August 08, 2004

Superfluity and Uselessness

In a post on German spelling (un)reform, I quoted a Deutsche Welle page (an English one) that quoted Adolf Muschg calling the reforms "as unnecessary as gout". Julia Hockenmaier emailed to explain that this was a mistranslation of the common expression "unnötig wie ein Kropf", which means "unnecessary as a goiter". Chris Weigl at serendity posted on this as well, suggesting that the original was "überflüssig wie ein Kropf", using a slightly different adjective -- in effect, superfluous rather than unnecessary. Goggle has 5,800 hits for "wie ein Kropf", of which 2,920 are for überflüssig and 823 are for unnötig. (Other options are notwendig with 178 presumably ironic hits; unnütz with 117, etc.).

This suggests an interesting small contrast between German and English. To start with, I don't think that English has any common fixed expressions that start either "unnecessary as a ..." or "superfluous as a ..." At least I can't think of any, and what Google finds for me is either idiosyncratic or borrowed or both.

(link) superfluous as a frog's croaks [Indian English; Hindi or Urdu?] {1 ghit}
(link) superfluous as a prostate gland [French; quote from Clemenceau about the office of the presidency] {100 ghits}
(link) superfluous as a typewriter {1 page}
(link) superfluous as a bicycle for a fish [German; reference to Irina Dunn's phrase "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", in turn paraphrasing some (unspecified) philosopher's remark about man and God] {3 ghits}

(link) unnecessary as a condom machine in a convent {1 ghit}
(link) unnecessary as a well is to a village on the banks of a river [quotation from Bhagavad Gita ] {23 ghits}
(link) unnecessary as a men's bathroom at a Lillith Fair show {1 ghit}
(link) unnecessary as a glass of water on Noah's Ark {1 ghit}

However, there are several English idioms for uselessness -- perhaps this reflects a cultural concern with functionality, as opposed to the Teutonic concern with adherence to quota :-)?. The commonest English idioms about uselessness seems to deal with non-functional nipples. Among the variants:

useless as teats/tits on a boar (hog) {1815 ghits}
useless as teats/tits on a bull {635 ghits}

Minority choices include "brass monkey", "bullfrog", "duck", "rainbarrel" and "nun". Note that in all of its variants, this simile is much less common on the web than the variants of "wie ein Kropf": 2,557 for "useless as teats/tits", vs. 3,743 for "überflüssig/unnötig wie ein Kropf" (or 5,800 for "wie ein Kropf").

I couldn't find any documentation on how many pages Google indexes in each language, but a search for "und" yields a count of 478 million, while a search for "and" yields 3.84 billion, suggesting a ratio of about 1 to 8. On that basis,"überflüssig/unnötig wie ein Kropf" would be almost 12 times commoner than "useless as teats/tits": about 3743/.478 = 7,831 whG/bpG ("web hits on Google per billion pages in German"), versus 2557/3.84 = 666 whG/bpE ("web hits on Google per billion pages in English").

Aside from any possible cultural differences in level of interest in superfluity and/or uselessness, this overall difference probably reflects the fact that the English simile is at least informal and perhaps offensive. This hypothesis is supported by the normalized counts for the individual adjectives -- independent of context. These seem to confirm that superfluity is more interesting to German speakers. uselessness more interesting to English speakers, while lack of necessity is discussed equally often by both:


[Of course, to do this comparison seriously would require considering a wider range of words and structures...]

There are other inventive similes for uselessness in English, but none of them are familiar ones:

(link) as useless as a jam sandwidch [sic] to a drowning rabbit.
(link) as useless as a chocolate fireguard
(link) as useless as a one-armed juggler [+ a windshield wiper on a submarine, + a pogo stick in quicksand, etc.]

and here's a whole poem of nonce uselessness, attributed to "Goo, 12, Wales":

You're as useless as a sheet with no bed
You're as useless as a pencil with no lead

You're as useless as a watch with no time
You're as useless as a poem with no rhyme

You're as useless as a book with no words
You're as useless as a a birdbath with no birds

You're as useless as an orchestra with no sound
You're as useless as a football that's not round

You're as useless as a runner with no legs
You're as useless as a clothes line without pegs

Did I mention that you're USELESS?!

"Fifth wheel" is a common expression for superfluity, common in frames like "feel like a fifth wheel" (538 ghits), but it's not so commonly used in the frame "ADJ as a ___".


  tits on a a fifth wheel
useless as
useful as
unnecessary as
necessary as
superfluous as

Anyhow, this all leaves it unclear how Adolf Muschg's "überflüssig wie ein Kropf" or "unnötig wie ein Kropf" should have been translated. It might not be possible to do better than the literal "superfluous as a goiter" or "unnecessary as a goiter", even though those expressions are much more vivid and suggestive in English than they are in German.

[Update: Geraint Jennings suggests that an idiomatic translation might be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." This apothegm seems close to (what I guess was) the intended spirit of Muschg's comment, though it can't be used directly as a predicate applied to "the spelling reforms", thus requiring additional restructuring of the phrase. Geraint was also among those who pointed out the U.K. (and other commonwealth?) idioms relating to (non) heat-resistant objects made of chocolate, e.g. "chocolate teapot", of which more later.]

[Update #2: Chris Weigl at Serendipity clarifies exactly what Muschg said:

I misquoted Adolf Muschg in the last post. His actual words were "[Die Rechtschreibreform] ist unnötig wie ein Kropf." Unnötig (unnecessary), not überflüssig (superfluous). Former German federal president Roman Herzog, however, did call it "überflüssig wie ein Kropf" (as superfluous as a goiter).



Posted by Mark Liberman at August 8, 2004 08:14 AM