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How's that again?

A recent cultural dissertation here seemed to please some folks, but since I misspelled the German word Backfischm it brought me a spate of mail from linguistic purists who upbraided me fearfully for such slovenly work at the literary forge. While these kind people tediously explained the origin of the word and its curious meaning, not one of them tangled with the heart of my discourse, which was merely that I found it droll that a German word for a 13 -year-old girl would be construed grammatically in the masculine. In spite of all the enlightenment that came to me thus, I still smile at the idea.

I should have known better than to make light of the heavy precisions of that tongue. Back in 1953 (when I first heard the word Backfischm ), I visited in Germany for four months on a journalistic mission, and during that time I met just about every editor and publisher in the Federal Republic, from Herr Axel Springer in his Hamburg bastion down to a little man in the Palatinate in his printshop, which was extremely prosperous with the clock-around printing of labels. He didn't bother with news, but printed things like the plumbing code of New Zealand.

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In 1953 affairs of the press in West Germany were the result of the Occupation, and what we would call the "home-town paper" was impoverished while the big licensed publishers were fat. The editors of the little papers were eager, thus, to hear of anything that might earn them a Pfennig,m and they asked me many questions about our American country press -- mainly the small town and country weeklies. The most frequent question of all had to do with the all-important German political article -- the frontpage opinion of the cultured Herr -- Doktor -- Redakteurm meant to inform the otherwise uninformed reader about world affairs. My answer, of course, was that the average American rural editor seldom gets all that serious about his role in history.

A number of meetings were held in the Stammtisch manner, with a dozen or more editors and publishers gathering to talk shop, and to illustrate something of the American differences, I had a little story. I told about the New Deal congressman's wife who was introduced to the Norwegian ambassador, and said "Oh, how nice -- our cook is a Swede, too." This is an excellent story to tell in such circumstances -- it gives the German editor a chance to laugh at the Americans, which costs us nothing, and it heightens his own sense of class. Well, he knows that no German is about to mistake the Scandinavians, and that no proper person is going to put cooks and ambassadors in the same sentence. Besided, in 1953 anybody's wife was funny in any kind of political context, but the New Deal was then recent enough so the hilarity was multiplied. Whenever I told this small joke in English, those German editors who understood English would laugh and comprehend the point I was making. "Reader mentality!" and they would nod.

But there was a little man who stood by at these conferences, ready to translate for those who couldn't follow my English. When he translated my joke, nobody laughed. Not even a smile from those who had just laughed at the English version. I supposed this was a mechanical failure wrought by the different word orders of the two languages. Well, if a joke depends on a verb, English uses the verb early on, but in German it thumps along at the end, like a caboose. Could be. But then I inquired, and learned my translator was rendering my punch line as, "So! Our cook once lived in Oslo."

Accordingly, I should never have gone light-hearted about the gender of Backfisch.m I saw my 1953 Backfischm again in 1966, and hem was now what we in Maine would call a keeper. And Herr-Doktor-Redakteurm Georg Dietrich, publisher of the "Taunus Anzeiger," came to see me in Maine in 1960, and after we shook hands he said, "Now, what was funny about that story you told in Wiesbaden?"


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