I know this will appear to be a repeat of a question I posted yesterday, but it is really a completely different question. I am wondering if there is a nuance to the word "Verschlechterung" which is not captured by any of the English translations given on Google translate:


In my earlier post, I referenced a quotation from Grimm in which he describes the migration in meaning of the word Jauche as a "verschlechterung": it originally meant broth, and now it means sewage. I love this description because to my non-native ear, it seems to perfectly capture a phenomenon which I cannot describe accurately with any of the English terms listed above: it is not a deterioration of the meaning, it is not a worsening, it is not a decline or a depreciation or a failure. It is perhaps almost a debasement of the meaning, but not quite; for that word carries an implied moral judgement. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a word which once meant "broth" is now used to mean "sewage"; it's just something that happened. A word that once meant something innocuous is now used to refer to something unpleasant; I feel "debasement" is a bit too judgemental for this transformation. The soup, after all, was not turned into sewage.

I am wondering if the German "verschlechterung" manages to avoid all these pitfalls. Is it the perfect word to describe the phenomenon? Or was Grimm merely doing what an English speaker would have done, and chosen the nearest approximation of a word to make his point?

A related question: is this phenomenon of "verschlechterung" a recognized phenomenon of philology or linguistic theory, which deserves a word of its own? And if so, is it something to which the German language is especially prone? Or is this business with the Jauche just a random bit of trivia that doesn't relate to a bigger concept? I would of course be interested in any other linguistic examples of what I understand to be the phenomenon of "verschlechterung". (I have a good Yiddish example in mind but it is from our Semitic component and I don't want to change the subject.)

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    I had a hard time to translate this too - very nice question!
    – Takkat
    Nov 20, 2011 at 9:21

3 Answers 3



The linguistic term for words changing their meaning over time with a loss of quality (Ullmann).

PEJORATION. A term in linguistics for the process of semantic change in which there is a depreciation or downward shift in the meaning of a word, phrase, or lexeme: for example, Old English cnafa (boy: compare German Knabe) became Modern English knave someone dishonest; Latin villanus (a farm servant) became Middle English vilain/vilein (a serf with some rights of independence), then Modern English villain (a scoundrel, criminal).Encyclopedia

According to this deprecation or downward shift of meaning may be the most appropriate translation for "Verschlechterung" in this context.

  • So it is indeed a recognized phenomenon, and there is an technical term for it in English: pejoration. But I am still trying to understand whether the German "verschlechterung" captures this technical meaning as perfectly as I perceived it when I read it for the first time? Unlike the English, where it is a specialized term that only those educated in linguistics would possibly understand. Nov 20, 2011 at 10:34
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    The same word is used in German, too. duden.de/rechtschreibung/Pejoration Nov 20, 2011 at 11:08
  • @JohnSmithers: most (if not all) linguistic terms are ;)
    – Takkat
    Nov 20, 2011 at 11:35

A related (though distinct) phenomenon is what happened to "bitch," which I presume started as a name for an animal, and by being used as a metaphorical dysphemism, became an offensive word for a spiteful woman.

Another distinct, related phenomenon in English is how originally non-normative words for marginalized groups become offensive, sometimes to the point of becoming racial epithets. Chinaman, Negro, Colored, Jewess, Squaw, and (some would argue) Gypsy are all offensive now, but none were originally. It seems that racism against those groups was strong enough to embed itself into the words, changing their tone but not their literal meaning.

As far as what to call this phenomenon, I think it's hard to know know when something deserves its own word. Many philological jargon words seem unnecessary to me--sure, they might describe an interesting phenomenon, but that doesn't mean the jargon is helpful. I have never met anyone who could distinguish holonymy, hyponymy, meronymy, synecdoche, and metonymy who did not receive a foundation grant to do so.

At best, niche philological words make their meanings easier to Google for. At worst, they keep philological thought socially inaccessible to the uninitiated.

  • Yes, you're right about the jargon. I have a sore point myself about ontology vs epistomology. I don't know which is which and I never will get it straight. On the other hand, I ultimately, after many years, found the distinction between strategy and tactics to be useful. But honestly, my question was not so much about what to call it in English as whether I was correct in perceiving that the Germans nailed it perfectly with Verschlechterung? Nov 20, 2011 at 10:38

Takkat has provided an exceptional answer already, so let me just add that I - and probably most contemporaries - would probably not have used Verschlechterung as it has been used in the Grimm. Its use would at least have necessitated an explanation or "scare quotes" if it weren't a quote.

In ordinary contemporary contexts, deterioration or worsening are very good translations.

  • The term came from an original quote of Grimm, clearly denoted as such.
    – Takkat
    Nov 21, 2011 at 10:11
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    @fzwo No one is a greater admirer of Takkan than I, but in fact you have filled in the missing part of his answer. In other words the German "verschlechterung" is only an approximation to the exact meaning here, much the same as any of the English alternatives. (Not including the very technical "pejoration" which would only be understood by a specialist.) Nov 21, 2011 at 11:26
  • @Takkat I never "accused" you of introducing that word. In fact, I pointed out that it was from the Grimm, didn't I? Ph, I think I see now your anger (?) probably stems from my second sentence. I'll edit for clarity.
    – fzwo
    Nov 21, 2011 at 15:13
  • @fzwo: I am not at all angry, sorry to have left this impression, my bad. In fact your answer inspired me to edit the question for quotation marks. Nevertheless "Verschlechterung" is a not a common but also by far not such an unusual German term (coming from Grimm's work even in this context). See also this Ngram.
    – Takkat
    Nov 21, 2011 at 15:24

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