Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

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.

7 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.

  5. Peter Morris Says:

    I think you need a little more context as to the nature of the word “Schwärmerei.” It’s really more like a historical term that took on a special meaning in Germany during the Romantic era: I’m sure the German equivalent of the OED will record its peak historical usage as coming in the Goethe’s Werther / Sturm und Drang / Beethoven era (1780s-1830s). Even later uses of the word–like in Robert Musil’s 20th century Modernist drama “Die Schwärmer”–are usually alluding to the excessive or unwholesome sentiment of the Romantic era specifically.

    The best historical referent for “Schwärmerei” is probably Goethe’s early novella “The Sorrows of Young Werther”: written when he was young, about a young man who kills himself over a broken heart, the book supposedly provoked a slew of copycat suicides. By the time Goethe was older, and came to revise the book in 1787, he considered it to have been written during a fit of “Schwärmerei” which he rejected or outgrew.

    So yes, the lexicographer’s entry for the word says “excessive or unwholesome sentiment”. So does a lexicographer’s entry in 2015 for the more recent word “emo”. You could understand “Schwärmerei” better if you realized that, like “emo,” it represents a word from the history of social attitudes. “Schwärmerei” is really a word like “Anti-Disestablishmentarian” or “hipster”–something that makes more sense when you understand it in historical context, as a sociological vocabulary word.

    The irony is that this word is used in the anglicized form “swarmery” in the works of the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, quite active in 1845 although living in London not Edinburgh by then. So Merriam-Webster is just plain wrong to consider the word a “naturalized citizen,” when Carlyle himself–who was, after all, fluent in German and did much as an intellectual to popularize German philosophy and literature in England in the 19th century, and therefore a better judge than Merriam-Webster of whether a German word ought to be considered “naturalized” or translated into a simple and obvious English equivalent–thought the overall concept of “Schwärmerei” was important and obvious enough to require the English form “swarmery”. Which apparently did not catch on in a big way. (However Google turns a use of “swarmery” as recent a 2008 blogpost by the notorious Silicon Valley blogger “Mencius Moldbug”, who is apparently a fan of the currently-unfashionable political writings of Carlyle.)

  6. Paul York Says:

    The terms Schwarmerei predates the 19th century references given above. It is a 17th and 18th century philosophical term used to pejoratively describe charismatic religion and zealotry, by the Enlightenment philosophers, Locke, Hume, Kant, Spinoza, and others. They often say that it is linked to superstition and religious tyranny and despotism, a way of compelling followers to follow blindly. It is opposed, in their writings, to reason. For a thorough treatment of the word, so used, see James DiCenso’s Kant, Religion, and Politics. Cambridge U. Press, 2011, p. 39-41.

  7. Robert Beard Says:

    According to the OED, the earliest published citing in English was 1845. Can you provide a specific quote from an earlier date?

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