"Who Doesn't Love an Umlaut?": An Interview with Ben Schott
Anyone who has trouble with l’esprit de l’escalier—that feeling when you come up with the perfect comeback, about twenty minutes too late—should consider keeping one of Ben Schott’s inimitable books close to hand at all times. They’re catalogs of those aspects of the human condition that you’ve always wondered about but have never been able to find in a traditional reference work. See, for instance, his comprehensive list of all of the injuries Evil Knievel ever suffered in Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany; his guide for giving after-dinner toasts in Food and Drink Miscellany; and a page of information on Buckingham Palace’s supplier of bagpipes.
In his latest, Schottenfreude, Ben Schott takes a more continental approach: looking at the unique ability of the German language to come up with (often multisyllabic) words for just about any facet of the human condition. We asked him about his new book.
First, I know that you typeset your own books, so design and layout are obviously things you think about very carefully. Schottenfreude is about 9 1/2" by 5", similar to comic strip collections or photography albums, and a big departure from your pocket journal-sized Miscellanies. What does that convey about this book?
The curious shape of Schottenfreude was dictated by the length of the new German words inside. In some cases, these are more than a little elaborate. The longest word in the book is the majestic "Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss" – a 47-letter monster that means "new car smell." Of course, not all of the words are so unwieldy. One of my favorites is one of the shortest: "Mahlneid" – a handy term for "Coveting thy neighbor’s restaurant order." I take real delight in designing my books to make them unique and curious object. None has given me more pleasure to create than Schottenfreude.
I was surprised to find references not only to literature and pop culture, but also to philosophers like Michael Oakeshott and mathematicians like Euclid—you even cite a dentistry journal in one entry. Do you have difficulty marshalling such a wide array of knowledge, especially in more specialized fields?
Researching Schottenfreude was like taking a footnote for a walk. An idea would unearth a footnote, which would lead to another idea, and another footnote … and so on. For example, I wanted to create a German word for “repeatedly catching and avoiding people’s gazes when approaching them down a long corridor.” This prompted a memory from a book by the sociologist Erving Goffman, which led to a quote by the writer Cornelia Otis Skinner, which reminded me of something I read in Alexander Solzhenitsyn. So, I skimmed through all of the Solzhenitsyn books I own, until I found it.
Near the end of The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn describes how the guards of Moscow's Lubyanka prison used to “click” their tongues, as if? calling a dog, to signal down the long corridors they had a prisoner under escort. Why? Because, “one prisoner must never be allowed to encounter another, never be allowed to draw comfort or support from the look in his eyes.”
Such miscellaneous notes are central to Schottenfreude and the German words inside. It's in these notes we discover that the word Dreikäsehoch (“three cheeses high”) describes a child no taller than three wheels of? cheese stacked one atop another. That Casanova hated sleeping in strange beds. And that one of the architects of Vienna’s State Opera house killed himself? in 1868, after Emperor Franz Joseph mildly criticized the design. Schottenfreude delves into every nook of the human condition: childhood and death, wealth and debt, joy and sorry, wisdom and error, loathing and lust. And the references cited are equally diverse: from William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust to Nelson Mandela, Eminem, and Justin Bieber.
Had I a magic wand, I would host a party for everybody I quote in the book. I can't guarantee that Noël Coward would adore Friedrich Nietzsche, or Immanuel Kant befriend Piers Morgan. But I suspect H.L. Mencken would bond with Charles Dickens, and Tom Stoppard with P. G. Wodehouse. And I would have a blast.
The subtitle of the book is "German words for the human condition." German has the stereotype of being a very straightforward, technical language—are you trying to combat that with Schottenfreude?
It is no accident that English turns to German in times of emotional turmoil. From Angst to Zeitgeist, the German language has a proven ability to express the inexpressible. In part, this is because German can create compounds that don't sound as silly as some English puns.
But there is also something about the language of Freud, Nietzsche, Goethe, and Schopenhauer: a seriousness tempered by humanity; a weight that is not burdensome. German has profundity, formality, and sesquipedalian magnificence.
Also, who doesn't love an umlaut?
Since you are a meticulous cataloguer, is there a secret or master index of all the information contained in the book? For example, do you know how many times that you use the phrase "portmanteau-portmanteau," cite Monty Python, or talk about another language that, unlike English, has a close match to the German word in question?
There are all sorts of hidden jokes and curiosities dotted through Schottenfreude which, I hope, readers will stumble upon. So, this is an ideal book for fans of "Schmutzwortsuche" – "Looking up rude words in the dictionary." (And if you look that word up…)
While I read entry 72—Abgrundsanziehung, "toying with the (non-suicidal) idea of jumping from a height"—I thought about an interview with Umberto Eco, where he said that the act of listing has "an irresistible magic" to express the inexpressible. Is that something you've found while compiling this book?
There is indeed something magical about lists. Lists offer clarity and the tantalizing prospect of order in a world overwhelmed by chaos. To create a list—and to write a book like Schottenfreude—you must dismantle an idea and explore it in detail, before reassembling it in a new and, hopefully, unexpected form. For example, I created the word "Fingerspitzentanz" to describe those pleasing things we do with the tips of our fingers. (It translates as "fingertips-dance".)
But the fun began when I started thinking of examples of such quotidian legerdemain:
- Locating and unpicking a frayed end of? tape.
- Tightening a minuscule screw.
- Removing a recalcitrant sticker in one unbroken peel.
- Fingertipping something off? a high shelf.
- Unhooking a bra.
- Inserting a USB plug right-side up, first time.
- Jiggling on your fingertips, say, half? a toasted bagel while transferring it to a plate.
…and 24 others before I ran out of space.
Finally, is it safe to assume that you're a formidable player of Balderdash?
Is that a crisp $20 I see in you hand?