Insult of the Month

kein schimpfenKeeping up with your languages doesn’t have to be tedious. Many regular readers of already know and use tools for maintaining the edge on their biblical Greek and Hebrew (and if you don’t, just click over to The Lectionary at Lunch and subscribe to the podcast). But what about your German? Well, let me offer at least one way for you fans of early modern German to keep a little sizzle in your Sprachgefühl.

One small but significant corner of the scholarly world investigates confession and controversy in sixteenth-century Lutheranism. And one tiny side project of that important academic collaboration collects some of the colorful, creative, and sometimes obscure insults that were hurled back and forth by theological writers of that age. The website is entitled “Schimpfwort des Monats” (which, for the uninitiated, translates roughly as “expletive [or insult] of the month”). The page is in (modern) German–making it useful for most of us with ein bisschen Deutsch–and offers, with some explanation, sixteenth-century passages in which a creative bit of profanity crops up.

As even a casual reader of Luther and other sixteenth-century writers is aware, even serious theological writing in the age of the Reformation could be surprisingly peppery. Insults and name-calling abound on all sides, much of it very colorful–or even off-color! The respectful and professional tone we try to maintain here at will not permit me to indulge my coarse and vulgar fascination with such rude language; many especially rude passages in Luther’s writings are somewhat sanitized in the American Edition.

We Lutherans sometimes revel in Luther’s earthy coarseness. He was no “pietist”! He liked his beer and he knew how to cuss–he was our kind of guy! Our admiration for the great reformer may even incline us to imitate his insulting tone and scatological crudeness in our “discussions” with those with whom we disagree.

Should we resort to such a sixteenth-century fondness for Schimpfwörter? I don’t think so. The culture in which we live has changed from Luther’s day (in some ways for the better, believe it or not), and the consensus of our society is that serious conversations should be respectful and polite. People who sprinkle their speech with expletives and their writing with crudity are seen as bad-tempered and lacking self-control. Off-color insults today may get a laugh, but they generally weaken the person’s argument, and tend to draw attention away from the substance to the unpleasant character of the speaker.

So even if the person you are having a “discussion” with is, in fact, a Hohlhippler, perhaps it is not necessary to say so in print or in public. Just sayin’.





One response to “Insult of the Month”

  1. Carol Geisler Avatar
    Carol Geisler

    This comment from John Calvin (quoted in Brian Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New) may apply here:”Ah, Luther! How few imitators of your excellence have you left behind you–and how many apes of your holy belligerence!”

    Calvin goes on to say something else that might apply to our social media world: “Now, when the same sound comes from drones, who are only disturbing the hive, it is absolutely insufferable.” (both comments are taken from Calvin’s “Second Defence of the Sacraments in Answer to the Calumnies of Joachim Westphal”)

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