Monday, April 06, 2009


I am going to try to explain where the word "Nazi" comes from. It is as plain as a pikestaff to a German-speaking person but I doubt if I have ever come across an English speaking person who "gets" it. Jonah Goldberg probably gets it but Yiddish is a German dialect so he has a head start.

OK: The first thing to note is that Hitler's political party was called (in English) the "National Socialist German Workers' Party". And the curious thing is that the word "National" is spelled exactly the same in German as in English. So in German the party was called the: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei. "National" is in fact a borrowing from English/French. It's spelled the same in French too. But it is PRONOUNCED differently in the three countries. Germans pronounce it (approximately) as "nartsionarl". But a German word pronounced that way would not be spelled that way. It would be spelled as "Nazional". German has strict spelling rules (unlike English) so that is obvious in German. So "Nazi" is simply the first two syllables of "National" -- where "national" is pronounced in the German way. Maybe that is as clear as mud but I hope it is not. If not, just take my word for it that "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National". Quite mundane, really. Much less exciting than you might expect.

But Nazis were not simply the "Nationalists". There was another German political party at the time called Nationalists. "Nazis" were "national socialists" because "National Socialists" is one word in German: Nationalsozialisten. So "Nazi" could be an abbreviation of both "Nationalists" and "National Socialists". It was of course normally applied to the latter. Hugenberg's Nationalists were a much more minor party.

Jamming two or more words together to make one longer word is very German. In English we do the same but use Latin and Greek words as the starting point. Perhaps the most curious example of that is the word "television" -- where the Greek word "tele" (meaning "afar") is combined with the Latin word "videre" (to see). In German, a TV set is a Fernsehgeraet, or "far-seeing-gadget". I think the German word is more straightforward.

Mixing Greek and Latin is considered rather crass in the making of English words so "television" should probably have been "teleskopia" if we had stuck to Greek. A bit too close to "telescope", maybe.

Tags: Nazi word meaning derivation origin

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