Verschlimmbessert

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In an e-mail to some friends, I went on a rant about how many "improvements" of our favorite products make them worse.  I was speaking specifically about the addition of sugar to their wheat germ by Kretschmer, which — after half a century of dedication to this wonderful food — has left me devastated.  It was in this context that Heidi Krohne told me about the marvelous German word "verschlimmbessert", which, for the nonce, she translated as "ver-worsebettered".

In essence, it's a combination of verbessern ("to improve") and verschlimmern ("to make worse").  Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.  Think about it!

Ver- is one of the most elusive prefixes in German, and historically it's actually two or three prefixes collapsed into one, as explained here and here.

For simplicity's sake, let us just say that it indicates doing or becoming what the stem refers to, often with a negative connotation.

German is full of such ineffable terms.  Two of my favorites are "Schadenfreude" ("joy or pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others") and "Fahrvergnügen" ("joy or pleasure derived from driving").

Now, if you really want to blow your mind away, try to think of a German word for the joy or pleasure derived from the good fortune of others (discussion here) or contemplate a German word for the ability to sit in one place without moving for long periods of time ("Sitzfleisch")

Better still, try to figure out what "Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz" means.

As Mark Twain once wrote, "Some German words are so long that they have a perspective."

 



58 Comments

  1. Tom S. Fox said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

    "I was speaking specifically about the addition of sugar to their wheat germ by Kretschmer…"

    Who is "their"?

  2. Chris C. said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

    @Tom — That would be Kretschmer, a well-known American manufacturer of wheat germ.

  3. Guy said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

    "Their" is "Kretschmer's", no? Why would Kretschmer add sugar to somebody else's wheat germ? This is an example of a genitive preceding the first mention of its antecedent later in the same clause, which I think is usually considered grammatical (CGEL, at least, deems it to be such). Personally, I read it without any parse "hiccup" or conscious awareness of searching for an antecedent for "their", but it might be interesting to know others' reactions. I suspect anticipatory anaphora is one area where exactly what sounds "awkward" to different native speakers has some degree of gray area.

  4. Guy said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

    I may have spoken to soon in that, upon checking my memory, CGEL notes some exceptions to the general rule without purporting to give exact criteria. But this example doesn't seem to me to be ungrammatical applying the general gyst of the relevant section.

  5. Regina Lusca said,

    March 13, 2015 @ 11:48 pm

    People say that it's revealing that the Germans have a single word like 'Schadenfreude' to express the concept, but they're not alone; a nasty Dutch person exults in leedvermaak, and the ancient Greeks were no strangers to the magnificent ἐπιχαιρεκακία. However, one German word to which I have never found a parallel is 'Zweckentfremdung', defined as 'using anything for a purpose for which it was not originally intended'. It is rather Teutonic to insist that everything has one and only one intended use, as you'll know if you've ever served a German a drink in a glass other than the one designated for it. It conjures up visions of the Zweckpolizei, ever alert for the slightest hint of abuse, or creativity.

  6. Jason said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 12:44 am

    So "verschlimmbessern" = "crapgrade" (for which there are already a handful of google hits. Wikipedia gives "disimprove" but that will never catch on.

  7. Rubrick said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    I hope Zweckentfremdung originally meant something else.

  8. Rachael said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 3:00 am

    Maybe Tom would have preferred "its" rather than "their". ISTR discussions on Language Log before about how entities like corporations are plural for some people and singular for others.

  9. Martin Ball said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 4:29 am

    @guy said: I've seen both 'jist' and 'gist'. Is 'gyst' a spelling that's out there, or a typo? No hits via google with the same meaning…

  10. Frans said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 4:40 am

    @Regina
    Leedvermaak is a calque from German (see the WNT).

  11. Bob said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 5:17 am

    My favorite is die Gleichgewichtzustandwiederherstellungsmoeglichkeit — the possibility of re-establishing a condition of equilibrium. Granted, not a word you're apt to use every day, but in diplomatic circles it might well be the mot juste.

  12. Bob said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 5:25 am

    Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz appears to designate a law regulating the supervision of monitoring activities related to the labeling of beef.

  13. Richard Morey said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 5:45 am

    Verschlimmbessern can be said in one word in English; it just requires air quotes around "improve" :)

  14. raempftl said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 7:29 am

    @Regina Lusca

    The interpretions people who don't speak German give to German words after they learnt of their litteral translation are also quite interesting.

    This seems to be a variation of the "X don't have a word for Y…thus X don't have a concept of Y and we can draw wild conclusions about their character from this" theme.

    Except this time, the Teutonic character of the Germans is well established. So the Germans having a word for something means they either approve or disapprove of the concept as determined by their character. Of course Germans having the word "Schadenfreude" means they approve of that feeling and having the word "Zweckentfremdung" obviously means they disapprove of it. A different interpretation is quite impossible.

    Well, actually, when I first noticed "Schadenfreude" being used in English language newspapers (mostly british, mostly the Guardian) a couple of years ago, I felt they were using it incorrectly, i. e. differently from how it was used in German. It took me a while to pinpoint the reason. I was used to seeing it used disapprovingly while the English papers used approvingly. I wonder which interesting conclusions about the anglo-saxon character can be drawn form this Zweckentfremdung of the German word.

    A good less literal translation of Zweckentfremdung into English would be (small) lifehack. Zweckentfremdung is often used approvingly and in a jokey manner. What does it reveal about the character of English speakers that they needed until 2004 to invent a word for this?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 7:42 am

    @Tom S. Fox

    "the addition of sugar to their wheat germ by Kretschmer"

    That's just the way it came out when I initially wrote the sentence. As I checked the post before putting it up, I read and reread that part 3-4 times and asked myself whether there was a clearer way to write it. Indeed, I was quite aware that the whole sentence was rather complicated and packed with information. In the end, I felt satisfied that the sentence was both grammatically correct and clear, and was convinced that no one would misconstrue it, i.e., that anyone literate in English would know without taking special pains that "their" referred to Kretschmer.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 8:29 am

    "I was speaking specifically about Kretschmer's addition of sugar to their wheat germ"?

    I'm fond of the word Verschlimmbesserung, though I must admit I've mentioned it more than I've used it.

  17. cM said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    As a German native speaker: "verschlimmbessern" doesn't really mean "simultaneously improving and worsening"; it's more complex, because it includes intent – and there's no improvement (heh).

    Without trying for a compact description, I'd go for: "while the idea/intent was for $thing to be improved by $change, it actually, objectively is worse now."

    It's quite commonly used to descibe new versions of some piece of software (it seems to happen a lot there). I happened to just use it yesterday in a rant about the "new" google maps.

  18. svan said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 9:24 am

    As a loyal (if slow) Kretschmer user, I was alarmed to hear of the addition from this post, but I can't find anything about it anywhere online… so I'm curious about where you encountered this information. I'll definitely be checking labels next time I'm at the grocery store, but for now I'm not sure if I should worry or not!

  19. Levantine said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    "For the nonce" has a very unfortunate alternative meaning in British English, "nonce" being a slang term for a paedophile.

  20. Jason Merchant said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    Compare "bittersweet" (apparently Sappho was the first to use it, as claimed here).

  21. Roger Lustig said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    Perhaps we can get newcoke (v.) to catch on as the American-English version of verschlimmbessern.

  22. Vic said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    While I've only ever seen one type of wheat germ in the supermarket, the Kretschmer web site shows that they have two wheat germ products, "Original Toasted" and "Honey Crunch," as well as a wheat bran product. Perhaps Mr. Mair's store switched from carrying the original version to the honey crunch version.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:33 am

    @svan

    Here's how I described what happened in my original complaint to my family and friends:

    =====

    I've been eating Kretschmer's wheat germ for about 40 years, sprinkled on my cold breakfast food with fruit. It means a lot to me, and I even have a special ritual for opening the jar, which Li-ching [my wife] used to enjoy watching me perform, and some visitors may have witnessed (it doesn't happen very often, because it takes me about two months to get through one bottle — but it's also a private ritual, so maybe no one except Li-ching, and perhaps TK [my son], has ever witnessed the ritual [I enjoy performing this solemn rite even for myself]). Well, yesterday I went to the COOP to get a bottle of Kretschmer's wheat germ, and I was suspicious when all the jars had fancy, new labels, so I thought I'd better read the contents to see whether any changes had been made to the product. Believe you me, I was so disappointed when I saw that they now add *evil sugar* to the wheat germ. I will never again buy Kretschmer's wheat germ. Why in god's name do they have to add sugar to such a wonderful food? I hope that I can find some unsugared wheat germ at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or my beloved Martndale's [supposedly America's oldest health food store, about a mile from my home].

    =====

    I spent the next few days running around to different stores in the area to see if they had any old stock on their shelves. Unfortunately, all the bottles on the shelves had the new labels and new, sugared contents. I suppose that other loyal Kretschmer devotees had the same reaction I did, but beat me to the punch in grabbing all the old stock.

  24. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:43 am

    This post is very timely for me, since I just spent about an hour or so dealing with the fact that Spotify just installed a new version of their desktop client, and everything was all verschlimmbessert up, with various features being broken or missing.

    The reaction among Spotify users to this latest update has been nicht gut. My favorite is this one, on Reddit:

    RANT TIME

    I'm done. I throw in the towel, I quit. Spotify wins, I'm cancelling my service tonight, my premium that's been active since the first month they came stateside.

    Every single fucking update of Spotify, both Desktop and Mobile, makes it worse. Who the fuck is designing this shit? Not only does it make it more cumbersome to use, the simple ability to, oh I dunno…Listen to music? Is impaired.

    Ever since the last Android app update my Spotify randomly decides to stop playing at the end of a song, I have to manually play, then sometimes it just rewinds to the beginning of the track it got 'stuck' on, or even more bizarre, it'll skip forward and then the next song is the one it got hung up on. Add that I can use shuffle and then hear the same fucking song 3 times in a 20 minute period on a 3,500 song playlist! That's not an exaggeration; last month I was driving from point A to point B, a trip, and got to hear 1 song 3 times, and another 2 songs twice. What the shit?

    Oh let's not leave out that even if I don't shuffle, sometimes Spotify decides that it's only got about 30 songs to choose from in its playlist, it'll loop the same exact queue until I point it elsewhere on a huge playlist. Again, this leads to the completely idiotic occurrence where I get to listen to the same songs multiple times in a single day. WHY?

    Then there's the Desktop app. Along with all the wonderful fucking innovations in this update, there's all the fuckwit decisions made in the past. Let's not forget the loss of Starring songs, to be replaced with the same exact thing BUT SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT AND SHITTIER! Along with my local library just being gone for literally no reason at all. So now every time I want to mash all my music together, I have to add new shit from Local files, then make a new playlist. Sure would be neat to have some kind of category where all of that is put together, hmmmmmm!

    Also the fact that Spotify's desktop client has shit sound quality; You can take a high-quality local file, play it in Spotify's client, and it'll sound shittier than if you fuckin search for the same song on Youtube and listen there. What the hell?

    Fuck Spotify, I'm done with this bullshit company and service. You guys want to run off your customers, you go right on ahead, just blindly ignore what you're doing "BUT IT LOOKS GREYER!". Go fuck yourselves Spotify, I'm going back to piracy.

    This next one is pretty good, too (note the reference to differences in national personality as a possible explanation for why the update is so bad).

    Honestly I would gladly pay more for a product that FUCKING WORKS. Spotify doesn't do the most basic fucking shit anymore, so I'm done with it. They're not worth my money, I'll try out Google Play or Tidal or something, anything, but fuck Spotify.

    You want to be more pissed off, go look at the Spotify forums. There's Spotify employees telling people that functions that are being complained about are going to be added to this version. One of the first threads I see is "Why is ctrl-F functionality gone?" and an employee responds "Oh we're planning on adding that functionality into this version at a later update." Then why the fuck did they release this update? This is very obviously a beta version if it has LESS functionality than its previous version, that or this is some kinda Swedish humor that I just don't fuckin get. You don't remove a bunch of basic shit and call it an update, when fucking NOTEPAD can perform a function that your goddamn application update can't do, you're a shit coder.

    Either way, fuck off Spotify. Sincerely yours, a once loyal customer who unfortunately was enough of a dumbfuck to have brought you shitheads more business by word-of-mouth.

  25. ChrisU said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 11:44 am

    Programmers refer to such things as "pessimizations" for if a pessimist is the opposite of an optimist then..

  26. michael farris said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    "Perhaps we can get newcoke (v.) to catch on as the American-English version of verschlimmbessern"

    Not Windows8?

    Or maybe just mozilla? (I've gotten to the point where I completely dread each new "update")

    "They really mozilla'd the new decor in that restaurant."

    (spelling taken from Britta'd from Community).

  27. Mark S said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    Reminds me of http://www.theonion.com/audio/kelloggs-worker-knew-he-was-fired-the-moment-he-ut,14047/

  28. flow said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

    There's yet another German word that deals with verworsebettering: "Verballhornung" (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verballhornung). It may come from the name of a Lübeckian printer who proudly announced the an important legislative tome as "improved" when it really contained a fair number of errors. It may or may not have been his fault, but anyway, "verbessert durch Ballhorn" became a way of commenting on cases where best intents and results are not going in the same direction.

  29. Shimon Edelman said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

    Here is an analogous example from Hebrew: an Israeli politician who brags about his national security record can expect to be told that, indeed, המצב הבטחוני השתפר לרעה — "the security situation improved to the worse".

  30. hector said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

    We need to import a German word (which may or may not currently exist) that means "the addition of sugar to a food that was formerly sugarless." I recently had, for the first time in decades, a craving for potato chips, and was horrified to discover that I had to search through the many varieties to discover one that didn't include sugar in its ingredients. But potato chips are a snack food; I can imagine the the manufacturers thinking, "It's a snack food. Of course it should have sugar in it." The addition of sugar to wheat germ is just … wrong. Very, very wrong.

    @ raempftl: Yes, "Teutonic" stereotypes. All Germans are alike, apparently. They all think in the same way, all have the same personality, and always agree with one another. They all have the same quirks, the same irritating habits, the same manners. There are no class divisions, no regional differences. Oh, and don't forget — they have NO sense of humour.

  31. Karl Narveson said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

    I was shocked that nobody could correctly answer the question you linked to about a word for the joy or pleasure derived from the good fortune of others. We avow this feeling every time we say "Congratulations!" The German is Glückwunsch.

  32. MattF said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

    There's an obvious need for a German word meaning "Able to be expressed in one (German) word"

  33. Terry Hunt said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

    @Regina Lusca

    ". . . one German word to which I have never found a parallel is 'Zweckentfremdung', defined as 'using anything for a purpose for which it was not originally intended'."

    The word for this that I'm familiar with is simply "repurposed", but I don't know how much currency it has outside the Science Fiction and Maker communities.

  34. Vasha said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

    Another "single German word" example discovered in the linked article on ver-: what we call "losing your page," when you're reading a book and flip to look something up without keeping the original page marked, in German is verschlagen or verblättern.

  35. Vasha said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    And there's a word in French that I don't know an English equivalent for: démarquer, meaning remove identifying marks from; I learned it in the context of the plagiaristic practice of slightly changing the stolen text in an attempt to foil search-checking. There was a Wikipedia article "démarqué du Grente [biographical dictionary]". I don't think we ever use "demark" or "dismark" in English.

  36. J. F. said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    As the years pile up, I find verschlimmbessert is really just progress. Get used to it.

  37. Xmun said,

    March 14, 2015 @ 10:00 pm

    @Vasha: what we call "losing your page," when you're reading a book and flip to look something up without keeping the original page marked

    I think the English idiom is rather to say "I've lost my place" (rather than "page"). And it can refer to losing one's place on the right page as well as losing whatever page it was that one had got up to.

  38. bratschegirl said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 2:19 am

    Leave it to the Germans to come up with the perfect word to encapsulate that which causes us to quake in our boots, namely the announcement that something or other has been perpetrated "to serve us better."

  39. Thomas said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 5:01 am

    Speaking as a Muttersprachler, it would be nice to reimport "mensch" and "verboten" in their English meaning. "Amtlich verboten" or the like just doesn't have the same punch.

  40. Thomas said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 5:11 am

    @hector
    » We need to import a German word (which may or may not currently exist) that means "the addition of sugar to a food that was formerly sugarless."

    Perhaps simply "to zucker"? The usual meaning is just literal "to sugar".

    Much better, even with the thematic "ver-": "versüßen", mostly (I'd say) used figuratively – in German, it's just positive like "sweeten", but it looks like it could be negative.
    And there is its counterpart "versalzen", which is always negative/too much.

  41. Thomas said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 5:15 am

    »Now, if you really want to blow your mind away, try to think of a German word for the joy or pleasure derived from the good fortune of others

    Actually, I couldn't get it at first.
    A simple "Glückwunsch." is quite distanced from actual feelings.

  42. flow said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 8:41 am

    @hector, @Thomas "verzuckern" was my first impulse. "überzuckern" is also nicely ambiguous, meaning "to coat with sugar; to add the icing (on a cake)" and "to put in too much sugar".

  43. Lukas said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 9:37 am

    "In essence, it's a combination of verbessern ("to improve") and verschlimmern ("to make worse"). Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening."

    In actual usage, it typically means "attempting, or claiming to attempt, to improve something, but actually making it worse", not "making it better and worse at the same time".

  44. hector said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

    @ Thomas, flow:

    What I was really looking for was "the horrifying, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me, what's-the-world-coming-to, addition of sugar to a food that was formerly sugarless."

    So perhaps we should coin "verschlimmzuckern"?

  45. Robert Coren said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

    This thread inspired me to look at the ingredients list on the jar of Kretschmer wheat germ that I was adding to the pancake batter this morning. Sure enough: sugar. This is infuriating, especially as we sought out the large jars (which are not always easy to find) and probably bought two of them.

    This is Language Log, so you all can look for the right word to describe this abomination; I'm going to try to find out how I can inflict an appropriate punishment on whoever made this decision. I wonder to how many diabetics it has occurred that there might be sugar in their "plain" wheat germ?

  46. MattF said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

    @Robert Coren

    On the subject of sugar in everyday foods– Of all bottled tomato sauces, Classico tomato sauce is the one that's sugarless.

  47. Peter Taylor said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    @Regina Lusca, the first couple of pages of Google image search results for Zweckentfremdung look like examples of what I've heard called upcycling.

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    Terry Hunt: I think "repurpose" is pretty well known. For instance, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repurposing_%28broadcasting%29, or from Outbrain, "Repurposing is the reincarnation tool of the marketing world; it's the recycling of your hard work; it's the key to productive production; it's the ultimate method for mass outreach."

  49. Roger Lustig said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    @Bratschegirl:

    "Deutschland: wo 'Service' ein Fremdwort ist."
    –anonymous

  50. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    Akin to "repurposing" is "rebranding", where you take the identical thing, give it a different name, and market it as though it were a new product.

    In my lectures on the history of tea, I use this concept to describe how the northern Chinese legitimized the drinking of tea, which, before they invented a new character and developed a new pronunciation for it, they considered a southern barbarian abomination. See The True History of Tea, especially Appendix C.

  51. Michael Briggs said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

    Says here that there is no sugar added to Kretschmer's Original Toasted Wheat Germ: http://www.shopwell.com/kretschmer-wheat-germ-original-toasted/flour/p/3000002270

    I must check the label next time I cruise the cereal aisle.

  52. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 9:17 pm

    @Michael Briggs

    That's the old product that I loved so much. It's no longer available in stores around Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

  53. Torsten Dewi said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 3:40 am

    "the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening" – that is not exactly true. "Verschlimmbessern" usually refers to an attempt to improve something that leads to worsening something. "Worsening by improving" would be a more apt description. Usually applies to Apple products and the German government ;-)

  54. Alan Palmer said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 6:05 am

    The TV Tropes site has They Changed It, Now It Sucks as a trope in original writing. I appreciate that 'changed' and 'improved' are not necessarily the same, but presumably the creators' intention was to improve the work.

  55. Signe said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    The problem with "repurposing" is that it focuses on the act of altering the use case of the object or the act of modifying the object, not on the act of using the repurposed object, which is how Zweckentfremdung is defined above. (This isn't surprising, since "repurpose" is mainly used in the context of the maker/hacker community, which focuses on the act of changing objects' intended uses, but I think it a subtly different meaning.)

  56. Robert Coren said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 10:12 am

    @Michael Briggs: Well, that looks like the label I'm used to seeing. The label on my jar is somewhat different in format, but it clearly says "Original Toasted". And the ingredients list includes sugar. It's not clear whether they've changed it or that I just have to look more carefully to see which "original" version my local stores are carrying — or if the older sugarless version is still (and only) available by ordering online from Shopwell, or if that web page is out of date.

    It's inexcusable in any case.

  57. Thomas said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 3:29 am

    @ flow, hector
    Oh, ja, verzuckern sounds good. That could even work in German, I mean the transfer.
    The first 20 Google hits are from dictionaries so it's not really in common use.

    For English, I'd try Verzuckerung, perhaps even Weltverzuckerung?

  58. noddy said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    @Regina Lusca

    ". . . one German word to which I have never found a parallel is 'Zweckentfremdung', defined as 'using anything for a purpose for which it was not originally intended'."

    Hack sort of works. Not in the "break into a computer" sense, but the original meaning. For instance, a hack I frequently employed in my childhood was using spoons as tire irons for removing my bicycle tire when I didn't have the real thing.

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