Open Dictionary word of the week: zugzwang

Posted by on May 17, 2012

zugzwang (noun)

in a game such as chess, a player is in zugzwang when it is their turn to move and whatever move they make will leave them in a weaker position

The Spanish debt-drama shows that Europe is in Zugzwang – a situation in chess when there is no useful move – every possible move will make the situation worse.

(Submitted from United Kingdom)

German has words for subtle, shadowy things that the world needs words for but doesn’t like to admit. For example, of course, schadenfreude: a feeling of pleasure that some people have when bad things happen to someone else. Pop psychology might say that sticking to the foreign word without creating our own English version shows that we are not ‘owning the feeling’.

Another good one which we should borrow is torschlusspanik:

Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”

Mid-life crisis covers one version of what torschlusspanik can refer to but it’s so much richer in meaning than that. It can be used (as far as I understand it) politically, romantically, socially and, I suppose, literally as its original meaning refers to the feeling that medieval peasants had when the castle gates were closing for an upcoming onslaught by enemies.

Zugzwang, though actually a chess term, has come to mean any occasion where life reflects chess and where you find yourself  ‘at a disadvantage because [you have to] make a move when [you] would prefer to pass and make no move’. Yup, German has a way of capturing subtle inner workings.

We’ve talked before about words that are missing in English, or words that are missing in other languages that we have in English – but that discussion is lost in the paleolithic era of Facebook wall history. I’ve also, as a result of another Facebook conversation, done a small post on sayings that are ‘lost in translation.’

And still on the subject of  finding the right words, a few years ago Dizraeli wrote a guest post about the word silly:

For all its poetry and detail, the French language – for me – lacked one vital element: the word silly. This might seem a small thing, but the word silly is one of the most important in the English language. Strung between its two syllables is a universe of humour, playfulness, surreal possibility and rubber meanings. Birthed from the Old English root sǣliġ, meaning ‘blessed’, and growing through the muddled seely, meaning ‘innocent’, ‘poor’, ‘foolish’ and ‘fortunate’ all at once, silly encapsulates what to me is the most appropriate response to the mess of contradictions that is reality: fling off your clothes, and mud wrestle. Playing the role of Fool in the court of the king, it can also create a space for very serious satire and social commentary. Monty Python – the British comedy collective – took on fascism, the corruption of religion, the class system, bureaucracy … all the poisons of the modern world, and did so armed only with colossal silliness.

(This is the awesome article I read which introduced me to the word torschlusspanik20 awesomely untranslatable words from around the world, thanks @wirejr)

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