Humor of Three Helpful Words in German

Humor of Three Helpful Words in German by Mark Twain is adapted from his book A Tramp Abroad [1880]:

There are some exceedingly useful words in this (German) language.

SCHLAG, for example;

and ZUG.

There are three-quarters of a column of SCHLAGS in the dictonary,

and a column and a half of ZUGS.


The word SCHLAG means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing.

This is its simple and EXACT meaning—that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning;

but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest.

You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to.

You can begin with SCHLAG-ADER, which means artery,

and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet

to SCHLAG-WASSER, which means bilge-water—

and including SCHLAG-MUTTER, which means mother-in-law.


Just the same with ZUG.

Strictly speaking, ZUG means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition:

but that thing which it does NOT mean—when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.


One cannot overestimate the usefulness of SCHLAG and ZUG.

Armed just with these two,

and the word ALSO,

what cannot the foreigner on German soil accomplish?

The German word ALSO is the equivalent of the English phrase "You know,"

and does not mean anything at all—in TALK, though it sometimes does in print.

Every time a German opens his mouth an ALSO falls out;

and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to GET out.


Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master of the situation.

Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth,

and when he lacks for a word,

let him heave a SCHLAG into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like a plug,

but if it doesn't

let him promptly heave a ZUG after it;

the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole;

but if, by a miracle, they SHOULD fail,

let him simply say ALSO!

and this will give him a moment's chance to think of the needful word.

In Germany, when you load your conversational gun it is always best to throw in a SCHLAG or two and a ZUG or two, because it doesn't make any difference how much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are bound to bag something with THEM.

Then you blandly say ALSO, and load up again.

Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of "Also's" or "You knows."


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