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Here are a couple of "witty" expressions attributed to Paul Meyerheim. I'm struggling to understand the humour in these - anyone able to help?

Als Isadora Duncan in Berlin in Mode kam und mit bloßen Beinen die unmöglichsten Sprünge machte zu einer Musik, bei der der Komponist nie an sich bewegende Beine gedacht haben mochte, sagte Meyerheim: "Nächstens wird sie die H-Moll-Messe von Bach tanzen, weil darin auch ein Bene-diktus vorkommt.”

Einmal, als ich bei ihm wieder musizierte, sagte er: “Ach, bitte, spielen Sie doch etwas Lustiges, z.B. aus dem Fidelio!”

Bei ihm verkehrte unter anderen auch ein bekannter Finanzmann, der so sparsam war, daß man ihm nachsagte, ihm sei sogar der Eintritt in ein damals vielbesuchtes Flohtheater verboten worden, weil er ein Knicker war. Bei einem Abendessen im Hause Meyerheims saß er einmal neben einer schönen und geistreichen Dame, deren wohl gerundete Arme ihm so gefielen, daß er es gelegentlich wagte, mit seiner Hand zärtlich streichelnd diese plastischen Schönheiten zu berühren. Die Dame war ein wenig indigniert und verschämt, aber Meyerheim nahm für sie das Wort und sagte: “Ich habe gar nicht gewußt, daß Sie sich auch für verschämte Arme interessieren.”

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  • Is your formatting intentional? The first sentence of the 3rd paragraph holds another pun and it seems, the people answering the question miss it. However, maybe you're not interested in that one at all?
    – Arsak
    Dec 8, 2023 at 18:40
  • @Arsak Care to share your insight with us?
    – marquinho
    Dec 8, 2023 at 18:42
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    @marquinho A "Knicker" is a very grasping person (see also the adjective "knickrig"). On the other hand, "Flöhe knicken" means to kill fleas by crushing them. So the mentioned guy was so grasping that he wasn't allowed in the flea circus (because he might have killed all fleas)
    – Arsak
    Dec 8, 2023 at 18:52
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    @Arsak It was indeed intentional as it's all one extract, but thanks for picking up on that! I'd missed it.
    – ajor
    Dec 8, 2023 at 20:13

3 Answers 3

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Regarding the first quote, it probably plays with the similarity between "Beine" and "bene". Meyerheim says something to the effect of "She'll dance to any music as long as she can manufacture some reference to 'legs' in whatever fashion, so she can show her legs off".

Regarding the second quote, this probably plays on the adjective fidel and the (jokingly purported) assumption that the opera Fidelio must be about a jolly character.

Regarding the third quote, this one probably plays on the fact that "Arme" can refer to one's limbs as well to as poor people. The miser is very into saving money, so it's insinuated that he's into people that can (or have to) make do with little money. The quote can be read as "I knew that you were interested in poor people (Arme), but I didn't know you were interested in bashful arms (verschämte Arme) as well".

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    To add a bad joke of my own, according to Mr. Meyerheim the dancer from the first quote would probably fine with any leg-itimation for her music choice. Dec 8, 2023 at 15:28
  • Thanks - I'd missed the "fidel", but for the others I had assumed the "Beine" and "Arme" connection, was just hoping they'd work a bit more completely than it seems they do!
    – ajor
    Dec 8, 2023 at 15:31
  • I do in fact have the delight of trying to translate these into English. So my bad joke to contribute is "Next she'll be dancing to Bach's B Minor Mass, since it has a Kyrie E-legs-on"... As for the others, have to work out how to tackle those...
    – ajor
    Dec 8, 2023 at 20:18
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    'Regarding the first quote, it probably plays with the similarity between "Beine" and "bene"' – Note that the first anecdote is said to take place in Berlin. In the Berlin dialect, the pronunciation of Beine is "Beene". Dec 9, 2023 at 9:02
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It's a bit harsh to judge jokes from a pre mass-media generation with current standards, where you can watch more well-written jokes in a month of Netflix than they would have had in their whole lives.

The anecdotes here are basically just puns ("dad jokes"), and they don't exactly become better by explaining them in English.

"Bene-diktus": "Bene" or "Beene" is the Berlin dialect word for legs (Beine). The mass in B minor by Bach is slow, serious, pious church music, the biggest thinkable contrast to a dance.

"Fidelio": "fidel" means funny, happy, bubbly. Again a silly pun on a serious treasure of the educated bourgeoisie of the time, Beethoven's opera "Fidelio".

"verschämte Arme": the ambiguity of the German word "Arme", meaning both "arms" and "poor people" has been a staple of punsters for centuries. I don't know if this is what is meant, but you could understand it as insinuating that the guest is the opposite, ein "unverschämter Reicher".

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  • "The mass in B minor by Bach is slow, serious, pious church music, the biggest thinkable contrast to a dance." This didn't stop John Neumeier choreographing it for his Hamburg ballet. Dec 10, 2023 at 19:20
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If this is on topic here is questionable. At least it is a fringe case and what constitutes "humour" is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. I'll try but no guarantees are given and you won't get your money back:

The last one is a play on words: "Arme" can either mean "arms" (my left arm, my right arm) or it can be the Adjektiv made Nomen "Arme" from "arm" (poor) - "the poor [people]". The last sentence can be read two ways:

I didn't know you are interested in coy arms.
I didn't know you are interested in coy poor ones.

"knickerig" is an Adjektiv fallen out of fashion and means "penny-pinching" or "tight". It has a negative connotation and implies that the person is rather overdoing his tightness. A more modern word would be "geizig" (from the Nomen "der Geiz", parsimony).

The second one is perhaps funny because the whole opera (the only opera by Ludwig van Beethoven, who is not exactly famous for having composed "lustige" [funny] music) takes place in a prison. The original intended title of Fidelio was "Leonore oder der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe" (Leonore, or the triumph of marital love). I once read a comment on Beethovens music that it is composed like a greek temple is built. Greek temples may be many things, "funny" is IMHO not among them. This discrepancy might be perceived as funny.

The first perhaps draws the humorous value also from the discrepancy between the the music and the idea of dancing. The B-minor mass was in parts composed in 1733 during the mourning period after the death of August II. "the Strong". Bach continued to work on the "Symbolum Nicenum" and other parts until 1749, one year prior to his death. The mass itself was not given a title by Bach, instead he organized it into 4 parts, each with its own title:

  1. Missa
  2. Symbolum Nicenum
  3. Sanctus
  4. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem

Notice that "Bene-" in "Benedictus" can be misheard as "Beene" (with a long "e" sound"), which means "Beine" (legs) in dialects in Northern Germany.

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    I agree that humor is in the eye of the beholder, especially when there's a language barrier to content with. My main takeaway from the question is that "dad jokes" exist in any language.
    – RDBury
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:30
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    I posted it here because I assumed there was wordplay involved, hence it being more linguistic humour than cultural. As indeed there was, although weaker than I'd hoped! (e.g. I'd picked up on the double meaning of Arme, but thought maybe there was something more subtle going on!)
    – ajor
    Dec 8, 2023 at 20:21

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