Chattering Class Small Talk

Ben Schott Expands His Vocabulary

The German language allows for creating compound words – and not just in the way we in English create terrible neologisms like ‘webinar’. Writer and “gentleman miscellanist” Ben Schott turned to this linguistic flexibility to create his own glossary of new German words for very specific modern states.

In “Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition,” he proposes a batch of additions to the language of Nietzsche and Freud that might just find their way into your conversations, assuming you can remember all 47 letters.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Guten tag.

Rico Gagliano: Nice.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wie geht’s?

Ben Schott: Ja, ja, not so bad, thank you very much.

Rico Gagliano: You guys, I took French. Ça va?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well that’s a good point, Rico. Besides the pun that gives your book this amazing title “Schottenfreude,” why is this a book of German words and not French words or some other language?

Ben Schott: It’s interesting because we turn to German in moments of perplexity. We turn to it for things like angst, and we turn to it for things like zeitgeist.

It’s these dark, strange emotions. Somehow German is so much better. It’s the language of Freud, it’s the language of Nietzsche it’s the language of Angela Merkel. I mean this is like serious dark stuff.

Rico Gagliano: What it is about German that allows that? Is it just that they have lots of words that get pasted together easily?

Ben Schott: Well there were two reasons. First of all, German is one of the few compound languages- maybe the only compound language where you can literally shoehorn words together and create these long compounds.

The second is, there’s something about German, there’s something about that kind of middle-European depth that gives us this strange sensation.

It’s the language of psychoanalysis. Somehow it seems to tap into something deep and dark, and of course let’s not forget there are umlauts.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well let’s look at one of the words to explore this.

Ben Schott: Okay.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Forgive me, I am going to be mispronouncing this- speichelgleichmut.

Ben Schott: Speichelgleichmut.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This is when one pretends they haven’t been accidentally spit on during conversation.

Ben Schott: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Which I may have just spit on you.

Ben Schott: You didn’t.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This word is derived from what word?

Ben Schott: The literal translation is saliva stoicism. So the book has these made-up German words, which are real German words. I mean, they’re made up in the sense that they’re neologisms, but they’re proper German.

A German would say, “Well this is strange but I know what you’re saying.” So speichelgleichmut, saliva stoicism sums up pretending you haven’t been accidentally spat on.

Rico Gagliano: And there is a footnote attached to this word as there are too many words in your book. Give us that background.

Ben Schott: That’s right. Pretending you haven’t been spat on in conversation has deep historic roots, and that’s one of the footnotes for this.

It goes back to 1661 where the great famous London diarist Samuel Pepys was at a theater, and he was spat on accidentally while talking to a very attractive woman, but she was so attractive that he carried on and pretended it hadn’t happened.

Rico Gagliano: So if he’d had your book he would have been able to you know, describe that to others much more easily.

Ben Schott: Absolutely. He could have said a classic case of speichelgleichmut, thereby spitting on her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But don’t you think- he’s British, you guys wouldn’t say anything anyway.

Ben Schott: Absolutely, absolutely. All we’d say is sorry. The trick is to apologize all the time for everything.

Rico Gagliano: All right, so Ben, let’s get to the main event here. All week long we have been hearing these headlines. Now for the small talk, you tell us something we haven’t heard. What story are you gonna be talking about at parties this week?

Ben Schott: Well it’s very small story, but as the holidays come up people start sending gifts to their loved ones and the ones that they don’t love but they have to send gifts to all around the world.

And there was a very small piece, a UPS worker was interviewed, basically how to avoid your packages being destroyed and how to make sure they get there on time. And there were three very useful tips.

First of all, counter-intuitively don’t write fragile. If you write fragile on your package apparently it irks the people cause they’re like, “Really? We don’t treat everything well?” So you’re much more likely to get it thrown down the chute.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They get offended and they abuse it.

Ben Schott: Exactly. The second is don’t reuse labels because they get confused. And the third, which I really like is, if you really think it’s fragile and you want special care taken, get a child to write the address.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Whoa.

Rico Gagliano: Oh.

Ben Schott: Apparently something about the human touch, there’s something about crayons that melts even the most vicious and hard-hearted postal sorter, and they take good care of it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.

Rico Gagliano: So either get a child to just like misspell stuff and write letters backwards and things.

Ben Schott: That might make you look like a bit of a security terrorist threat. I think he means though if he saw redrum on it, I think people are gonna get upset. I’m just saying.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Ben Schott, thanks for the small talk.

Ben Schott: It’s a pleasure, thank you very much.