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When looking up the meaning of "emsig" (assiduous, diligent) it seems it has an entirely positive connotation

unausgesetzt fleißig, ununterbrochen tätig DWDS

The first that come to mind with "emsig" are ants and bees:

  • Zu den bevorzugten Materialien für den Unterbau zählen kleinkörnige Bruchsteine wie Splitt oder Schotter, die zugleich emsige Ameisen vom Nestbau abhalten.
  • Sie fühlen sich wie ein emsiges Bienchen, das ständig von einer Ecke zur anderen fliegt, aber scheinbar doch kein Ende in Sicht ist, weil sich gleich wieder eine neue Baustelle auftut, wenn eine andere geschlossen ist?

However we also often hear of people that are attributed to be "emsig":

  • Zumindest ein wenig von dem Ruhm der großen Renaissance-Künstler hätte doch auf ihn abstrahlen sollen. Emsig hatte er daran gearbeitet, den eigenen Namen mit den Namen Leonardos, Raffaels und Michelangelos für immer zu verbinden.ZEIT

  • Viele andere Künstler der Biennale, die erfolgreichen und akzeptierten, agieren spiegelbildlich: Sie produzieren möglichst unperfekte, emsig um Mühelosigkeit bemühte Werke, die aber oft ebenfalls unlebendig und nichtssagend ausfallen.ZEIT

In these contexts it feels like "emsig" may have not an entirely positive connotation.

Is that slightly ironical touch always true when calling people "emsig"? May someone even be offended by that?

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It is a general error - not yours alone - to believe, that a valuation of positive or negative is bound to a word. A word normally describes something; whether you rate it positive or negative is up to you; maybe it's a trend. But still you decide to stick to the mode. -- Es ist ein häufig, nicht nur von Dir gemachter Fehler, Begriffe als positiv oder negativ einzuordnen. Begriffe beschreiben bestenfalls Sachverhalte, deren Bewertung dann eine andere Sache ist. Es mag modisch sein Fleiß zu verlachen - ob man sich der Mode anschließt entscheidet man immer noch selbst. – user unknown Jan 31 '12 at 12:17
Good question, but open ended and speculative, therefore off-topic. – bitmask Jan 31 '12 at 12:31
@bitmask: I consider the change of connotation of a word over time to be one of the "finer points" of a language. Edited title to make this clear. – Takkat Jan 31 '12 at 12:38
@Takkat: Yes, but whether or not somebody would consider a word (such as "emsig", not a word like "dumm") as insult is argumentative. Did I get the question's intention wrong? – bitmask Jan 31 '12 at 12:40
Personally I think the question is fine. Knowing what is or might be offending is extremely useful when conversing with people in one's non-native language. – musiKk Jan 31 '12 at 13:10
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I cannot imagine that someone would be offended when being called "emsig". But I assume that "emsig" is more and more shifting to ironic use only because it is an old-fashioned word and mostly used in conjunction with ants, bees and work.

The Duden also shows, that "emsig" is often used ironically, probably because (as musiKk mentioned) the imagination of people who work and work and work is just ridiculous.

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I'm going to go out on a limb and say no, emsig has no inherent ironic connotation at all. You could use it in an ironic way of course just like most other words.

However emsig may be slightly antiquated so you might get a funny look when applying it to someone. Especially because it means that someone just works and works and works and there is a lot to do and still he works and works and works without ever getting tired. There aren't that many cases where it is applicable in my opinion.

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That is what my gut tells me: there is nobody around who would really be emsig. Means it could only have been meant ironically. – Takkat Jan 31 '12 at 11:59
@Takkat: It's not like it's nobody. Imagine a grandmother that makes 50 elaborate presents for her 50 grandchildren. She definitely would be emsig. ;) – musiKk Jan 31 '12 at 13:06
Ironically, today as teaser in the newsticker of Die emsige Online-Jury kürte im c't-Bastelwettbewerb 24 Preisträger, .... -- Ironischerweise heute als Anreisser im Heise Nachrichtenticker: s.o.. :) – user unknown Jan 31 '12 at 22:35
@Takkat: Another point is, that emsig isn't of course used ironically, when talking about ants and bees. It's - as always - pronounciation and context, which make something ironical, not the word. – user unknown Feb 1 '12 at 14:08
Agreed. I think when not used ironically the word even expresses admiration. – musiKk Feb 1 '12 at 15:22

"emsig" could be offensive if that person work a lot but does not achieve much. So if you say that one person brings good results and the other is "emsig" then this is a very bad thing to say about that poor guy.

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