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May 31, 2019  |  Friday words #174  |  1889 hit(s)

Today's new-to-me word is really only new in English, because I sort of knew about a German version. Which requires some slight explanation, of course.

I was listening this week to an episode of the Track Changes podcast in which they interviewed Erin McKean—Lexicographer, Founder of Wordnik, Mother of Swagger, First of her Name, etc. Toward the end [32:09], they asked her "What's the best word?" After noting that "every day there's a new best word," McKean offers improworsement.

The concept is probably familiar: you try to improve something, but you just make it worse. Or as Shakespeare put it, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." This has often been me and home improvement. Hopefully it's not me and editing, gah.

As I was suggesting, there's a German word for this: Verschlimmbesserung. I wasn't sure if this was maybe a jocular invention in German as well, but I got out my trusty Cassell's and was pleased to find that it lists a verb verschlimmbessern ("to make worse instead of better"):

You can see from the next entry that verschlimmern means "to worsen, aggravate." This parses as ver- (a verbal prefix) + schlimm ("bad") + ern, an ending that makes it all a verb. Then you combine that with bessern ("to improve," related to "better") and you end up with verschlimmbessern, "to worsen-improve." And then finally you can whack -ung onto the end (Verschlimmbesserung), and you get a noun form of the verb.

Whew. I take you through all this not because I think you want to learn German morphology, but because it sort of explains improworsement. It's possible that we could think of improworsement as a portmanteau of improvement + worse. But it might also be a kind of calque or loan translation—a term that's ported from one language to another piece by piece. Thus from Verschlimmbesserung we get improworsement:

impro from bessern
from schlimm
from ung

Maybe. I suggest this because the first reference I can find for improworsement is from a comment in 2009 on the excellent Sentence First blog of the Irish editor Stan Carey. The commenter, Sean Jeating, uses improworsement in quotation marks and notes the German equivalent. Perhaps Jeating invented the term right then and there. Wouldn't that be cool?

Anyway, I encourage you to adopt improworsement into your active vocabulary. Not, of course, that I hope that you experience it frequently.

Let us have a quick entry also for delightful origins. I'm reading Mary Norris's Greek to Me, her love letter to Greek language and culture. There are several word-origin stories in the book; one that I liked was for the word rhapsodize.

This comes from the Greek words rháptein meaning "to stitch" and oid, meaning "ode." A rhapsodos, or rhapsodist, was someone who recited poems in ancient Greece, or as Norris notes, was "a stitcher of songs." Even today, she says, the word ráftis in Greek means tailor. And from this we get all of those rhapso words, like rhapsody (a song thusly stitched) and as we occasionally do around here, to wax rhapsodic.

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