Einen feinen Pinsel.

From Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich. LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, tr. Martin Brady (via Laudator Temporis Acti):

The variations in speech dependent on class are by no means merely of aesthetic significance. Rather, I am convinced that the unfortunate mistrust between intellectuals and proletarians is largely a result of their different linguistic habits. There were so many occasions during these years when I said to myself: how on earth shall I put it? Workers like to use fruity expressions relating to digestion in every sentence. If I did the same he would notice it didn’t come naturally and regard me as a hypocrite trying to ingratiate myself; however, if I talk naturally, or as I was taught in the nursery and at school, he will think me arrogant or a jumped-up so-and-so.

Die Verschiedenartigkeit des Sprechens je nach der Sozialschicht ist ja keineswegs nur von ästhetischer Bedeutsamkeit. Vielmehr bin ich überzeugt davon, daß das unselige Mißtrauen zwischen den Gebildeten und den Proletariern zu einem sehr großen Teil gerade auf den Unterschieden der Sprachgewohnheit beruht. Wie oft in diesen Jahren habe ich mir gesagt : Wie soll ich’s nur anstellen? Der Arbeiter liebt es, in jedem Satz die saftigen Ausdrücke der Verdauung zu verwenden. Tu ich desgleichen, so merkt er, daß mir das nicht vom Herzen kommt, und hält mich für einen Heuchler, der sich anschmieren will; red’ ich aber, wie mir der Schnabel gewachsen oder in Kinderstube und Schule geformt worden ist, dann hält er mich für hochmütig, für einen feinen Pinsel.

Pinsel is ‘(paint)brush,’ but it has a slang sense ‘simpleton, dope.’ I would never have guessed that Verdauung means ‘digestion’; apparently it’s from an obsolete verb dauen, of unclear etymology. It is, of course, notable that the common folk of Germany use “expressions relating to digestion” (I presume that’s his delicate way of suggesting shit); in English and Russian, similar expressions involve, uh, reproduction.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Unfortunately he does not give examples…
    What I understood was something like Victorian sensibilites, where certain bodily functions and parts were avoided in polite speech, whereas common people spoke more colorfully and had a range of expressions, including but not limited to insults employing these terms.
    Common speech
    1. ekelhaft
    2 zum Kotzen
    3. beschissen
    4. spucken
    5. saufen, fressen (of person)
    6. die Fresse, die Schnauze, das Maul
    7. der Bauch
    8. der Arsch
    9. insults with element Kotz, Scheiss (similar ones with Sau)
    1-2. abscheulich
    3. bescheuert
    4. erbrechen (vomit), ?(speien?) (spit)
    5. essen, trinken
    7. der Magen
    6. der Mund, die Nase
    8. das Hinterteil, die Hinteren
    9. ?

  2. Elevated people insult each other with ironic circumlocutions that are easily deniable.

  3. Lars Mathiesen says

    Da fordøje containing the root of E thaw, it says. The Swedes still talk about matsmältning.

    TIL that døje v is a false cognate and in some causative way based on du which is cognate to G taugen.

  4. @Paddy: I don’t know when your comparative list was produced or by whom, but it partially looks wrong or at least outdated to me.
    Most of the words in the first list are indeed vulgar, but not all:
    ekelhaft isn’t especially “common” or vulgar, it is also used in elevated registers.
    spucken meaning “spit” is the neutral word, while speien is almost obsolete in that sense.
    Bauch is the neutral word for “belly”; “common” words in line with the other words in the list would be Wanst, Plauze etc. Magen is not normally used as synonym or euphemism for Bauch; different to English stomach, it normally only refers to the inner organ.
    Concerning the meaning “vomit”, spucken in that sense is rather a euphemism; its normal meaning is “spit”; “common” words for “vomit” would be kotzen, reihern, göbeln etc.

  5. matsmältning

    Whence, it seems, ruoansulatus ‘digestion, lit. food’s melting’.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Perfect translation, except that unselig is/was a barely disguised euphemism for “damned” via “those that lack bliss because they’re not in heaven”.

    Unheilig is a band name.

    I don’t know if I knew Pinsel in this meaning, but I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered Pinkel

    Common speech […] Elevated

    Some of these don’t work like that at least in modern usage. Bescheuert means “st00pid”, not “shitty”. Spucken is the unremarkable basic word for “spit”; for vomit you get the dysphemism kotzen, the regionalism speiben (of babies: speiberln), the medicalism erbrechen and the euphemism sich übergeben. Saufen & fressen are dysphemisms. Speien is a highly literary word for spewing in general, often of fire, water or, in the case of the Speikobra, poison. Fresse, Schnauze, Maul are dysphemisms for “mouth”, not for “nose”. Bauch is the only word for “belly”/”tummy”; Magen is only ever the internal organ. I’ve never encountered die Hinteren, only der Hintern.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    @hans, dm
    This was me, looking at some examples of Arbeitersprache from that time and trying to remember what I had read…glad someone who knows more is commenting. I did have the definite feeling that Bauch is still an “unpleasant” word, like “guts” in English.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Nope. Crop(ped) tops are bauchfrei even as a technical term of fashion. Oberbauch & Unterbauch are terms of anatomy in sports or bodybuilding for example. To make it unpleasant, you have to be more specific, e.g. Bierbauch “large guts probably caused by guzzling too much beer and eating too many Stelzen alongside”.

  9. Stelzen appears to be an Austrian term for ham hocks.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    Bierbauch “large guts probably caused by guzzling too much beer and eating too many Stelzen alongside”.

    In constrast to a Feinkostgewölbe.

  11. Bear in mind:
    Middle High German bensel, pinsel < old French pincel, via vulgar Latin < Latin penicillus = brush, diminutive form of: penis, penis

    It's been quite a while since my linguistics foundation course but I remember that discussion quite clearly (Colloquial German, Heidelberg University 1976).

  12. Stu Clayton says

    I recommend Klemperer’s diaries as well:

    # Klemperer’s diary was published in 1995 as Tagebücher (Berlin, Aufbau). It was an immediate literary sensation and rapidly became a bestseller in Germany. An English translation of the years spanning the Nazi seizure of power through Klemperer’s death has appeared in three volumes: I Will Bear Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959). #

  13. sister_ray says

    I assume that “Ausdrücke der Verdauung” is itself a euphemism for “Fäkalsprache” – the language of fecal matter, i.e. using variations of Scheiße and Kacke

  14. John Emerson says

    Friends in Montreal have noted that profanity there is heavily Catholic, maudit this and maudit that with many elaborations. I’ve also seen this in Rimbaud.

  15. I recommend Klemperer’s diaries as well

    Strongly seconded; as I said back in 2004, they’re indispensible for an understanding of Nazi Germany or of what life is like for civilians who bear the brunt of an air war.

  16. Stu Clayton says
  17. David Marjanović says

    Stelzen appears to be an Austrian term for ham hocks.

    Bavarian, as in Oktoberfest. Lower legs of the pig. Also stilts.

  18. My immediate folk etymological thought was that dauen might simply be the same word as Dutch douwen/duwen, English þeowan. Modern English would be something like to dow, the same as Hollandic Dutch douwen. Douwen/duwen means to press or to push. In short, a not uncommon euphemism for pooping. Some Dutch parents speak about their child’s pressing.

    However, Wörterbuchnetz contradicts the above hypothesis, saying it simply means something like evaporate/disappear/consume.

    tl;dr I’m not sure if I’d have guessed it, but it simultaneously seemed quite obvious — if possibly for the wrong reasons.

    Edit/PS I’d overlooked this earlier on my Wiktionary link, but:

    From Proto-Germanic *þeuhaną, *þūhaną (“to press”), from Proto-Indo-European *tūk- (“to beat”). Cognate with Old High German dūhen (“to press, press down”), Middle Dutch duwen, douwen (“to push, press, force”).

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Press … evaporate/disappear/consume

    The reason you press is to make It disappear. Where’s the discrepancy ?

    The root is found in many words. Dauern is when It takes too long. The Daumen can be used to promote evacuation (in small babies and dogs). A noisy dump makes a Radau usw.

  20. Contradict was too strong a word perhaps. I primarily wanted to indicate that a superficial investigation didn’t seem to support my intuition, and that it should therefore only be taken as an interesting fact and/or hypothesis.

    “Dauern is when It takes too long.”

    Fwiw, my Dutch etymological dictionary says duren (dauern) is from Latin durare, probably via French durer.

  21. Stu is not being entirely serious. (He ingests linguistic material and excretes humorous riffs.)

  22. Stu Clayton says

    @Frans: sorry about that. Hat is too kind. He suggests that I digest the linguistic material I ingest. Actually it goes straight through without any cognitive gain on my part. I just snap up the shiny bits to repurpose them, and let the rest float out to sea.

  23. A Verdauungsfachmann, one might say. 😉

  24. David Marjanović says

    Old High German dūhen (“to press, press down”)

    Survives regionally as transitive -tauchen “give a push to set into motion” (antauchen, zutauchen, eintauchen, with t by confusion with intransitive tauchen “dive”, likely through eintauchen (transitive “slowly dunk into”, intransitive “plunge into”). The same confusion must be why the ch in the latter is short in places where consonant length survives.

  25. John Cowan says

    Modern English would be something like to dow,

    That can’t be right: OE þ > ModE th quite reliably, unless transmitted through a Continental Germanic and/or Latin variety, as murder, which is not a descendant of OE myrþra. I think the expected form is thew /θ(j)u/.

  26. Fair enough, but the murder thing strikes me as begging the question, presuming that French didn’t replace burðen by burden, ruþer by rudder, spiþer by spider, and so on.

  27. John Cowan says

    Byrden/byrðen are variants already in OE times, and burthen survives right up to the early 20C. Per contra, ladder had /d/ in OE times, but the variant lather (unrelated to lather ‘(soap) foam’) appears in late ME and lasts for several centuries. Anyway, French isn’t really relevant to most of this, except insofar as Norman French has North Germanic influence.

  28. Rodger C says

    Enter two murtherers, burthened with lanthorns.

  29. David Marjanović says

    ladder had /d/ in OE times

    Indeed /dː/ – which is why it retains /tː/ in my German dialect (following a historical diphthong), while intervocalic /t/ (and also /tː/ after historically short vowels) have turned into /d/.

    The reason for the /dː/ is West Germanic consonant stretching.

    …and now I see that the Wikipedia article is actually pretty bad. But I don’t have time to improve it. 🙁 Anyway, the important part is that syllable breaks where one syllable ends in a plosive or fricative and the next syllable begins with something sonorous like /j w l r/ came to be regarded as awkward and were improved by stretching the plosive or fricative across the syllable boundary, so instead of a sonority rise there’d at least be a sonority plateau across it (closer to the sharp drop in sonority found in the CVCV ideal). For “ladder” we should probably imagine a Proto-West Germanic nominative singular *laidr (treated as a single syllable, as in French or Russian today), but a genitive singular *laiddres, for example.

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