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The words “Teutonic” and “Germanic” ring joyously for me these days. My new bungee-jumping-into-my-own-psyche attitude since my brush-with-death experience has opened me to the idea of exploring, and fearlessly at that, the roots of my mentality. Hence, I embrace my four-generations-back-German heritage. Mere German heritage, however, will not do. I am a Bavarian. And that tapping-the-keg-munching-the-schnitzel word uncovers a German-Catholic past steeped in self-excoriating uber-Catholic repentance so extreme it requires a Superhero to embody it. The Amazing Nightcrawler? Anyone? Self-esteem gurus can skip Bavaria. True knowledge of your deep-and-abiding-sinful nature is the road to self-actualization.

And there we will stop. Amidst all my ramblings, did you pick up on the point? The subject couldn’t matter less, being as full of truth as a hamster’s brain is full of the writings of Aristotle -- my roots are in Alsace-Lorraine, for one thing. It was the wording. All those hyphenated modifiers, besides being annoying, are my point. The term for them is Teutonicism, or if you prefer, Germanism. That device fetches its name from the Teutonic tendency to stack up modifiers before the modified word, and on some occasions create a new word that way. In English, the device has gained some recent popularity because of its over-the-top, frenetic effects. It seems to capture the tone of the Too-Much-Information age.

Some examples of the Germanism-Teutonicism.

  • “…a Grow-Your-Own-Warts-Kit.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • “I’m not a food person in the let’s-go-to-Spruce-I-hear-they-have-a-new-chef way. – Martha Bayne, Chicago Reader
  • “…hands-in-flannel-trouser-pockets pose.” – Will Self, How the Dead Live
  • “…white-person-with-dreadlocks-at-a-liberal-arts-college-thing.” – Jamie Schweser, The Zine Yearbook

And once you start, it’s hard to stop; but vitally important that you do so. A writer who becomes addicted to coagulations of words may forget that English will often have one pithy adjective that quietly places the idea at the feet of the reader. For example, I might have skipped the four-generations-back-German construction, and gone with German. I might then have talked of the German G’G’ Grandmother from Alsace-Lorraine. Then too, words can get between the reader and the idea the way orange traffic cones got between me and the Parkway last night. Words that are too edgy, too stylized, make the reader stop and stare rather than proceed to your ultimate point. This is the danger of the Teutonicism, or Germanism. Wading through that hyphenated modifier may leave your reader gasping, “but what was that saying?” And any sentence that must be read twice for comprehension isn’t that great a sentence.

Germanisms, or Teutonicisms, can also sound adolescent. They embrace sarcasm, they invite stereotype (witness my references to Bavarian culture), they create a cliqueishness. If I imply to my reader that he or she has heard a statement so many times that it can be an adjective, I imply that we are of one sub-culture. One clique. There lies a potential to leave a reader outside your friendly essay or story sphere.

But, like porn, Teutonicisms, or Germanisms, are fun. Indeed, you may strive for adolescence in your tone, or you may be addressing your clique, or you’ve hit upon just the vignette that embodies your concept. So you Teutonicize. Or Germanize. This device is also economical if an anecdote would get your idea across, but you haven’t the time or the patience to tell the anecdote. Hyphenate it. Bottom line, this device is the habanero-chile-sauce rhetorical device. Use it sparingly, so that the heat and pain leave room for the fruity flavor and the endorphin rush.

Source: Plotnik, Arthur, Spunk and Bite, Random House, 2005.

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