01 Jun

Weltschmerz

I just saw this word on the national spelling bee. It was the word that tripped up the 2nd place speller. It means “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” Author J.D. MacDonald defines it as “homesickness for a place you have never seen.” Ha! I love that.

In google, it returns 390,000 hits, way more than hukilau, an earlier word that means “A Hawaiian fishing party usually involving many people and much revelry” and which only returns 146,000 hits. Still, I find both those numbers staggering. There are actually almost 400,000 websites that mention “weltschmerz.” Crazy.

The final three spellers were girls. It’s not unusual for a girl to win; in fact the contestants are almost 50-50 boys and girls, and previous years’ winners are just as often girls as boys. But it does make the third-to-last word, “kundalini,” poetically appropriate. It means, “The latent (female) energy said to lie coiled at the base of the spine.”

But the winning word is even more poetic. When the second place finisher erred on “weltschmerz,” the announcers commented that the final girl would have known that word since it was German and since her dad speaks German. (Turns out that spelling bee commentators make just as many hasty conclusions as most sports commentators; how would they know for sure she knew it?) The final word, “Ursprache,” which won said girl the competition, was also German in origin, and (here’s the poetry) it means, “parent language.”

It’s humbling what these middle schoolers know. I mean, for them, words like ennui and paroxysm are child’s play. Most days, I can’t remember how to spell alligator. So I have no Schadenfreude for the losers. I was pained for each of them. Ah the weltschmerz; in an ideal world, we would all be winners.

Actually, strike that. If everyone wins, then victory is meaningless. I bet there’s a German word for that. Auschkugel: victory rendered meaningless by its being shared with everyone.

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