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The Germans have something we don't... and I want it now!

There's no word for this... at least there isn’t in English. But there is in German, and it just so happens it’s one of my very favorite words: verschlimmbesserung. It describes an act of attempted improvement that only makes things worse.


And we’ve all been there. The comforting text to a friend that somehow hits entirely the wrong tone and sends them into a full downward spiral. Offering to move someone’s collection of Edwardian glasses to a safe place and then dropping them all on the stairs. Shaving down the leg of a wobbly table and doing it so badly that the table is left lopsided and useless.

One of the most famous examples of verschlimmbesserung is The Ecco Homo, a Spanish fresco of Jesus Christ that an elderly cleaner attempted to clean (damaging it) and repaint (to fix the damage) but ended up turning into a bizarre caricature of its former self. So this was, in fact, a double- or doppel-verschlimmbesserung.


Verschlimmbesserung also happens to be quite a mouthful, which is probably why it’s never taken off in the English language. Schadenfreude, on the other hand, with three syllables to verschlimmbesserung’s five, has made a home for itself in English, displacing the entirely unlovely epicaricacy, which similarly means getting pleasure from the misfortune of others. Seriously, have you ever heard the word epicaricacy? I thought not.


When I popped verschlimmbesserung into Google Translate it returned the translation disimprovement. That doesn’t capture anything of the deeply comedic aspects brought to mind by verschlimmbesserung, of the human condition where we try to be better as a person and yet still very publicly slip on a banana skin, arms flailing. That’s not disimprovement. I’m not even convinced disimprovement is a real word.


So, in a somewhat meta exercise, I’d like to find the English portmanteau word that captures the foiled-aspirations tone of verschlimmbesserung, and to do it without unintentionally worsening the English language by introducing a new word like chillax, funemployment, slacktivist and listicle (seriously, these are all real).


So here it is, my suggestion: Dumprovement.


Okay, see if you can do better. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


I’m not sure there’s a great lesson here for all you writers out there, other than to have fun with the language, and explore the meanings of words in our lives. Words that are trying to express themselves as a meaningful part of human consciousness and the way we as humans see the world around us. If you’re writing the next great young adult or new adult novel, let your creative word choices bring your work to life.

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