Monday, August 2, 2010

Word of the Day: Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge

Okay, I know, my last Word of the Day was nearly five months ago! But however inapt the label is, let’s press on with a new one. Today’s WOTD is a “fair jaw-cracker”, to borrow a phrase from Samwise Gamgee, and quite deliberately so. According to musical legend, Richard Wagner didn’t particularly care for the saxophone, and so he dismissed the instrument as “sound[ing] like the word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge” [1].

Apparently, Wagner coined this word himself. The British Telegraph parses it as meaning something like “nonsense sound factory tools”. But I think Wagner might have shot himself in the foot here without realizing it. If the sound of an instrument he hated could be so easily captured by the ordinary phonology of German, then what does this say about the phonaesthetic qualities of his mother tongue? More importantly, about the libretti of Wagner’s operas? If pressed, wouldn’t he have to admit that his operas sounded like a chorus of saxophones? :)

Setting aside debate about the beauty or ugliness of the German language, would any of my German-speaking friends care to take a crack at parsing out the individual parts of this remarkable word?

[1] I picked the word up reading Omniglot blog, but to give a printed source: Slominksy, Nicolas. A Thing or Two About Music. Westport: Greenwood, 1972 [first published, 1948], p. 30.


  1. While I've no problem with the German Language, it can sound ugly or beautiful depending on who is speaking it as with any language..

    I've always preferred his operas "Ohne Worte" simply because even if they were speaking English, I still wouldn't be able to understand them. And to me they simply distract from the beauty of the orchestra.

  2. Harm J. Schelhaas8/02/2010 6:09 PM

    What I like is the comment on the Telegraph article, citing the definition of a gentleman as one who owns a saxophone but does not play it.

  3. Hm, as written, it doesn't make much sense.

    Werzeuge means "tools", but I've never heard of the word Klanke. Perhaps it should be Klang - "sound", hence Klangwerkzeuge - "music unstruments". Kreuzung is "crossing" and Reck means "bar, lever".

    Bar on a crossing music instruments?

    I guess it's just a nonsense onomatopoeic word. :)

  4. It’s not Kreuzung, it’s Ankreuzung, i.e. nominalized from the verb ankreuzen ‘to tick off’.
    Reck is the ‘apparatus used in Artistic Gymnastics’ (I went to school with that guy in the first pic!).
    As for Klanke – it does seem to have a meaning (some kind of irregularity of mineral resources in a mine) – but I’m not sure Wagner knew this word!?!
    Btw, Werkzeuge ‘tools’ is the semantic head; I’ll have a try at a structure (h for ‘head’):
    The s is epenthetic.

    ?‘tools for coping with irregularities of mineral resources used for the ticking off of horizontal bars’
    I agree, Wagner’s focus seems to have been on the sound ;-) – or it’s an utterly obscure technical term from mining.

    … of course, Werkzeug is a composite noun in itself …

    Proposal for the next WotD: Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz!

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Eosphoros, your parsing seems impeccable to me, even if this is surely not what Wagner had in mind, hahae. However, regarding your suggestion for the next WOTD, I don’t think I’ll be going down that road! ;)

  6. Jason, I found a source claiming that it wasn't the sound of the instrument Wagner was referring to, but a saxophone concerto by Hindemith. Which is complete nonsense, as Hindemith was born twelve years after Wagner's death.
    If you ask me, the whole story is completely apocryphal. The word has exactly one Google hit in German. But the idea is nice.

    Renée Vink

  7. Renée, yes, it’s very likely an apocryphal story. In English, Google returns more than 4,000 results, but this doesn’t prove anything. I thought it helped to quote a “source” that was more than sixty years old, but even that doesn’t prove the story. I’d like to see the actual source from Wagner himself, in a letter, a concert review, or what have you. But even if Wagner didn’t coin the word, somebody did. :)

  8. The fun thing is that "Reck" may be the modern German word for "high bar" in gymnastics but the "reck" wasn't really developped until after Wagner's death so it may not have that meaning after all. Although I deem Eosphoros' parsing to be correct I, as a native German speaker, did not break up the word into [Reck+ankreuzungs+klanke+werkzeuge] but [Reck+an+kreuzungs+klanke+werkzeuge]. And with place names like "Krumme Lanke" in Berlin "klanke" does not sound that unfamiliar anymore ;)

    It does make sense once you have in mind the clacking of the levers and buttons on a saxophone used without actually producing a sound. Forget about the "werkzeug" - that's just added to give it some sort of meaning.

    Love the German language. May not sound pleasing to the rest of the world but its genius in word creation is almost unparalleled. ;)

  9. »The fun thing is that "Reck" may be the modern German word for "high bar" in gymnastics but the "reck" wasn't really developped until after Wagner's death so it may not have that meaning after all.«
    It may not have meant the modern form of the Reck, but according to Grimm’s DWB (the German OED :P) the word was introduced to gymnastics in 1816 (link).
    On the other hand, in the form Rick it has a range of interesting meanings as well (link): ‘bar, slat’, especially in horizontal orientation; ‘rack’; ‘pen, enclosure’ … and ‘loop, sling’.

    And now that the DWB finally is available again (it wasn’t yesterday), I have found that Klanke means ‘bend, loop’ with several extensions from that (link). It’s supposed to be related to en crank. Makes much more sense, doesn’t it?

    Perhaps we can get some sense out of -ankreuzung- yet …

  10. Eosphoros, that link to the Deutsches Wörterbuch is fantastic! I’ve seen some other versions online, but this one is so well-done and easy to use — many thanks for sharing that! I wish the OED were available in a similar format (instead of behind a pay-wall).

  11. German: language of love.