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Swarming to Schwärmerei?

Today’s Merriam-Webster word of the day was an obvioius German word (Schwärmerei “excessive or unwholesome sentiment”) which it identifies as a “naturalized citizen of our language”. Here is their explanation:

Deese bees are gettink on my nerfs!In 1845, the editors of the Edinburgh Review felt compelled to use the German “Schwärmerei” to describe fanatical enthusiasm because the concept seemed so foreign to them. In commenting on the writings of German critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing, they declared “Schwärmerei” to be “untranslatable, because the thing itself is un-English.” That German word derives from the verb “schwärmen,” which means not only “to be enthusiastic” but “to swarm” (it was used to refer to bees), and its ancestors were part of Old High German. Ironically, the Edinburgh Review’s use (the first ever documented in an English publication) seems to have contributed to making the word much more English, and it has since become a naturalized citizen of our language.

If you search the online dictionaries, schwarmerei turns up in two: Merriam-Webster’s and The Worthless Word of the Day. How is that for an odd couple? The OED provides 11 citations, all from British sources, so if it is true that the word has been naturalized, it was naturalized in England, not in North America.

Now, I have already said my piece on using foreign words in an English-language spelling bee. Since Merriam-Webster is the major supporter of that event, their acceptance of Schwärmerei as an English word should come as no surprise. I once commented that Merriam-Webster not only accepts any word it meets in print as a member of the English vocabulary, it sweeps the gutters for neologisms. This is almost understandable since announcing its acceptance of new words, such as its premature announcement about googling recently is one of their primary marketing techniques.

I am often asked the questions, “How many words are there in English?” and “Is it true that there are more words in English than any other language?” Well, if we include all the words in all the languages of the world, I would have to say, “Yes.” It is true that, as one wag put it, “English not only borrows words from other languages, it mugs other languages in dark alleys for their lexical treasure.” So the slope is slippery for all of us. But I think there are a few reasonable tests for whether a word is English or not.

First, shouldn’t a substantial number of native speakers of English who do not know the lending language be acquainted with the word? If the winner of the Scripps-Howard spelling bee was lucky enough to study in a school that offers German, and if she were lucky enough to have taken it, wouldn’t it be unfair to allow her to win on the basis of her ability to spell a German word? Should this not be a word known at least by a majority of scholars or writers in a society?

Second, shouldn’t there be some need of the word borrowed? Schwärmen obviously does not mean “to be enthusiastic” and, oh, by the way, “to swarm,” too. It obviously means “to swarm”. English already has a word meaning “to swarm” and we all know what it is. The difference is that the German word is used differently metaphorically. The English metaphor is “to move excited as a crowd” while the German metaphor is “fanatical enthusiasm for”. So what is wrong with fanatical enthusiasm?

Oh, ho, I see. Fanatical enthusiasm doesn’t quite mean the same thing as Schwärmerei? Maybe not, but then no one who is not nearly a native speaker of German (non-natives are very slow at picking up metaphorical usage) knows what that difference is!

So where do you draw the line between English and all the other languages in the world? We all know what doppelganger is even though it is a perfect synonym of a double. Ursprache, the German word for protolanguage, has now been ordained by the fire of competition. Should we grant citizenship to schwarmerei? Let’s wait until at least one American uses it.

4 Responses to “Swarming to Schwärmerei?”

  1. Michael Marlowe Says:

    Hey Prof. Goodword,

    I agree with you that Merriam-Webster et al. are doing some pretty questionable lexicography these days. However, I’ll advise your readers that Schwärmerei has theological connotations that are not conveyed by any English equivalent, such as “fanatical enthusiasm.” Luther used the word Schwärmer in reference to charismatic types, Anabaptists and others, who thought they were so plugged into the Holy Spirit that they could do without the authority of Scripture. And so when Schwärmer or Schwärmerei is used by theological types it is meant to suggest everything that Luther associated with it. I think the word does have a legitimate place in some English contexts.

  2. Paul Francis Perry Says:

    I notice Schwärmerei occurs at least a dozen times in Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey mystery “unnatural Death” (1927).
    Although I suppose that use by Dorothy Sayers is hardly a guarantee that a word is in widespread English use.

  3. Bernard Says:

    I follow most of your argument, until you said the acceptance of the word (‘grant citizenship to [it]’) ought to wait till at least an American uses it. Unless you were joking, I feel I should point out that the English language is used in many countries and usage in America doesn’t justify any word’s acceptance more justifiably than collective usage by other English-speaking nations or peoples.

  4. Robert Beard Says:

    I actually run many words from other English dialects in my Good Word series. You’re right, of course. English is a broad tent.

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