or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Today at work I had a couple of customers who I surmised were German: she spoke very good English (though she didn't know the word "mat", using instead the French word "passe-partout"), but he didn't say anything. Eventually it turned out that yes, they were German, and the German word for "mat" (in a framing sense) is a borrowing from the French, and he didn't speak any English at all. I don't remember nearly as much German as I would like, but I mentioned that I had studied it in university, and then said, "Ich spreche nur ein wenig", and he looked as if he'd seen a magic trick: I'm thinking he hasn't heard anyone but her speak his language since they got here, and that must be very alienating. I wished I remembered more so I could have had a little chat with them.

Anyway, I was sort of mulling over whatever German I did know (and deciding that, French having been a complete failure, I'm going to start studying German again), and one of the words that popped into my head was "schmerz", which means "pain". And then I had one of those lightbulb moments, followed by a "duh" moment, when I realized that "schmerz" is so very obviously at the root of the English word "smart", as in pain, as in "That smarts!" How can I never have noticed this in all these years?

When I got home to look it up, I discovered something even more astounding: there's only one "smart" in English. All of the senses of the word, and there are a few, come from that one word.

The one that seems farthest removed from the original sense, "intelligent", evidently took the following path or one like it: a smart blow is one which is stinging or painful. Eventually, a smart remark, at one metaphorical remove, had the same effect. Since a smart remark came to mean one that, in delivering its sting, could be clever and cutting, that quality transferred from the comment to the person delivering it. It can still have just this meaning ("Watch your smart mouth, mister!"), but mostly in English it just means the cleverness: nasty wit or impertinence are not necessarily implied. (Once this little swirl of possible meanings is established, other senses of the word are easily decipherable: "a smart pace" is one which is fast and emphatic, and "the smart set" is at the cutting edge of fashion. There's always the sense of some rapid-fire event or action: the stinging slap, the quicksilver mind.)


Blogger Frank said...

I took German for six years in middle school and high school, plus a semester in college, but I really don't know it as well as I should and, of course, I'm really rusty now, even though it's only been a few years. Anyway, instead of "Ich spreche nur ein wenig," I would have said, "Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch." Is your way of saying it more correct? I trust your knowledge of language much more than my own.

Sunday, November 05, 2006 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Oh, god, no. Don't trust my knowledge of German at all. I haven't studied or spoken it in twenty years, so I just grabbed something out of my rusty brain that sounded as if it might be correct. As far as I know, "ein wenig" isn't incorrect, but yours is almost certainly better.

Monday, November 06, 2006 3:33:00 AM  

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