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This World War II American propaganda poster speaks for itself:

A poster of WWII era discouraging the
use of Italian, German, and Japanese.

Our first task is to transcribe and translate the German, Japanese, and Italian:

Adolf Hitler:

Die Demokratie muss zerschmettert werden! ("Democracy must be destroyed!")

Tōjō Hideki:

Demokurashī o hakai seyo デモクラシーを破壊せよ。 ("Destroy democracy!")

Benito Mussolini (but I've never seen photographs of Mussolini with a beard, or is that supposed to be a scarf around his neck? — the cartoon is not very well drawn, and maybe what looks like a beard is just the shadow of the face):

Bisogna distruggere la democrazia! ("We must destroy democracy; democracy must be destroyed" [an impersonal construction — "it is necessary to"])

The above poster was called to my attention by Charlie Ruland, who sent in the following message:

I am an ethnic German follower of Language Log and have read your post, "What does "Schmetterling" sound like to a German?." However, I was unable to leave a comment there this morning; it seems that commenting has been closed.

Anyway, the other day I stumbled upon the Wikipedia article German language in the United States, and in the section Persecution during World War I I discovered a poster that shows Hitler saying "Die Demokratie muss zerschmettert werden!" ("Democracy must be destroyed!", literally "smashed"). The poster also shows Mussolini and Tōjō uttering the same sentence in their respective languages, and the English message is: "DON'T SPEAK THE ENEMY'S LANGUAGE! The Four Freedoms Are Not In His Vocabulary. SPEAK AMERICAN!" According to the poster's file description on Wikimedia Commons "[t]his sign was hung in post offices and in government buildings during World War II […] between circa 1941 and circa 1945".

I am not going to comment on interesting linguistic details such as the use of collective the enemy and his vocabulary or of American referring to (American) English here. My contribution to the topic of the Schmetterling meme is as follows:

I take this poster as evidence that the syllables schmetter were known to a great many Americans as an indication of German fascism as far back as the early 1940s, and have been ever since. Taking into account the US Supreme Court case Meyer v. Nebraska of 1923 such a poster in US post offices and government buildings may seem surprising (or rather: unconstitutional) but it doesn't seem the average American really cared or cares. I have met many Germans who were extremely well-informed about the history of linguistic rights in the US and elsewhere — much more so than almost all US citizens, it seems — and who felt that making fun of a linguistic minority is equivalent to making fun of, say, an ethnic, racial or sexual minority: calling a language ugly is not a far cry from calling it primitive and incapable of expressing certain notions that are "Not In His Vocabulary". (I even believe such an attitude contributed to weakening German resistance to fascism in WWII, and that this topic is also related to Frau Merkel's current policy of admitting hundreds of thousands of "orientals" to Germany, but that's beyond the scope of this thread.)

Charlie followed up with a second, short note:

I suddenly remember that when I was a toddler over half a century ago my German mom taught me the nursery rhyme Schmetterling du kleines Ding. And judging from the number of versions on YouTube this ditty hasn't sunk into oblivion (yet).

After reading Charlie's first set of comments, I was prompted to wonder just what the relationship between schmetter(n) and Schmetterling, if any, might be.  From my Germanic Studies colleagues, I received the following replies.

Christina Frei:

The word Schmetterling has another origin and nothing to do with "schmettern/zerschmettern.

The German word "Schmetterling" was coined for the first time in 1501 from the Slavic-based East-Middlegerman word "schmetten" which means heavy sour cream; cream (milk) referring to the fact that this type of animal was attracted to heavy cream and when cream was beaten to butter — hence the English butterfly.

From Ed Dixon:

Yes "zerschmettern" means to smash and "schmettern" has a similar meaning but can be used in other contexts as, e.g., "to belt out a song."   However, in Middle High German according to Duden "schmettern" comes from "smetern" which meant "klappern" (to clatter, rattle, flap).

Another colleague suggested:

The prefix "zer" means completely or thoroughly.  A butterfly is something, a little thing ("ling"), that shakes and flutters. Something that is zer-schmettert is shaken up so much as to be smashed.

From a German friend who was explaining the meaning of schmetter(n):

Donald Trump schmettert his anger about Cruz to NYT.

I zerschmetterte an entire Meissen coffee service when I fell into it.

The birds schmettern a song of happiness/excitement.

The boy schmetterte with/on his trumpet.

To forcefully throw, sling, or strike something WITH A LOUD CRASHING NOISE.

It's the NOISE and force of something which schmetters.

From Don Ringe:

So it turns out that Seebold has reconsidered Eng. _butterfly_.  I quote from the 23rd ed. of Kluge's Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (1995), rev. by Elmar Seebold:

"Das Wort [Schmetterling] gehört zu _Schmetten_ 'Rahm' wie _Buttervogel_, ne. _butterfly_ usw. (weil sich Schmetterlinge gerne auf Milchgefäße setzen).  Darauf weisen for allem mundartliche Bezeichnungen wie _Milchdieb_, während sonst auch ein Anschluß an _schmettern_ (in bezug auf das Schlagen der Flügel) denkbar wäre."

As for _schmettern_ 'beat', he figures it's onomatopoeic, which is highly likely.

What I find odd about all of this is that, although my German is not very good (not quite schlecht, but certainly far from schön), the following meanings all seem to sound just right:  "-ling" = something small and cute; "zer-" = thoroughly, completely; "schmetter" = flutter, beat.  That is completely apart from any knowledge of the origins and etymology I may have gained in the course of preparing this post and the one about the lovely word Schmetterling that I had so much fun with a couple of weeks ago.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Hiroko Sherry, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Bethany Wiggin, David Spafford, Alfredo Cadonna, Heidi Krohne, Tomoko Takami, and Paolo Francalacci]


  1. Michael Watts said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    Diminutive -ling is an active suffix in english; it's not all that surprising that an english speaker might feel it appropriate for marking diminutives in german too.

  2. Jim said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

    The German word "Schmetterling" was coined for the first time in 1501 from the Slavic-based East-Middlegerman word "schmetten" which means heavy sour cream

    Am I right in thinking that this is related to smetana? Or is that a false cognate?

  3. Zeppelin said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

    Jim: You're right, it's the same word. That particular kind of milk product seems to be part of a fairly big set of shared Central European foodstuffs.
    Another Central European milk product without an English name that ALSO has a nice German-Russian cognate pair is Quark = tvarog.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 6:20 pm

    I just learned yesterday (while reading Gaston Dorren's newly-published-in-the-U.S. book Lingo on a lengthy airplane flight) that "quark" is believed to have entered German as a loanword from Sorbian, which explains the Russian cognate and is a further parallel to the claim that schmetten is similarly a Slavic-origin loanword.

  5. David Morris said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    At the same time, was the US government recruiting German, Japanese and Italian speakers for intelligence work?

  6. Kinen Carvala said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    @David Morris: Even before Pearl Harbor, the American military was recruiting and training Japanese Americans to be translators because of deteriorating relations with Japan.

  7. Roger Lustig said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 10:29 pm

    How much of this sort of thing (the poster, not schmettern) was there in WW II as opposed to WW I? In 1917-8 entire German-language cultures were set on the road to extinction because of the stigma attached. (New Braunfels comes to mind.) I doubt the posters had much effect in, say, Washington Heights, and to hear people from there & then (including my mother's family) tell it, one talked the way one talked.

    In Germany, the WW I efforts to "purify" the German language of Latinate words were far greater than those of 25 years later. Did anyone in the US stop saying Kindergarten, Angst, etc. in 1941?

  8. Rish said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

    "admitting hundreds of thousands of "orientals" to Germany" – is "orientals" at all a "normal" word for Middle-Easterners in German?

    (There is a story of Jewish refugees from WWII describing themselves to Japanese authorities as "Orientals" to explain why Hitler hated them; I've seen people attempting to determine the veracity of this account saying that there was no Yiddish word "Oriental" and therefore that the story probably did not take place. The possibility of it being a German-only word did not enter the discussion, and would be useful to know.)

  9. Chips Mackinolty said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 2:56 am

    World War II propaganda images against Mussolini regularly depicted him as being unshaven and unkempt, e.g.

  10. Vilinthril said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 3:10 am

    Though, regarding Quark, I'm obligated to mention that nobody in Austria would use that word; here, it's Topfen (of uncertain etymological origin).

  11. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 3:44 am

    For contemporary German speakers the etymology of Schmetterling is extremely opaque. The word Schmetten is virtually unknown outside Upper Saxon dialects, and those who know it do not easily relate the two words. It remains unexplained how and why the locally used Schmettenling of around 1500 AD became Schmetterling, and even the once authoritative Duden dictionary concedes some uncertainty: Herkunft: aus dem Obersächsischen, wohl zu Schmetten. ("Origin: from Upper Saxon, probably cognate with Schmetten." — The emphasis is mine.)

    @Roger Lustig: Words like kindergarten, angst in the mouth of an English speaker are not German words but English words of German origin. They follow regular English patterns, for example: no capitalization, plural -s in kindergartens, long AH in angst, and if the Germans changed their orthography, the English-speaking world would not follow their example.

    @Rish: It is still possible in contemporary Standard German to say ein Orientale referring to anyone who is from der Orient, which includes the Middle East. Personally speaking, I don't exactly like this word and its mostly negative (currently "anti-immigrationist") connotations, so it's not "normal" usage in my idiolect.

  12. Zeppelin said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:21 am

    I would expect to see the noun "Orientaler" used only ironically by anyone who isn't fairly old. Probably the term was more widely used in the early 20th century, we did have Orient Societies and things of that sort. These days people from the Mysterious Orient seem to get divided up a bit more — not many Germans would lump together "Asians" and "Muslims", for one thing.

  13. ajay said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:37 am

    "These days people from the Mysterious Orient seem to get divided up a bit more — not many Germans would lump together "Asians" and "Muslims", for one thing."

    If I remember rightly, during Japan-USSR negotiations in the 1930s the Soviet negotiator described Russia as "an Asian culture" and the Japanese one reciprocated by saying that the Japanese were "spiritually communist"… I will look for a link.

  14. More Cowbell said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    Checking Google Images finds a similar English-only propaganda poster.

  15. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 11:26 am

    @More Cowbell: It seems this poster had also been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons but was deleted for being a modern commercial recreation, not the reproduction of an original WWII propaganda poster.

  16. Terry Hunt said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    In the UK prior to WW2, the term Oriental was, I believe, routinely applied to an area which included (then-called) Palestine, hence the well-known School of Oriental Studies (later School of Oriental and African Studies) founded in 1916: it was perhaps more a geographic than a (pan-)enthnic term.

    Personally, as a lifetime supporter of Leyton Orient FC, I've never had a problem with it :-).

    Leyton and surrounding districts of east London used to have a significant Jewish demographic (with which I have family ties), but the Club's name actually derives from the Orient Shipping Company, one or more of whose employees played for it in the earliest days.

  17. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

    The SPEAK AMERICAN! slogan reminded me of a funny story my elder sister who lives in Berkeley, CA told me some ten years ago: She was out for a walk with a friend from Switzerland and they were chatting in German when a man walked up to them saying: "This is America! You gotta speak Spanish! ¡Americano!" I wonder if there are more people who, jokingly or not, refer to Spanish as americano. At least I have met Hispanics who called the Americas, and not the US, America, even in English.

  18. DWalker said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    Notice that the poster says "… are not in his vocabulary". Sure they are!

    And how many words for Snow does the German language have? :-)

  19. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    @DWalker: 50 :-)

  20. maidhc said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    Rish: If an East European Jewish refugee were conversing with a Japanese official, what language would they speak? Probably not Yiddish.

    Although the version of the story I've heard had the rabbi say "They hate us because we're Asians".

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

    @Charlie Ruland: But Kindergarten and Angst are recognisable to many English speakers as German words, regardless of what vowel quality or plural ending they use. There were lots of German place names in North America that were changed during WW1, and (at least according to Wikipedia) German words like Sauerkraut and Dachshund were replaced in American English during WW1 as well. (Yes, I know that in German the dog is usually called a Dackel.) Kindergarten may also have been replaced in the same way, though Wikipedia doesn't mention it in the same sentence.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    Chiune Sugihara, who famously exceeded his authority by issuing quite a lot of visas to Jewish refugees while serving as Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940, is said to have spoken at least six languages in addition to his L1 Japanese, but I can't quickly google up the complete list. It definitely included English, Russian, and German. I would imagine most Japanese diplomats of that era who were stationed anywhere in Eastern Europe had reasonably competent L2 German skills. Whether the Japanese listener using those L2 German skills to get at least the rough gist of someone speaking L1 Yiddish would be a more effective means of communication than using a translator or finding some other common L2 is not clear to me.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    I was born in East Canton, Stark County, northeast Ohio. My village was called Osnaburg before WWI, when anti-German sentiment forced a change of the name.


    The town of Osnaburg was first surveyed in 1801, and settlers began arriving in the Fall of 1804. The first settler claimed the land that is now known as the Stark Ceramics property, which at that time went for $2 an acre. It is believed that the name “Osnaburg” is likely a derivative of a town in Germany, which is where most of the early settlers emigrated from. As of 1805, the town had a few businesses and several families already living in it. The town of Osnaburg quickly became a popular stagecoach stop, as it was situated on one of the most traveled routes in the area (now known as Route 172). Osnaburg was originally in the running to become the county seat, but eventually lost out to Canton, allegedly due to an outspoken and unruly tavern keeper. The Village retained the name of Osnaburg until World War I, when the anti-German sentiment became so strong that the Village decided to change its name to East Canton.1

    "Village of East Canton and Osnaburg Township's Joint Community Plan" (June, 2015)…/Joint%20Planning%20Commission%20Final...


    The township and school district were permitted to maintain the name of Osnaburg, which I think comes from the city of Osnabrück in Lower Saxony, Germany.


    The origin of the name Osnabrück is disputed. The suffix -brück suggests a bridge over or to something (from German Brücke = bridge) but the prefix Osna- is explained in at least two different ways: the traditional explanation is that today's name is a corruption of Ochsenbrücke (meaning "oxen bridge"), but others state that it is derived from the name of the Hase River which is arguably derived from Asen (Æsir), thus giving Osnabrück the meaning "bridge to the gods".[9] The way in which the city's name is pronounced can also serve as a means of telling if the speaker is a native of Osnabrück or a visitor: most locals stress the last syllable, while those from elsewhere tend to stress the first one.[citation needed] The city gave its name to the textile fabric of osnaburg (note: "-burg" means borough).


    "In 1833, Osnaburg Township contained one gristmill, seven saw mills, two tanneries, four stores, and one German and English book office",_Ohio,_Stark_County,_Ohio

  24. Rish said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

    @maidhc The story as I know it had Yiddish-speaking rabbis representing the Jewish community to a Japanese official with a pair of translators present, one to translate from Yiddish to English and another to translate from English to Japanese. I've also heard "because we are Asians" when the story is being told in English, but when the quote is Yiddish it tends to be "Orientalim." I don't know whether "Asians" is meant to be what the translator said at the time or if it's an attempt to translate "Oriental."

    @J. W. Brewer – The Japanese authorities in question could not be presumed to be multilingual, as the "Orientals" story is supposed to have taken place after the refugees had already procured visas (from, indeed, Chiune Sugihara) and arrived in Kobe, Japan. The meeting is described as taking place in Tokyo.

  25. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    The Orient Express, of course, historically went to Istanbul. I get the sense that the association of 'Orient' specifically with East Asia was quite a short-lived phenomenon.

  26. David Morris said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:16 am

    The front page of Wikipedia today notes that it is the anniversary of President Roosevelt signing the order authorising the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American civilians.

  27. Alon Lischinsky said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    @Charlie Ruland: I wonder if there are more people who, jokingly or not, refer to Spanish as americano. At least I have met Hispanics who called the Americas, and not the US, America, even in English.

    The continent is the primary meaning of America in Spanish, but used to be quite common in English as well (cf., for example, the Testimony of the Society of Friends on the Continent of America). It has pretty clearly gone the way of the dodo, though.

    On the other hand, hablar [en] americano is only very rarely used in Spanish, and there are dozens of instances meaning ‘to speak American English [as opposed to British or any other dialect]’ for each one meaning ‘to speak American Spanish [as opposed to Iberian or any other dialect]’. Most hits these days are translations of Palin's hateful little speech.

  28. KevinM said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Would you like freedom fries with that liberty cabbage?

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