An Irishman's Diary
IT WAS with a genuine thrill that, reading the sports pages earlier this week, I first encountered the term nationalmannschaft. The mystery was why it hadn’t come to my attention before. Here, it seemed, was another of those magnificently expressive German words that have no equivalent in English and yet are badly needed.
Thus, before I had a chance to look it up, I thought nationalmannschaft might describe one of the periodic frenzies we have in Ireland wherein all the country’s frustrations are taken out on one individual, usually male: who, being guilty of certain things, is blamed for everything else as well.
The late Charlie Haughey, for example. Or Seán Quinn. Or a certain well-known former banker who will be before the courts again soon, so we won’t name him.
I’m not saying such people don’t always deserve their treatment. But in any case, the would-be nationalmannschafts have a habit of backfiring on the schafters. In fact, the same day I saw the word in Sport, our front page was reporting that, sure enough, the bill for Mr Haughey’s tribunal costs would fall to the taxpayer.
So maybe a variation of the term – nationschaftmann – was required as well, I thought. Then I learned that the original word has no such meanings in its mother tongue. Alas, according to my kill-joy dictionary, the nationalmannschaft is nothing more than Germany’s football team, which plays Ireland in Dublin tonight.
THIS IS NOT the first time I’ve been disappointed by the failure of a potential loan-word (is there a German term for that, I wonder?). Not so long ago, I had a similar experience with gezamtkunstwerk. You meet that one on the arts pages a lot.
But based on my phonetic interpretation, other applications seemed possible.
I imagined a typical Irish scenario in which, say, somebody discovers a fraud that will cost the State billions. Not knowing who to blame for it yet, however, he mutters darkly: “This is some gezamtkunstwerk!” (before noticing that there are ladies present and apologising for his German).
Yet here too, the dictionaries offered no support for my preferred translation. On the contrary, it appeared that the word applies only to a work of Wagnerian-style musical theatre. Not something we have much use for here.
Still, Germany has already supplied more than its share of words without which English would be deficient. Schadenfreude is perhaps the most famous. But where would be be without wanderlust? (At home, probably). And what else would we be in tune with if not the zeitgeist? Then there’s the world of public affairs. It’s only when you hear the Minister for Health making a show of himself by trying to explain decisions in terms of “logical logarithmic progression” that you appreciate how pithy and useful the term realpolitik is.