korrekturlust

We say we don’t like things that are wrong, but in fact we do. We like them in the same way as cats like mice, the same way as hawks like sparrows and the same way as sparrows like snails. In attacking and ablating them we satisfy our hunger. We like errors so much we go out of our way to discern more and more of them by latching onto, and even creating, rules. 

You know it’s true. Hair-splitting distinctions in usage (“You don’t mean persuade, you mean convince!”), grammatical superstitions (“Aigh! That split infinitive is like aluminum foil touching a filling!”), punctuation fetishes (“I could never love a man who uses en-dashes with spaces rather than em-dashes without”)… if we did not adore the bloodlust they inspire and the aggressive acts of correction that follow, we would simply let them slide. We tell ourselves that the adrenal rush we feel at the sight of a perceived error is indignation at a transgression of good and proper order, but putting things back in place requires no sanguinary paroxysm; what we are feeling is what a cat feels at the first sight of a rodent’s tail.

And, as with many a common human feeling that we all know but usually don’t talk about, German has a word for it. German has a reputation for this because German uses single words where English uses whole phrases, and German does this by just sticking whole phrases together and calling them words. It has become a sport among some English speakers to try to confect German words for such excessively human psychological moments. In the case of this word, that is what I did… and then I Googled it, and I found that it truly exists and is used often enough and fully naturally to mean exactly what I hoped it meant. 

Because of course. If any culture is going to have a word for Korrekturlust, we just assume it will be German.

Yes, that’s the word. Korrekturlust. The stress is on the “tur,” not on the “rek,” and if you want to be as close to the German as you can, the u’s should be said as in “tour” (in tur) and “book” (in lust). But I want this word to get borrowed into English, as korrekturlust (because once it’s an English noun it’s not capitalized by default as German nouns are; we write of wanderlust and weltschmerz, where in German those w’s would inspire an immediate desire to make them W’s). So say it as is comfortable for you, because that’s how words make themselves at home.

Korrektur (stress on the “tur”!) means ‘correction’, and I think you can see readily enough that it comes from the same root (Latin correctio). Lust has a broader meaning in German than in English; it means ‘desire’ or ‘joy’ or ‘pleasure’ or ‘satisfaction’. So Korrekturlust means ‘desire to correct’ (and that can imply a very compelling desire) but it can also mean ‘enjoyment of correcting’. And the context of its usage in German clearly shows it as meaning what pedants do – as we see in this little anecdote in which one of the regulars in a pub peeves about seeing an English word on the menu, and the waiter gives a smart reply (which I don’t want to try to translate, as it’s in a regional variety of German and also has a local cultural reference). The author comments,

Damit hatte der Kumpel alle grammatikalischen, orthografischen und sonstigen Spatzen gefangen, die Korrekturlust eines Pedanten besänftigt, den überzeugt und Frieden übers Stammtischleben gebracht.

Which means “With this, Buddy had caught all the grammatical, orthographic and other sparrows, calmed the pedant’s Korrekturlust, convinced him and brought peace to the regulars’ table.”

Now, enjoyment of correcting would seem to be a good thing for an editor or a writer, no? And indeed I can tell you that copyediting and proofreading is like gardening: the weeding can be oh so satisfying. But some gardeners get a bit out of hand and start pulling up perfectly good flowers or doing other things that cause more harm than good. And if language were gardens, there would be random people who aren’t even gardeners stepping onto the lawns of strangers to rip out their rose beds for being the wrong colour. 

We would do well to heed this item in a list of “five traps for teachers” reproduced in an article on how to help refugees:

Korrekturlust: Wir müssen nicht jeden Fehler korrigieren und dadurch zeigen, wie klug wir sind. Es geht nicht um Korrektheit…

That means “Korrekturlust: We don’t have to correct every mistake and thereby show how smart we are. It’s not about correctness…”

And if it’s a trap for teachers, it’s certainly a worse trap for anyone else. Upbraiding someone in casual communication for a small error when they didn’t ask you to is minimally helpful and maximally rude. It’s aggressive behaviour that, regardless of the excuse one invents for it, is designed to assert social dominance. And, as such, it is behaviour that is badly in need of correction. If you are so fully possessed by korrekturlust, may I recommend going and getting some correction porn – perhaps cheaply published books by long-dead authors, so you can’t be tempted to convey your corrections to anyone – and satisfying your desire in the private quiet of your own abode.

2 responses to “korrekturlust

  1. The way words are created makes reading a German newspaper entertaining, no matter what the subject.

  2. Yes. We know it’s true (and the en-dash/em-dash debate still rages). Thanks for this delightful bunchofwords 🙏🏻

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