’m listening in, “gift” sounds completely different. Meaning dyes sound.

    Comment by amba12 — October 20, 2009 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  9. D’you suppose that’s the origin of “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”? One man’s gift is another’s Gift.

    OK I did a little research on the word “gift” in both German and in English. The two words are verwandt and derive from a common Wurtzel. Quoting from here:

    From the Old English “asgift,” meaning, “payment for a wife” in the singular and meaning “wedding” in the plural. The Middle Dutch “gift,” now written as “gif,” meant the same, but today means “poison.” The Old High German “gift” also became “poison.” From the root “geb-“, from which in English we get “give.” There is another German word, however, which incorporates the word “gift”, but which retains the older meaning of “payment for a wife”. The word is “Mitgift”, which is the modern German word for “dowry”.

    (The latter factoid reminded me of our own word midwife which still retains the old Germanic meaning of with=mid=mit.)

    So how exactly did German (and Dutch) get poison from gift? According to Duden 7, the meaning derived from a comparison with the Greek/latin dosis as Gabe which meant dose. Btw, we get our word poison from the Latin potio, which means drink (cf. potion).

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 21, 2009 @ 3:12 am | Reply

  10. P.S. I was pretty full of it last night about connections between Zwiebel and Zweifel and the High German Sound Shift. They do suggest each other though.
    I was searching for a link that would shift b–>f but was getting it confused with the interchangeability of b and v.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — October 21, 2009 @ 3:19 am | Reply

  11. Yeah, my debt can’t hold a candle to Annie Leibowitz’s. Not that that means anything any more: (being in) the red is the new black.

    I kinda get how poison is something you give to someone — often in a pretty wrapping. But I still think the transition begs for bad marriage jokes (“Take my wife. Please. As a gift.”).

    Comment by amba12 — October 21, 2009 @ 3:27 am | Reply

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