I’ve finally started reading Vasily Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (keeping the Chandler translation Life and Fate by my side to help resolve difficult passages), and I’ve run across an interesting German etymology. Grossman uses the German word Revier (in Cyrillic transliteration) in the military sense ‘sick quarters, sick-bay,’ and of course I was curious about the etymology. I looked it up in my ancient and crumbling Lutz Mackensen, and it turns out it was originally borrowed from French rivière ‘river(bank)’! (The French word is from Latin riparia, an adjective to ripa ‘bank.’) Apparently the basic sense was ‘district, quarter’ (especially ‘hunting ground’), and in a military context revierkrank was used to mean ‘sick enough to be confined to quarters,’ whence in the nineteenth century Revier itself developed the sense ‘sick quarters.’ Etymology can be a twisty business.


  1. I’m just excited that you’re reading Life and Fate. After reading A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, I had to get a copy (in English) and plough through it. The ideological ruminations are tedious—for us it’s not heretical or even unusual to compare Fascism and Communism—but the Stalingrad scenes are strikingly beautiful.

  2. Apparently the basic sense was ‘district, quarter’ (especially ‘hunting ground’), and in a military context revierkrank was used to mean ‘sick enough to be confined to quarters,’ whence in the nineteenth century Revier itself developed the sense ‘sick quarters.’
    I have my doubts about that last bit. Revier may have had that particular meaning for a while in the 19th century, but it doesn’t today in Germany (leaving aside Austria and Switzerland due to cluelessness, as usual). Outside of hunting, forestry etc contexts, Revier is usually just the abbreviation for Polizeirevier (police station/precinct).
    I don’t know if I had ever heard or read revierkrank before, but one feels off the bat that it means something like “confined-to-the-Revier sick” [not sick enough to be in hospital]. However, one cannot “deduce” from this that there is a noun Revier meaning “the place where Revierkranke are located”. Duden says that revierkrank is Soldatensprache, which I would translate as troop slang. This is of course not a subset of (official) military language. However, I found revierkrank in an official report on overall illness statistics in Prussian military units from 1834:

    Der Zugang verhielt sich in den einzelnen Monaten folgendermassen. Es erkrankten (die leichteren, Revierkranken mit eingeschlossen) im Jan. überhaupt 13812 Mann: Febr. 13593 …

    Here is a soldier in 2006 distinguishing revierkrank from other things:

    Entweder war der Soldat von Marsch und Sport befreit (innendienstkrank), krank auf der Stube oder revierkrank. [spelling corrected to protect the innocent, GS]

    I also found a use of revierkrank to describe the corresponding illness status of Russian POWs in a location set up by the Nazis in 1941 that they ran more like the other concentration camps than a POW detention center (Stukenbrock). The word Revierkranke occurs in a school history report by 10th grade students, so its use may not seem reliable. However, I assume they picked it up from documentation at the site, or heard it from some older person there, since it is not a common word:

    Anfang Mai 1941 wurde auf Befehl deutscher Wehrmachtsoffiziere begonnen, das Lager für sowjetische Kriegsgefangene auf dem Truppenübungsplatz Senne einzurichten. … Von Unterkünften, sanitären Anlagen oder ausreichender Verpflegung noch keine Spur … Um nicht vollkommen unter freiem Himmel schlafen zu müssen, gruben sich einige Gefangene mit bloßen Händen Erdlöcher. Oft stürzten diese jedoch ein oder wurden von Soldaten zerstört, sodass die Gefangenen darin erstickten. … Die Wachsoldaten bestraften, indem sie mit Peitschen, Stöcken oder Gummischläuchen auf die Gefangenen einprügelten oder von den ringsherum aufgebauten Wachtürmen schossen, auch ohne jeglichen Anlass. Als Nahrung mussten 150 bis 200g Ersatzbrot, Ersatzkaffee und eine Wassersuppe genügen, die aus faulen Kartoffeln, Kohlrüben oder Gras bestand. … Das Stammeslager war als Durchgangslager dafür zuständig, den Regierungsbezirk Minden und das Land Lippe mit Arbeitskräften zu versorgen, die in Stahlwerken, im Ruhrbergbau oder auf Bauernhöfen eingesetzt werden sollten. Deshalb hielten sich nur diejenigen Kriegsgefangene im Lager auf, die in der Umgebung arbeiteten, sowie Lagerhandwerker und Revierkranke.

  3. Robert Chandler’s frequent and ever-interesting questions about difficult passages and phrases in Grossman and others are what make reading SEELANGS worth my while. Unfortunately, I don’t think he posted there about Revier.

  4. one cannot “deduce” from this that there is a noun Revier meaning “the place where Revierkranke are located”
    Hat, I don’t know if your statement “in the nineteenth century Revier itself developed the sense ‘sick quarters'” relies on someone’s explicit claim to that effect, or whether it is a kind of deduction on your part. To give an analogy of what I mean by saying “one cannot ‘deduce’ …”, take the English expression “stir-crazy”. One might surmise that “a stir” must, at some point, have meant a place specially for stir-crazy people. But in fact a stir is only a prison. The purpose of prisons is not specially to hold stir-crazy people. Similarly, a Revier in the general military sense is not specially designed to hold Revierkranke.

  5. .. Thus one does not observe (or expect) a tendency for a general term such as Revier to acquire a more specific meaning, merely because the composite form revierkrank has a more specific meaning than one of its components. Revierkrank is a kind of krank, not an aspect of a kind of Revier.

  6. Perhaps you were thinking along the lines of liebeskrank and seekrank, which mean “sick because of, due to …”. Revierkrank, however, does not mean “sick because of the Revier“. I have a feeling that this might be one of those things in which German abounds – composites whose meaning is not composite, but impressionistic. This also applies to “adverbs” whose meaning does not fit a scheme such as “in a … way”.
    I remember, decades ago, gradually realizing that German merely appears to be very “logical” in structure (the obligatory explicit hypotaxis, for instance, in contrast to English). The meanings of things are often quite different from what the grammatical structure might lead you to expect. That’s why translations into English often sound so Teutonic – it’s because the translator has simply not understood what was said or written, and instead mimicked the syntax as a token of fidelity to the original. Translator as scaredy-cat.

  7. Stu: Grimm has

    REVIER, […..] militärisch: der von dem theil eines regiments in der kaserne oder im lager eingenommene raum; auch ärzte reden von revieren, bezirken, deren begehung in krankheitsfällen ihnen zufällt.

    as well as

    REVIERKRANK, adj. bei soldaten, der als kranker im quartier, nicht im lazarett, ärztlich behandelt wird.

    That’s pretty clear.

  8. I’ve tried to work out the meaning of the song in ‘Der mächtigste König im Luftrevier…’ Can anyone help?

  9. punzel: yes, those meanings were never in doubt, see my citation from 1834. What I doubt is that Revier by itself was generally used to designate “sick quarters” – apart from the special case where Krankenrevier (sick quarters) might be abbreviated to Revier in a discussion between army doctors.
    As the Grimm definition says, army doctors spoke of the Reviere (quarters) to which they were assigned. Their job was to attend to soldiers in those quarters when they fell sick. The quarters existed independently of whether or not there were sick soldiers in them at any given time. Not all quarters are sick quarters.

  10. Bill Walderman says

    Was sucht denn der Jaeger beim Muehlenrad hier?
    Bleib, trotziger Jaeger, in deinem Revier!

  11. Saif: Der mächtigste König im Luftrevier
    Ist des Sturmes gewaltiger Aar

    Sez here:

    The mightiest king of the heavens is
    The proud eagle borne on the wild breeze.

    Except the eagle is not “proud” but great/powerful, and it comes on/in/like a storm, not a “breeze” however mild.
    Bill: Was sucht denn der Jaeger beim Muehlenrad hier?
    Bambi, I believe it was.

  12. Grumbly, did you miss the part where I said I was quoting Lutz Mackensen? I was not just making it all up, and although Mackensen was a Nazi, that doesn’t necessarily make him a liar. Here’s what he says:
    Revier s. mhd. rivier(e), rivêr Bach, aus frz. rivière Bach(ufer); später — über mnl. riviere — = Bezirk, Gegend (bes. Jagdbezirk); dann = Kasernenbezirk (daher revierkrank krank mit Ausgehverbot; von hier aus Revier 19. Jh. = Krankenstube in der Kaserne).”
    If I’ve misinterpreted Mackensen, let me know; otherwise your quarrel is with him.

  13. Hat, so far as I am concerned this is not about Nazis, liars and quarrels. My very first comment had, as its second sentence: “Revier may have had that particular meaning for a while in the 19th century, but it doesn’t today in Germany”. I have merely given examples of, and links to, the use of Revier and revierkrank from 2006 and 1834, along with a little explanation of how they work in terms of “feel”.

  14. Bill Walderman says

    “Bambi, I believe it was.” No, it was the miller’s daughter.

  15. Miller’s daughter as “Rehlein“. Thai-bride tourism in the Schwarzwald., set to music.

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