Man, when you’re locked down, locked in, and locked up, it’s nice from time to time (if you’re not afraid of getting locked out) to go out into some outdoor space, get (and give and take) a bit of space, and just… space out. Go for a walk for a while.

I’m sure they feel the same in Germany. When you can do little else, you can still go for a walk: spazieren gehen. Yes, I’m cheating today: spazieren is a German word, not an English one. I’m going for a stroll in the linguistic neighbourhood.

So spazieren is the German word for ‘walk’? Hmm, well. German doesn’t have one specific word that it uses in all the places English uses walk. In fact, it will often just use gehen, ‘go’. But if you’re going for a walk – or going strolling – that’s spazieren gehen. So spazieren could be translated as ‘to stroll’. But the more interesting thing about this word, I think, isn’t where it’s going; it’s where it’s come from.

First let me pause to tell you how it’s pronounced, so you don’t have the wrong sound in your head. The s is like “sh” because it’s before p, and the z is like “ts,” and the stress is on the second-last syllable, so it’s /ʃpaˈtsiːʁən/, like “shpatseeren.” Now let’s move on.

That z may seem like Italian. In fact, that’s the usual way to say z in German, but, in this case, it actually is Italian. This word wandered all the way from Italy, where it’s spaziare. That, in its turn, came from Latin spatiari, which meant ‘go for a walk’ – but it also meant ‘spread, expand, space out’.

‘Space out’? Yes: it’s a verbalization of the noun spatium, which is the origin of our word space and had all the same meanings in Latin, pretty much.

So even the Romans, when going for a walk, might have said “I’m going to space out” (or maybe “I’m going to distribute myself” or “I’m going to spread myself around”). And that stuck into Italian (in which, by the way, spaziare also means ‘spread’ or ‘scatter’). And at last just the peregrine perambulatory sense made it all the way to German.

Hey, even words need to get out and around and space themselves a bit.

One response to “spazieren

  1. Shpatseeren was also borrowed into Yiddish with exactly the pronunciation and meanings you described. So Yiddish may have helped that wonderful word wander the world.

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