Zeitgeist – A Happy Theft
‘Zeitgeist’ is quite obviously a linguistic newbie in English, and though it seems to be a pretty well-accepted loan word, many are familiar with its German origin. It actually entered English in the mid-19th century so, whilst not exactly an old-timer, has been around for quite some time.
The Oxford Online English Dictionary terms it ‘the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time’; and it carries much the same meaning in German.
You’ll thank me for the painstaking etymological research which I conducted for this article – mostly in German. Stopping at ‘it came from the German noun ‘Zeitgeist’ in around 1848’ just didn’t feel good enough.
So I looked into its origins in its original language. First documented in 1769 in Johann Gottfried Herder’s ‘Journal meiner Reise im Jahr 1769’ (Journal of my Journey in (the Year) 1769), it is a ‘Determinativkompositum’ of the nouns ‘Zeit’ and ‘Geist’. In English (if linguistic terminology can be included under that heading), that means that it is a determinative compound: a type of compound which gives information about the compound’s head (i.e. main noun) without modifying it. For example, a ‘footstool’ is a stool for the feet, not a stool that looks like a foot.
So, whilst ‘Zeit’ means ‘time’ and ‘Geist’ translates as ‘spirit’ (or in fact ‘ghost’), we get ‘spirit of the times’ as opposed to ‘time-like spirit’.
‘Zeitgeist’ is a classic example of a loan word entering a language because it fills a lexical gap. Though we might be able to express the term in English, it requires far more words; this German compound (like its people) is far more efficient. And rather than devising our own compound, which isn’t quite as natural it English, it made far more sense to pinch the German one.
And it seems that German is one of our biggest suppliers of words for which we don’t have words. ‘Doppelgänger’, ‘Blitz’, ‘Bildungsroman’ and ‘Frankfurter’ are all stolen from our European counterpart, not to mention the names of several of our favourite foods (themselves pilfered from Germany), such as ‘Apfelstrudel’.
One wonders whether the English are simply lazy and uncreative, or if differing linguistic systems simply make it harder for us to find an equivalent for a word which we really like, and need. Whatever the cause, there don’t seem to be any hard feelings on either side, and with such a nice option already created, it really would seem a shame to replace it with one of our own devising. Think of it as linguistic caring and sharing.
I took this picture on Friedrichstraße in Berlin during my recent visit there – I couldn’t resist sharing.