Tuesday, August 5, 2008


During the last year and a half of undergraduate work at Northern Michigan University, my three roommates and I enjoyed playing a kind of dictionary 'game'.

Each morning, before going off to classes, one of us would grab a dictionary and flip it open to a page, any page. Then that person would run her finger down the page until she found a word she didn't know. She'd ask the others if they knew it. If someone did, a different 'strange' word would be selected.

If no one was familiar with the word, it would become our 'word of the day'. Each of us wrote it down, along with the definition. Our object then was to use the word as many times that day in a sentence as we could. Before we went to bed that night, we would each tell how many times we'd used it in a sentence and then relate the sentence.

Some of the sentences were hilarious and others were 'dead on' for accuracy. It was a fun way, we thought, to try and build up our vocabulary.

Recently, I've heard this word, "zeitgeist", spoken in interviews and seen it written several times. I said to myself, "Self, you'd better look up the meaning and see if it's a word you'd like to add to your vocabulary."

I began the search with my very own (circa 1976) dictionary. I wasn't very hopeful that it would be in there but it was! Of German origin, it means "the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era."

The literal translation is time (Zeit) and spirit (Geist), or "the spirit of the age". In the Netherlands it is "the mind of the time", and 'mind' is understood as the mental spirit (state of mind).

In German, Wiki goes on to say, the word has more layers of meaning than the English translation, including the fact that 'zeitgeist' can only be observed for past events.

Zeitgeist, the Movie, came out in 2007. That's probably why I'm seeing and hearing the word so frequently used today. I'll link the Wiki writeup for you here, if you're interested in reading more about it.

Supposedly, the film is a documentary. I had always thought that documentaries were supposed to be based on "fact", "original papers", "evidence", "authentication", "requirements of the law", etc.

A documentary, therefore, is only as good as the documentor (probably not a good word), right? Makes sense to me! I'm well aware of the fact that a good debater is one who can argue either side and win. I'm also aware that 'expert' witnesses in court cases are chosen for their particular views.

I'm more than a little suspicious of a documentary that includes a George Carlin religious sketch. (Thought I read that somewhere in doing my research for this post, but I can't find it now. Wouldn't you know?)

Anyway, there you have it ... "Zeitgeist" ... to be used however you please.

By the way, we're enjoying a little rain here today. Edouard moved much quicker than anyone anticipated -- that's a good thing -- and came ashore early this morning at less than hurricane strength. It's supposed to rain off and on through this evening, some areas getting much more of the wet stuff than others. (I'm one of the 'others'. Nevertheless, I got gas and did my grocery shopping yesterday, just in case!)


Tammy said...

I knew you'd tell us what the word meant, so before I read too far I tried to come up with the meaning on my own. All I could think of was a ghost with a bad case of zits! lol

I knew "geist" meant something like "spirit," but "zeit" had me stumped.

Sounds like a fun word game you played with your roommates. Might have to try it with my girls.

Goldenrod said...

I LOVE that! A ghost with a bad case of zits ... too funny!! Reminds me of when I play Scrabble. If I'm challenged, I make up a weird definition that might be plausible for the nonexistent word I just put down.

Reminds me of years ago. DD, Butch, and I were playing and the rule was you could only use words that were sex-related. At one time during the game, Butch was laughing so hard at one of the words that had just been 'coined' that he fell off his chair!

Anyway, I was hearing or seeing the 'zeitgeist' so often that I just HAD to look it up.