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.

The arts too would be bereft without German. No English-language book reviewer could expect to be taken seriously without using the word Bildungsroman (ie. a novel tracing the moral and spiritual growth of a central character) at least once a week.

And even emotional literacy sometimes depends on words that have crossed the Rhine. Sure, most ordinary mortals can get by with occasional feelings of sadness or melancholy about the state of the world. For the more sensitive, poetic souls among us, however, there are times when only weltschmerz will do.

INDEED, I EXPERIENCEDa bout of it just yesterday when reading an interview with the celebrated American “financial disaster journalist” Michael Lewis. In this, he predicted that while Greece, Spain, and Italy would leave the euro eventually, Ireland would probably stay in because, as he suggested, marvelling, we appeared to have an insatiable appetite for pain.

This reminded me that it is to Germany also that we owe the term “masochism”, via Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, who first described the condition. And I don’t know whether that Leopold was a distant ancestor of Klaus Masuch, his near-namesake and European Central Bank member of the troika that pays us regular visits.

But either way, Klaus and his colleagues are doing their best to satisfy our unnatural cravings. Meanwhile, for anyone who wants even more, I recommend a trip to the Aviva Stadium tonight. With Giovanni Trapattoni’s tactics on one side, and Germany’s nationalmannschaft on the other, that should be enough suffering for anyone, at least for one evening.

It’s a famous truism of international football, by the way, that the Germans can never be written off. And it’s a truism of international finance – so far – that you can’t write off debts owed to Germany either.

This must be why the typically-impressive Teutonic verb that would be required for such an operation, abschreiben, is still unheard of in English. Non-masochists, in the Cabinet and elsewhere, will be hoping it becomes a loan word soon. And that, in time, as with other common German words – like hinterland, lager, and rucksack – the loan will be forgotten.

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