cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

Tales from the cuttings cull # 1 – Schlimmblesserung

Ah, foreign words, what would we do without them? Zeitgeist. Schadenfreude. Weltanschauung. Bildungsroman. Schlimmbesserung.  Never heard of it? Nor me. In an old Sunday Times science page article I came across in a pile of cuttings being culled,  Robert Mathews used it, with a single m, in a piece about mucking-up maps.  Apparently a child’s atlas he picked up had pages centred on 150 degrees rather than the traditional 0 degree Greenwich meridian , with the annoying effect of every twin page being mostly ocean.

Translated literally, Schlimmerbesserung comes out as ‘a worse-bettering’.  It might be rendered  ‘correcting badly’.  Hence it has been used about Microsoft software. Howard Rheingold in his book, They have a Word For It, uses the example of the introduction of bus lanes which forces the rest of the traffic into the remaining lane or lanes: more snarl-ups rather than the intended less. Another example is the polystyrene cup. Great idea, but what do with we do with all the polystyrene which won’t biodegrade? They make them out of plastic now – do they biodegrade? But what of polystyrene packaging including those little beads and squiggles?

Since few know what a word like schlimmbesserung means has to be explained first, unlike blitzkrieg, ersatz or kindergarten. That’s the joy of it: a perfect excuse to introduce a concept.

Krautblog is not where I first read the word, but it explains something of its usage and origins.

Wayne Dynes in his blog, Dynlynes, suggests it came from textual criticism, which makes me think of the Bible’s many translations.

Everything2, says it was favoured by Einstein.

Apparently it makes more sense to a German as Verschlimmbesserung, the ver indicating change. Though one German says it is not a compound he knows and he can’t find it in his German dictionary.

Robert Mathews has re-introduced the word in another context in a 2008 article, Grey skies are going to clear up. His article in my cuttings, Why the world have map-makers left us all at sea? (The Sunday Telegraph 7 April 2002) begins:

When people try to fix something that isn’t broken, the result is usually what the Germans handily term a schlimbessung [sic] – a “worse-bettering”. As I opened a world atlas the other day, I discovered  that even cartography is not immune from this effect.

A travel piece on Thailand by someone else also uses it:

There’s a funny German word for it: Schlimmbesserung. It  means: to make things worse by trying to make them better.

It is difficult to find something equivalent to schlimmerbesserung in English because of this seeming combination of intent and result.  Wiki:unintended consequences, certainly covers it, but can refer to good or bad outcomes.


There is a distinction between loan words and calque.


Schlimmbesserung reminds me of hirnsbesitzer: not because of meaning but it highlights the business of which foreign words find favour and which rarely see the light of day.

The Beethoven story is well known but hirnsbesitzer has not been taken into common currency. For some reason the word  hirnsbesitzer has stuck in my mind for decades, easily recalled at the slightest provocation. To excuse the use of the word the story of oneupmanship amongst Beethovens has to be  told each time! There is no way to talk or write in English about ‘brain-owner’ or ‘man of brains’ on their own – not mentioning this particular Beethovian context – without striking a false note.  Do Germans in general (now) distinguish themselves as brain-owners as Ludwig did?


The little thought enters my head that each language is another country, rather like they say the past is. Or is it that we think it this is so? That we are convinced we have a word for an idea or feeling  which other languages haven’t got. That they have words which explain more subtly than words we have. The Portuguese or lovers of Portuguese (after all using the expression in another language is not a Portuguese problem) seem to be convinced of the untranslatableness of saudade.  When you read around it becomes clear untranslatableness is about how easy it is to translate. If it takes too many words then it is ‘untranslatable’.

Howard Rheingold: “Finding a name for something, is a way of conjuring its existence.”  “…became sympathetic to the idea that we think and behave the way we do in large part because we have words that make these thoughts and behaviors possible, acceptable, and useful.”

A return journey through Chomsky- Sapir-Whorf Lands can be instructive. (‘ Current linguists, rather than studying whether language affects thought, are studying how it affects thought.’) SEE The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax (a chapter 7 of something larger it seems).

A loan word like mise-en-scène is interesting because the meaning has expanded after adoption. It retains it foreignness while at the same time expressing concisely  (if not always clearly because of disputes about its technical meaning) and seemingly simply,  by a kind of imagery of what is meant.  The wiki: mise-en-scène, does explain the source and meaning pretty clearly, but this jokey reply from The Straight Dope (Fighting Ignorance since 1973) to an irate correspondent does it even better with its:

In its most significant sense, mise-en-scene refers to everything under the control of the director, that is, the aggregate effect created by art direction, placement and movement of camera and actors, lighting, and other visual elements in a given scene.



Wiki:List of loanwords by country or language of origin (A pie chart shows at German equal to latin, and French ar roughly 25 % eah, which surprised me. Greek only 6 %)

Rudolph Chelminski in the discussion page of  wiki:List of English words of German origin


If memory serves me right, Caesar described the Germanii as a large, hardy, ferocious people who inhabited the gloomy forests to the east of Gaul, wore hardly any clothes and were perpetually on the move. Well, if he were able to have a look around the seashores of Spain, Portugal or Italy today, he might say exactly the same thing, although this time around the context would be rather more peaceable. The descendants of those redoubtable forest-dwelling savages are probably the world’s number-one travelers today, still gripped by an extraordinary wanderlust that sends them to the four corners of the earth in apparent flight from the serious, orderly and slightly boring society they have constructed for themselves in their geopolitical sandwich between the Latins to the west and the Slavs to the east. The Germans have done a lot of fighting and a lot of thinking about that sandwich over the centuries since Caesar reported on them, and the words that have entered the English language from their experience frequently reflect those military and intellectual struggles: they are light on things like play, gastronomy, fashion and frivolity but top heavy in philosophy, political thought and struggle in general: serious, consequential stuff. If these words tend to be a little ponderous and hard to pronounce, they are marvelously apt expressions of what could never be expressed so well if our English tongue just minded its own business and never wandered abroad to steal from others.

which puts on in mind of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory.

Wordcraft (no, that isn’t a calque of a German compound, but a website on words and how to use them) has a little list from Rheinhold’s book, including :

Drachenfutter – peace offering to one’s wife (chocolate, flowers, etc.) when one has behaved badly: a late night of poker with the boys, etc.

Literally (oh, this is lovely!) “dragon fodder”. An attempt to propitiate the goddess in her wrath.

Such gifts were so customary and common that the Germans coined a word for them. Rheingold reports, “At one point it was common in Germany to see men drinking in bars of cafés on Saturday afternoons with their Drachenfutter already bought and wrapped in anticipation of the night ahead.”

Quo Lingua? William Saffire in the NYT, 29 September, 1996. Other loan words.

Words that are supposedy untranslatable is a thread in Everything2

Translating the Untranslatable

some examples from In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World, by Christopher J. Moore

Untranslatable words – contains list of words that defy translation

Essay/article by Howard Rheingold, author of They have a Word For It, lists some of his favourites but also explains reasons behind his (Whorfian?) interest (“….patterns of meaning that seem to propagate themselves throughout linguistic communities”, etc)

The most untranslatable word in the world


wiki:unintended consequences

Schlimmbesserung  seems to be covered by unintended consequences.

wiki:language and thought

Which comes first language or Thought?

Wiki: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax Dan Moonhawk Alford

Life is a schlimmbesserung old chum.

October 12, 2008 Posted by | general | Leave a comment