Sunday, October 28, 2007

charmed, disarmed

I had an idea for a project which I would like to work on with Pons, whose dictionaries, quick tip sheets and other language-learning paraphernalia are far and away the best designed. (I don't know whether Edward Tufte has ever consulted a Pons dictionary, but on Tuftean principles they are little miracles of information design. 'Blue emboldened headwords' may not sound like much, but they leave poor old monochromatic Duden, Langenscheidt, OUP and CUP eating Ponspolver.)

So a letter must be written, but to whom? I checked out the Pons website. I might have known. Pons now offer online dictionaries for German-English/French/Italian/Spanish/Polish, each of which can be installed as a search engine plug-in (Mein PONSline: Toolbar und Search-Plugin). They also offer a Lexitrainer which enables you to save the words you look up in an online vocabulary review tool (Ihr persönliches elektronisches Vokabelheft). The Lexitrainer is currently not available for German or Polish, and I don't especially need it for French, Italian or Spanish (or, of course, English), but there's no doubt about it: if Martha Stewart were in the market for language-learning tools this would be her pick, A Good Thing.


Well, I say that, and then it all falls apart. I think I should give readers a link to a sample entry in the online dictionary, so I type in 'scholarship' and get a couple of respectable definitions. In the sidebar to the left are the entries in the online dictionary which precede and follow this selection, one of which is 'schmoozer'. Hm, I think, what IS the German for this word of Yiddish descent? So I type in 'schmoozer' and I get this: Radfahrer (der), Speichellecker (der), abwertend. Now, a schmoozer is clearly not a cyclist, so there must be a colloquial meaning; I check it out and find 'crawler'. 'Speichellecker' is literally a saliva-licker, figuratively a sycophant, a toady. Both of which, of course, completely miss the way 'schmoozer' is used in English. Bill Clinton is a schmoozer, Al Gore is not: Clinton is good at what the American Heritage Dictionary describes as 'To converse casually, especially in order to gain an advantage or make a social connection'. Tina Brown is a schmoozer, someone who knows how to work a party. English has plenty of words for 'sycophant' - given the birth of the language in a country renowned for its deeply-entrenched class system this is not unsurprising. But we also have a word for something different, the kind of guy people like to have a drink with, the kind of guy who is good at getting people's business cards and giving them his over drinks, the kind of guy people like having a drink with so much he doesn't even have to follow up with a phone call, they call him.

I still don't know whether German has an equivalent for this useful word. I check out Pons in its Deutsch-Englisch Wörterbuch für Schule und Studium incarnation and find that German has the word schmusen, defined as 'to kiss and cuddle [or sl. to neck], which sounds like what schmooze might once have meant in Yiddish but German seems not to have made the simple Jewish businessman's leap to a usage of wider social application.

If PP were paid-up members of the Whorf-Sapir school we might leap on this (ha HA!) as evidence of latent anti-semitism making its presence felt in the German language - not only do they have no word for schmoozer, they also lack the concept, and can perceive instances of the activity only as despicable sycophancy. Being wise in the ways of lexicographers we note that the dictionary is like quite a lot of dictionaries in having problems quite a lot of the time with colloquial usage. 'Schmusen' as defined sounds like the German for 'snog', except that Pons doesn't bother to offer 'snog' (Br.) as a possible translation, offering instead terms that no English-speaker would ever use. I check out 'snog' and get 'Knutscherei' and '(rum)knutschen', and when I look up Knutscherei I get 'smooching, petting' and 'knutschen' offers 'to kiss [or fam. smooch with], ˜sich to smooch fam., to pet fam., to canoodle hum. dated - an entry that gives the unwary German reader no way of knowing that 'petting' (like 'necking') has not been used in this sense in English for about half a century. (For all I know, of course, knutschen and schmusen may last have been used in this country when Adenauer was Chancellor.) When you consider that the target audience of my little dictionary is the hapless German schoolchild - the sort of reader who might, late teens, take a cheap flight to Britain and test the London club scene -

To be used with caution.

No comments: