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“Zeitvertreib” or how we treat our time

12 May

Ah, time. Strange thing, isn’t it? We are all familiar with its relativity so let’s not rehash that.

Lately I have had a lot to do. I still have a lot to do because I haven’t done most of it yet. Instead I spend an insane amount of time watching old “Quite Interesting” episodes on Youtube. My TV watching habits are strange and obsessive. My brother is frequently telling me that it looks like work when I watch TV. Once I discover something I like, I will pull all-nighters to catch up on every single thing I can find out about it. Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about TV. I wanted to write about time and what you can do with it.

You can use it wisely, waste it and kill it. Doctor Who can bend it but that’s a different story. Well, in German you can banish it. What? Yes, you can. But contrary to what you might think now, it is actually a nice thing to do. I am talking about “Zeitvertreib”. The dictionary tells me it can be translated as amusement, avocation or pastime. And that is absolutely accurate. However, while the meaning in the end is the same, the actual words are so very different. When you take a closer look at “Zeitvertreib” it consists of the words “Zeit” – time, and “Vertreib” which is derived from the verb “vertreiben” – to banish or to drive away.

Sometimes it is used pretty literally. For example when somebody informs you that you have to wait half an hour for them and you reply something like: “Ach, ich werde mir schon irgendwie die Zeit vertreiben.” – Oh, I will find a way to pass my time somehow. But as a noun you use it to describe hobbies or lovely activities. So, when I tell my grandmother that I just started to teach myself how to play the Ukulele, she could answer: “Was für ein schöner Zeitvertreib!” – What a lovely way to pass your time. “Zeitvertreib” is a positive thing. However, the literal meaning of the word “vertreiben” definitely has a negative connotation. It is something that happens to refugees in wars. And this is the image that I find remarkable. So my grandmother literally says: What a lovely way to get time away from you. “Zeitvertreib” basically means to drive your time away from you, to displace it, to force it to go elsewhere. As if it was something you don’t want. And in a way time is something we don’t want on its own. We want time to do stuff and to do nothing but never just time itself.

So, there you have it. Germans banish time and think that that’s a good thing. In all fairness, though, it is better than killing it.

„Selbstbefriedigung“ or why that word?

29 Nov

Once upon a time a German girl was standing on a street in front of a bar in a city called Krakow. It was late at night and next to her stood an American with a swatter and a very drunk Irishman. The three of them were laughing loudly and had a lot of fun when all of a sudden the Irishman said the following word in German: “Selbstbefriedigung”.

As a German who gets around a bit I am used to people telling me the German words they know as soon as they learn where I am from. This is always a lot of fun. There are of course the classics like “Alles klar!”, “Guten Tag”, “Du hast” (Thank you, Rammstein), “Wie geht’s” and so on. Occasionally I still get a “Heil Hitler” but usually only when I run into English stag parties. Every once in a while, though, there are some real surprises. Many years ago I met a woman from Belgium who told me her favorite German word was “Fingerspitzengefühl”. This is another one of those words that consist of several parts. The part-by-part translation would be “fingertip-feeling”. The dictionary only offers the rather puny “tact”. I liked this word as well but the way she said it made me really appreciate the beauty of it. She was scrunching up her nose a bit, put on a half smile and was wiggling her fingertips. It was actually really cute.

Another nice moment was the American who did not speak a single word of German but started to recite Nietzsche’s Zarathustra within the first few minutes of meeting me. And then there was the aforementioned Irishman with his “Selbstbefriedigung”. For those of you who haven’t looked it up already, “Selbstbefriedigung” is a rather technical term for masturbation. The exact translation would be self-satisfaction which isn’t that bad, but in German I can’t help but feel that it sounds a little cold.

I just don’t get it. How does this happen? When you only know a couple of words in a certain language, how do you end up knowing exactly that word? What is the story behind it? Who taught him that? Can a reader help me out here?

And while we are on the subject, what are the weirdest words you were confronted with?