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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association
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The first of these books is an account of how words come to have the meanings they do and has its origin in a popular North German Radio series. The book must be popular as well, because this is the third edition in two years (it was first published in 1995). The second is an account of geflügelte Worte, literally "winged / wingèd words", words, neologisms and phrases which, as it were, take wing and pass into general use. So although these books are primarily of interest to German and English specialists (Christoph Gutknecht is Professor of English Linguistics in Hamburg), they address general linguistic questions as well, and also contain useful pointers as to how to popularize academic work.
The title of the first book has its origin in the colloquial German phrase das ist für mich ein böhmisches Dorf, the origin of which, as we find on p. 66f., is to be found in the usage of mercenaries who found themselves in Bohemia during the Thirty Years War confronted by incomprehensible Czech village names. The fact that Gutknecht gives more etymological information than the Duden (Drosdowski et al. 1992:123) or Kluge (1989), and offers a handy English translation -- "that's all Greek to me" --, which many of the standard dictionaries do not, shows already that these little books will make a welcome addition to your library. There are lots of useful examples to illustrate the processes underlying many historical developments in meaning: extension and restriction of meaning (e.g. Laune, Schutz, p. 15f.); taboos and euphemisms (e.g. das Zeitliche segnen for sterben. p. 88f.); metaphor (e.g. jemandem etwas in den Mund legen, p. 28); popular etymology (e.g. Hängematte, p. 41), opaque words (e.g. English lady as "loaf-kneader"), to name but a few. He also introduces basic linguistic categories such as word and morpheme (Chapter 5), and includes a glossary of technical terms (pp. 190-194), which would have been more useful had it referred to the text (Volksetymologie "popular etymology", for example, is defined, but the reader is not directed to the examples which illustrate the concept). Having said that, both the bibliography (pp. 186-190) and the name and word indices (pp. 194-212) are helpful, but this is not so much a reference work, as a book to read and enjoy.
For many, the term geflügeltes Wort is a böhmisches Dorf, but help is at hand (Lauter böhmische Dörfer, p. 27): it goes back to Homer (épea pteróenta), and was popularized first by Johann Heinrich Voß's (1751-1826) translations of Homer, and then by August Georg Büchmann (1822-1884), whose Geflügelte Worte. Der Zitatenschatz des deutschen Volkes (1864) has since appeared regularly. So the term geflügeltes Wort is in fact a geflügeltes Wort itself. Interestingly, the expression appears to be attested in English in the early 17th century (a. 1616, according to SOED 1970:2433), and so, despite the way on which the book was eagerly copied in French, Swedish, Finnish, and other languages, it is unlikely to be a loan translation from German. Almost half the book is taken up with a history of Büchmann's dictionary and other similar collections (pp.11-109), and contains references to a number of interesting dictionaries, from Kleines Lexicon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (Petzold 1995) to the new Goethe dictionary (Dobel 1995) and many more.
A geflügeltes Wort must be (according to Scholze-Stubenrecht et al. 1993:12f.) a well-known quotation, which is topical, used over a long period and derived from a literary source or an historical personage. Gutknecht's data does not always fall into this narrow category. The second half of the book deals with turns of phrase in a more general sense, and often strikes out along etymological by-ways. In the second chapter, on turns of phrase based on parts of the body (Von Kopf bis Fuß auf Sprache eingestellt! Linguistische Körperwendungen, pp. 110-144), for example, he begins logically enough with phrases such as "from head to foot", "to keep and lose one's head" and discusses the etymology of German Kopf "head" (= English cup, Latin coppa "cup"), but these cannot be seen as wingèd words in the narrow sense. He then treats idioms based on music (pp. 145-155), animals (pp. 156-207), numbers (pp. 208-224), food (pp. 225-248) and lastly binomi(n)als such as this and that "dieses und jenes" (pp. 249-270). In his discussion of parts of the body, I was expecting to find the reason for the title of the book, but, apart from a reference to Volker Dietzel's collection of Yiddish sayings Die ganze Welt steht auf der spitzen Zunge there is nothing specific. The Duden (Drosdowski and Scholze-Stubenrecht 1992:839) supplies a nice quotation here from Gerhard Zwerenz: Größte Künstler übertreffen ihre eigentliche Kunst noch mit der ihrer spitzen Zunge. In Christoph Gutknecht's case, it is his spitze Ohren and his scharfe Augen which have served him well.
Gutknecht ends Lauter spitze Zungen with a quotation from Karl Julius Weber, the message of which is that the best idea in the book is probably the end, but, however clever an ending this might be, it should not be taken too seriously. There will no doubt be further editions, further volumes, and further radio series, as there is plenty of additional material which could be used to delight his listeners and readers. Very occasionally, one could have supplied a footnote. For example, the antithetical meaning observed in Indo-European *ghostis (p. 13f.) may reflect a general principle of meaning relationships: Peter Lutzeier has recently published on the phenomenon of Gegensinn (1997). Similarly, the etymology of meinen "to love" suggests that this verb was originally distinct from meinen "to think" (Pokorny 1959 I:714, 728). But more often the reference works verified Gutknecht's accounts and I gained the impression that these popular books are based on solid learning and wide reading.
Drosdowski, Günther, and Werner Scholze-Stubenrecht 1992. Duden -- Redewendungen und sprichwörtliche Redensarten. Mannheim, Leipzig, Vienna, Zurich: Dudenverlag. (Der Duden in 12 Bänden, Vol. 11.)
Kluge, Friedrich, 1979. Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: der Gruyter. (22nd edition by Elmar Seebold.)
Lutzeier, Peter, 1997. "Gegensinn als besondere Form lexikalischer Ambiguität". Paper read to the Conference of University Teachers of German, Glasgow, 9.4.1997.
Petzold, Leander, 1995. Kleines Lexicon der Dämonen und Elementargeister. Munich: Beck. (2nd edition. First published 1990.)
SOED 1970. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Prepared by William Little, H. W. Fowler, J. Coulson. Revised and Edited by C.T. Onions. Oxford, Clarendon. (Third edition, revised with addenda. First published 1933.)
Scholze-Stubenrecht, Werner, et al., 1993. Duden -- Zitate und Aussprüche . Mannheim, Leipzig, Vienna, Zurich: Dudenverlag. (Der Duden in 12 Bänden, Vol. 12.)