“Spießer” or a deep look into the German soul

16 Oct

“Spießer” is hands down one of my favorite words ever. I absolutely love it because it is so practical and contains so much information. Sometimes I try to describe someone and I can sum all kinds of characteristics up in that one word. It can also serve as a powerful insult, if you ever happen to need one. That’s why it has been bugging me for years that there does not seem to be a translation. Could this be one of those words that just doesn’t exist in English? Is it in the same category as “Schadenfreude” and “Doppelgänger”?

Leo Online Dictionary offers a couple of suggestions:

1. Babbit – Never heard of it. The dictionary also says it is dated. Can a native speaker help me out here? Has this word ever been actually used and if so, what does it mean?

2. bourgeois – Oh please. I know this word but it does not even come close to describing what I mean when I say “Spießer”.

3. middle-class person – Haha. That is rich.

4. petty bourgeois – okay, we are actually getting closer.

5. square – yes. That’s the one. Does not quite nail it but I guess this is as good as it gets. Traditionally most Germans, if asked what they associate with the word “Spießer” (also known as “Spießbürger”) say something like: White picket fences, boring run-of-the-mill house in the suburbs, extremely conservative, narrow-minded and so on. The details might differ but there is consensus about the negative connotation this word has.

What I love about it is how much this word is changing through time. The current meaning of “Spießer” is a symptom of the current Zeitgeist. In my childhood the most boring thing you could do was get said house in the suburbs and have the same furniture (preferably a “Schrankwand”) as the neighbours, wash the car every Saturday and mow the damn lawn every damn Sunday. These days we are a post-dot-com-bubble-burst, post-nine-eleven society and the new “Spießer” is living in one of the fancier parts of Berlin, has a pretty loft, designer furniture and no lawn. His or her 1,7 children have Japanese class in Kindergarden and they live on a diet of soy chai lattes and anything that has been basked with portwine reduction or original balsamico.

When I thought about the changing meanings of the word it occured to me that the thing these people have in common is a narrow horizon. They don’t understand anybody who is not like them, they don’t want to understand them and in the more dangerous cases they discriminate them. So we have arrived at the very general translation: intolerant and narrow-minded person. Once you work with this definition you see them everywhere. Especially those that think of themselves as the opposite of “Spießer” often turn out to be the same in a different color.

The thing about “Spießer” is that it seems so very, truly German to me. Of course, there are narrow-minded people everywhere. But this particular brand can only be found here. And while I, too, consider it a negative word and an insult, I cannot help but have a trace of fondness for the word and the people. These are my people. They are not perfect but like family you cannot choose your country of origin. I deeply disapprove of any kind of intolerance. However, it is a part of reality and while I condemn the thing, the people are still my fellow country men and women and I grew up among them. What can I do? Hope that the majority is harmless…

4 Responses to ““Spießer” or a deep look into the German soul”

  1. rusty October 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    ‘Square’ doesn’t work for me. It is I guess the most polite form but being ‘uncool’ is what ‘Square’ means for me while I think the group of people you are talking about when referring to the word “Spießer” think they are cool and perhaps they are but not in my way. The word ‘conformist’ came to mind but perhaps that suggests belonging to a sect or just people who follow the rules and rituals of capitalism.

  2. H.D. October 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    “They don’t understand anybody who is not like them, they don’t want to understand them and in the more dangerous cases they discriminate them. So we have arrived at the very general translation: intolerant and narrow-minded person.”
    I would like to venture and say that that’s not an appropriate definition of the newly developed “Bionade”-Spießer, because a lot of them are actually (former) students and/or artists/designers and part of the “creative class”, whatever that might mean. Which is to say that they are not necessarily intolerant but rather fairly liberal-minded. The only problem is that their lifestyle has made them rather apolitical and lacking any sort of distinct profile. They have made peace with the system, as long as they get to send their kids to the kindergarten in the “nice” neighborhood and don’t have to pay too many taxes.

    • Elle Aura October 22, 2011 at 11:40 am #

      True, they are “liberals”, they have lived abroad and have the word tolerant written all over but try and tell them something like for example: “I personally am proud to be German.” and wait what happens. So, I agree with you that the old and the new “Spießer” are very different in their political stance. However, just because the scorn is aimed at something new, it does not make it less intolerant.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Streber” or what Germans think of pursuing happiness « my german diction - January 4, 2012

    […] as Tracy Flick in the 1999 movie “Election“.) Much like with the word “Spießer“ the details of the definition differ depending on the person you ask, but everyone will […]

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