"Denn auch onten und uben liegen viel näher beieinander, als uns die SPD und die Linkspartei glauben machen wollen" (source)

I haven't been able to find "onten" and "uben" in any dictionary. Also, I don't know how to translate the triple infinitive structure at the end of the sentence: "glauben machen wollen."

1 Answer 1


Onten und uben

The first sentence of the author's musings tells us that there will be wordplay:

In dem Maße, in dem in der Politik die Unterschiede zwischen rinks und lechts und zoran und vurück verwischen, gewinnt ein anderes Gegensatzpaar an Bedeutung: oben und unten.

There is a cultural background for this that nearly everyone who went to secondary school in Germany and was not asleep in German class knows well. It is the 1966 poem lichtung by Austrian neo-dadaist poet Ernst Jandl. Often classified as concrete poetry, Jandl's absurdist writing is playfully self-referential, using a "home truth" such as "left is left and right is right" and twisting it into its own negation:

lechts und rinks kann man nicht velwechsern.

There are potentially many layers of Western thought alluded to by Jandl's poem, including the Cretan liar paradox, but it also specifically attacks Left vs. Right thinking in politics: Why, the poem asks, do people reflexively evaluate every statement with a political context according to this primitive dichotomy?

And since the column* is about the language of politics, that makes the implicit reference to Jandl's poem a good choice. The idea of left-right switching is extended to the vanitas theme of top-bottom (or should I say bop-tottom) reversal.

This is not the only allusion, however. The "elevator of a tabloid newspaper turning into an elevator to the gallows" refers to the rise and downfall of former German Bundespräsident Christian Wulff. Germany's BILD Zeitung, an amalgam of The Sun, the New York Post and National Enquirer, had been an ardent booster of Wulff's career but was ruthless when breaking news of his possible shady dealings. An infamous quote from BILD's editor-in-chief is that people who "invite the press to join them on their elevator ride to the top must not lock them out on their way back down".

Triple infinitive?

Sie wollen uns glauben machen

is no more a triple infinitive than

They want to make us believe

is. Third person plural (sie wollen; they want) just happens to be spelled the same as the infinitive.

*The latest installment in Fraktur - die Sprachglosse, a regular column that shines a light on the sometimes hair-raising, sometimes hilarious contortions imposed on the German language by (mostly) politicans. Fraktur reden, by the way, is an idiomatic expression meaning "to speak bluntly" or "to be brutally honest". Fraktur is black-letter type such as ℜ and it also is the word for (bone) fracture. Think of the column as F.A.Z.'s answer to William Safire's On Language, only a few decades late.

  • Thank you for your scholarly comment. However, I still don't know, as I haven't found these words in any dictionary, what "onten" and "uben" actually mean. Any help towards translating them will be greatly valued. As to the stingy problem of the German infinitive, I get it! There are no triple ones. The thing is, in spite of my understanding the double infinitive, I still don't see where the "sie" in "Sie wollen..." comes from. On reading the quotation again, I see no "sie" in it. As much as I love to read a scholarly comment on literature, for now, at least, I'd love to stick with the basics.
    – user3097
    Jul 7, 2013 at 13:50
  • @im.broglio I simplified my explanation and made it more generic by turning a dependent clause -- , als uns die SPD und die Linkspartei glauben machen wollen -- into a main clause. Die SPD und die Linkspartei are the plural subject (sie). onten and uben do not mean anything, they aren't German words but wordplay on unten and oben in the same way as lechts and rinks or zoran and vurück (first sentence of the column). Jul 7, 2013 at 14:00

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