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.


  1. If it’s Slavic, then it consists of prefix od- (out), root -rad- (counsel) and dimunitive suffix -ek.

    Which doesn’t make sense. “Someone who counsels against” is not very convincing.

    But I would venture a guess that “a” in the root somehow got misplaced instead of “o”.

    Then it would be “odrodek” which is not a word I’ve encountered, but it could plausibly mean a monster or degenerate. comp Russian “vyrodok”, Bulgarian “izroden”

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I must say that the interpretations for this story are surprising. I am pretty sure they are overhtinking a very small story. And I am pretty sure I know the thing for what it is, because I have written similar things myself: it is an exercise. Just a little thing to warm up the writing muscles. I believe that the title is a nonce word Kafka made up because he liked the sound of it, and the story is what came to him as he contemplated the thing he made up. Not everything has the burden of hidden meaning!

  3. I read the story aloud to my wife, who had never read it, and immediately had to confront the riddle of the first paragraph: should I say “OD-rad-ek” in Germanic style, or “o-DRA-dek” in Slavic style? I went with the latter, with some qualms, partly because I had always heard it in my head the other way and wanted to try it out.

    “So what is it?” said Gale. “It’s just what it’s described to be,” said I. It seems to me that this story is even less than the story about the old man and the big fish. Perhaps the idea of a small, apparently useless object that can say a thing or two, but little more, makes more sense to us than it did in Kafka’s day: there are plenty of children’s toys like that, which may well outlive us all, even if at the bottom of a landfill.

  4. John, since Czech almost always stresses the first syllable, “OD-rad-ek” is probably what Kafka had in mind in either case.

  5. Czech odradit, Polish odradzić ‘discourage, advise against’, from rada ‘counsel, advice; council’ — an old loan from Low German (cf. G. Raat, OE rǣd, ON ráð).

  6. P.S. I agree with Lucy that it makes little sense to look for hidden meanings in what Kafka wrote with his tongue in his cheek. Still, his jocular comment on the Slavic-influenced German origin of odradek shows that he was in all likelihood thinking of the verb odradit (only to dismiss the etymology, but the dismissal can’t be taken too seriously either).

  7. David Marjanović says:

    G. Raat

    Ooh, I can turn this into a whole story. 🙂

    It’s spelled Rat. The vowel is long in the standard, but that’s because of the lengthening of monosyllabic words that started in Switzerland a few hundred years ago and still hasn’t reached the north. Here in Berlin, the station Rathaus Steglitz is pronounced with a long vowel by the announcing voice on the subway, but with a short one by the one on the bus, as if spelled *Ratthaus, heavily implying that the local politicians are all rats. ^_^

    All of this also applies to its homophone Rad (“wheel”, also short for Fahrrad “bicycle”).

  8. John, since Czech almost always stresses the first syllable, “OD-rad-ek” is probably what Kafka had in mind in either case.

    Yes, that’s how I hear it in my head.

    Piotr, David: Many thanks, as always, for your learnèd explanations!

  9. By the way, “Rada” translates into Russian as “Soviet”.

    But that’s surely a meaningless coincidence

  10. heavily implying that the local politicians are all rats

    Very true. (You’re going to have to start googling the Hat archives before you post anything, like I have had to do for a while now. 🙂 )

  11. It’s spelled Rat.

    Oops, of course it is. It got contaminated with Dutch Raad in my head. They call their Staatsrat de Raad van State. Anyway, OHG had râd, with a long vowel.

  12. Ugh! OHG had rât, with a long vowel.

  13. Stephen Bruce says:

    By the way, “Rada” translates into Russian as “Soviet”. But that’s surely a meaningless coincidence.

    In fact, according to Vasmer, рада was borrowed from Middle High German via Polish rada (I supposed high vs. low doesn’t matter much here?).

    Historically it’s been seen as a Ukrainian/Belorussian/Lithuanian/Polish, and whereas the name of the Ukrainian parliament used to be translated into Russian as the Verkhovnyj Sovet, now it’s left as the more Ukrainian Verkhovnaya Rada.

    And conversely, in Ukrainian the USSR was the Sojuz radjans’kykh sotsialistychnykh respublik.

  14. We called the Soviet Union Związek Radziecki or, facetiously, zdradziecki ‘treacherous’ (zdrada ‘treason, betrayal’ < z-rada, cf. Czech zrada, a calque of German Verrat).

  15. Russian has a root (and the word) рад, which deals with happiness. For example, отрада = pleasure, comfort. And, of course, there are cognates in various Slavic languages, but is there any connection to Odradek I have no idea.

  16. “One who counsels against”, as in Satan/διάβολος ?
    I don’t really think so, but thought I’d throw it in.

  17. Stefan Holm says:

    And in Swedish the ’Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ was ’Socialistiska rådsrepublikernas union’. The word (råd) in Swedish means both ‘council’ and ‘advice’. Kafka might have been making a quiz or a pun.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Very true.

    Argh. I was certain I hadn’t posted that one yet, and was in fact waiting for an opportunity!

    OHG had rât, with a long vowel.

    Huh. Is the voice really trying to say the politicians are rats? …Or there’s interference from Rad, which is widely pronounced short in northern Germany and really must have an original short vowel (Latin rota, Sanskrit rátha “chariot”).

    Anyway, the long vowel makes it a lot easier to account for Swedish råd, which I knew from Vetenskapsrådet, the science council.

    means both ‘council’ and ‘advice’

    Same in German; Kafka may not even have noticed any potential pun…

    …which could be rendered in English rather wonderfully by resorting to counsel.

  19. Stephen Bruce says:

    Piotr’s odradit seems the most likely to me. Czech does also have rád, “glad,” and the name Radek, short for Radoslav.

    Back to Russian, I found this is Dahl’s dictionary, which is probably irrelevant:

    Отрадеть, у хлыстов, скопцов и др. кончить раденье, молитвеные песни и пляску.
    Otradet’, among the Khlysty, Skoptsy, and others: to end the ecstatic ritual (radenie), prayer songs, and dance.

  20. I definitely hear the vowel in my head as long. I was trying to concoct something about a Hesse novel called Unter der Ratte, but I just couldn’t make it work.

  21. Just a few words on the suffix. -ek seems to some extent productive in Polish. Thus we have Skarbek (a vengeful apparition guarding mines’ treasures: http://www.kghm.pl/index.dhtml?category_id=328), czubek (‘top of sth, especially one’s head’, but also ‘nutcase’), dupek (‘asshole’), and in right-wing or nationalist circles Radek (Radosław) Sikorski, the current Sejm Marshal, is routinely called zdradek (‘betrayer’, sounds somewhat jocular; ‘the one who betrays’ is ‘zdrajca’ in standard Polish). It may show complementary or auxiliary nature (tlenek ‘oxide’ from tlen ‘oxygen’) or it may be diminutive (in trupek ‘dead body (somewhat dismissive)’, motylek ‘little butterfly’, jelonek ‘little deer’).

  22. “Odradek” occurs a lot in the weird and wonderful “Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil” by Enrique Vila-Mata, which (strangely enough) seems not to have been translated into English. I read it in Swedish some 20 years ago.

  23. From an LRB review of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography:

    [H]ere he is encouraging his father to invest in an asbestos factory and then disappointing his father terribly by not helping to run the asbestos factory, which loses money and goes under […]. Here he is reading a letter from the tax office asking about capital contributions to the First Prague Asbestos Works, here he is writing back explaining that the factory had ceased to exist five years earlier, and here he is receiving another letter asking what his reply meant as no record could be found of the referenced original letter, and then here he is a few months later receiving a third letter threatening him with charges and a fine if he persists in not accounting for the capital accumulation on the First Prague Asbestos Works […].

    Talk about Kafkaesque.

  24. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    John Cowan, my son said when he lived in Prague that Kafka’s work was documentary, not imaginary.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    I definitely hear the vowel in my head as long.

    Your German is more standard than the more colloquial registers found in Berlin.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    The Northern form was borrowed into Scandinavian as rat(t) “steering wheel”.

  27. Carl Knuspriger says:

    As to the “creepy illustration”: I am quite sure the the illustrator didn’t get it right. A “flat star-shaped spool for thread” (“eine flache sternartige Zwirnspule”) describes exactly what I know in German as “Sternzwirn”. I am no specialist in sartorial affairs, but I remember it from my childhood, where it in fact used to be around in the house (albeit mostly in some rarely opened drawers), as a kind of relatively sturdy thread that is wound on a star-shape piece of cardboard. Here’s a picture: http://www.bastelstube-michelstadt.de/shop/images/Sternzwirn%20orange.jpg
    You can easily find more pictures by googling “Sternzwirn” (“Zwirn” being “thread”).
    The object is thus not at all what one would usually imagine a spool to be. It is essentially flat. And one can easily imagine it walking around in the house in an upright position – on the points of its stars or with the help of some “rods” fixed to it as in the story in question.

  28. It brings back a memory from my primary school days: an illustrated book for children by Krystyna Boglar, entitled Wiercipiętek. The title hero was a small mischievous troll-like creature who claimed a cactus pot in a quiet family’s home as his residence. Wiercipięteek would play nasty practical tricks on the household, keeping himself invisible to most people, so that the blame was always pinned on the usual suspect — the family’s youngest member, a boy called Tomek. Here is the cover illustration — I have little doubt that Wiercipiętek was somehow related to Odradek the Sternzwirn.

  29. Piotr, what you are describing is a brownie.

  30. Mention simply must be made here of Oulipo’s Harry Mathews’ The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.

  31. And of course AEthelred Unraed (Ethelred the Ill-Advised), better but wrongly known as Ethelred the Unready, a pre-Conquest king of England.

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