Essay / Misc.

The Germans Have a Word For It

Some things are worth thinking about, and some things just aren’t. Some subjects repay closer examination, and the longer you spend meditating on them, the more they reveal their own richness and unfold their conceptual complexity. Other things have the opposite effect: the more time and effort you put into pondering them, the more you realize you shouldn’t have wasted the effort.

Most TV shows are not worth thinking about: get your entertainment value from them and then back away. Pop music is usually not worth thinking about. Whatever its merits may be (“It had a good beat, I could really dance to it,” as every guest on American Bandstand remarked as soon as Dick Clark put the mic in front of them), pop music just doesn’t have lyrics that will leave you any better off if you invest your valuable chin-tugging time in them. If you suffer from an analytic turn of mind, you may have caught yourself reflexively over-interpreting overheard song lyrics: “Gee, I wonder what Nelly Furtado means when she tells Timbaland that ‘Roses are red / Some diamonds are blue / Chivalry is dead / But you’re still kinda cute.'” By the time you’ve asked that question, you’ve already put more time into thinking about the lyric than did its composer.

A good poem, on the other hand, just keeps being worth thinking about, and spins out new insights and connections every time you run it through your mind. Truly great poems are so fruitful, for so long, for so many audiences, that we call them classics and use them to educate our little minds that need a good stretching. In fact, the best way to determine whether a book or artwork is approaching classic status is to ask whether it has proven itself to be worth thinking about. Has it been worth thinking about for a hundred years? Have diverse types of keen minds rendered their independent judgements that, agree with it or disagree with it, this work is Worth Thinking About?

There’s no single English word for this quality, but I just ran across a German word for it: Denkwürdig. Badly Englished, that would be Think-Worthy, worth thinking about. If you feel the need to say it out loud, try pronouncing it something like “DANK-vyoord-ish,” and if you say it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.

German dictionaries tend to offer more pedestrian meanings like “notable” or “memorable.” But what do dictionaries know? German has better words for both of those, and denkwürdig adds something beyond them. The denser meaning of “worth thinking about” is used on the cover of a book I’m reading a few chapters from, a celebration of theologian Eberhard Jüngel’s 70th birthday, entitled Denkwürdiges Geheimnis, which wouldn’t sound as cool in English but could be translated something like A Mystery Worth Thinking About. In Jüngel’s work, the mystery that deserves our attention and which calls for the best theological concentration is of course the mystery of God, and more specifically the Trinity: the mystery worth thinking about.

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