My Favourite German word.
With wave after wave of the pandemic. Everyone’s world has been thrown into the doldrums. I figured it was a good time to try and begin picking up a new language. Come out slightly better off than I was going into this whole ordeal. So I took the plunge and downloaded Duolingo onto my mobile, once again. Like everyone else I had previously tried learning a new language on and off over the years since 2016. Didn’t every follow through with it. Not this time.
The language of my choice is German, given its likeness and similarity to English not to mention English itself being a Germanic rooted language.
I figured the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep.
I set the goal of earning 50XP every day on Duolingo for the first 3 months. I broke past that barrier and am now at a total of 11100XP. It has been 5 months since I started. While I’m nowhere near being able to converse and follow a conversation in German, I’m getting there. Being able to recognise words and phrases in shows and songs here and there helps with keeping up with the habit. It’s not much but it’s a start.
The new goal is to be able to watch Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies without the crutch of subtitles and as far as shows go I would be delighted to rewatch Deutschland 83 as well. Allowing me to immerse myself in the yesteryear of life behind The Iron Curtain. Maybe even read The Grimm Brothers fairy tales as it was originally printed in German or at least its modernised German equivalent. Now coming to my favourite word.
My favourite German word is Zeug.
Its literal translation is ‘stuff’. What kind of ‘stuff’? Every kind of stuff. All stuff. Let me explain.
As we advanced, technology grew. The ‘stuff’ we used and needed daily also grew. This has led to problems in many languages as new names and words had to either be created or derived for these new things in their respective languages. These names/words must be apt, intuitive and self-explanatory to native language speakers. The German language however does not face this difficulty in playing catch up because of the word zeug. Or at least Zeug reduces the struggle.
The German word for airplanes? Flugzeug. For vehicles, fahrzeug. For tools werkzeug. For toys, spielzeug. For lighters, feuerzeug. And that’s not all there’s so much more stuff…Bettzeug, Badezeug, Flickzeug, Grünzeug, Handwerkszeug, Regenzeug, Schlagzeug, Schreibzeug, Schuhputzzeug, Strickzeug, and Zaumzeug.
Here the first part of the German word equivalent is simply the activity. Flug means flight or to fly. Fahr means driving or to drive. Werk is to work or work. Spiel means to play or plays. And feuer is fire. Put simply the workaround in the German language is to simply follow the verb of that activity with stuff. And that will give you the German word for said activity or thing. For example, Flug is flight, zeug is stuff. So Flugzeug means the stuff you need for flight/ to fly i.e an aeroplane. Similarly, stuff you need to drive is fahrzeug or a vehicle. The stuff you need to play with is a Spielzeug or toy. And stuff you need to light a fire is feuerzeug or lighter. Why complicate the entire process by coming up with new words and names. It’s all just stuff for different activities. So just address it like that. The things you need to do something. Zeug.
It’s so stupid, it’s positively brilliant.
The word Zeug comes from the Old High German word (gi)ziuch, which is related to the word ziehen (“to pull”) and means something like “the instrument to pull/do stuff with.”
Throughout its history, Zeug has had many different meanings and uses. An old one is directly connected to its meaning as the thing to pull things — it was the harness of a horse. Other meanings vary from fabric to rigging to tools.
The simplicity and practicality of the usage of zeug is its ultimate sophistication. Zeug’s usage will continue timelessly since it has no clear definition of what it is; it is expansive and can be adapted to serve any and every activity.
Now I know that this isn’t always true and there are specific German words for new activities and technologies just as there would be different words in various other languages for describing the same thing.
This observation on zeug is based on my limited German comprehension and understanding.
Makes me wonder if similar reasoning is behind naming for so many objects in English. Such as are windows called windows because they are simply doors for the wind to come in and out off? Did the expression do you have a light/ to set something alight lead to the naming of the lighter? [Fun Fact the lighter was invented before friction matches were.]
Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? I sure don’t. I just like the word zeug.
So here’s to all the stuff we have in our life. May your zeugs never fail you.
Danke, bis bald.