I recently came across a reference to “Odradek,” which sounded vaguely West Slavic but otherwise meant nothing to me; Google told me it was from a very short story by Kafka called “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” (“The Cares of a Family Man”), which turns out to be one of the few works of literature I know that puts etymology front and center. The first of the five paragraphs, followed by my attempt at a translation:
Die einen sagen, das Wort Odradek stamme aus dem Slawischen und sie suchen auf Grund dessen die Bildung des Wortes nachzuweisen. Andere wieder meinen, es stamme aus dem Deutschen, vom Slawischen sei es nur beeinflußt. Die Unsicherheit beider Deutungen aber läßt wohl mit Recht darauf schließen, daß keine zutrifft, zumal man auch mit keiner von ihnen einen Sinn des Wortes finden kann.
Some say the word Odradek is of Slavic origin, and on the strength of that they try to demonstrate the formation of the word. Others think it is of German origin, and that Slavic has only influenced it. The uncertainty of both interpretations, however, allows us to conclude with good reason that neither is correct, especially since neither of them provides us with a meaning for the word.
You can see a translation of the whole, very creepy, story, with a creepy illustration (as well as an attempt at interpretation which I did not read much of), here; the Wikipedia article has a whole series of interpretations, one more bizarre and unlikely than the next (hey, there’s Slavoj Žižek!), as well as the suggestion that an alleged “antiquated Slavonic verb ‘odradeti’, which means ‘to counsel against’ could be the root of the word” — does anybody know what this “odradeti” might be, or be supposed to be? Me, I like Noah Willumsen’s approach:
Allegorical readers of “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” have sought to tame the text and its wild creature, Odradek, by establishing stable correspondences between text and theory, replacing Odradek, in all its unknowability, with some element of their own understanding. … I will argue that an interpretation of his works must deal only with their sensus literalis. Their truth is autonomous: independent of reference, undetermined by a conceptual framework.