I was recently introduced to a German word which I had never come across before: Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb. (thanks, 4TuneQkie) It's not in particularly common use (my online search engine turns up only about 5000 results). Nonetheless, I think it's a really fun word to say and wish it came up more in conversation. So like General Melchett, I'd like you to make a note of it, Darling. However, the thing it denotes is somewhat ... conflicting.
Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb is a compound noun. That is to say, it is made up of several other words. I love German words like this; I remember being in school and using a methodical, almost "scientific" approach to working out what they mean. Indeed, I still do this now. So let's break this one down into chunks and build up its meaning from there. (If there were be a metaphorical enzyme for this kind of thing, it would be called "lexicase". I'll get my coat.)
Luftballon is itself a compound noun. German can be quite "meta" like that. It means "balloon", of the rubber variety that you might make a dog out of. Luft means "air", and ballon means "balloon". I'm not sure why German feels the need to specifically call them "airballoons", because the word Ballon is not used by itself.
By the way, the original German version of Nena's song "99 Red Balloons" doesn't actually specify that the Luftballons are red at all. In fact, I would guess that they were made red in English purely to make the syllables fit. See the many-coloured balloons in the video.
Ironically, Nena's song is not available on YouTube in Germany:
Another quirk of German is to take words from French and keep the original pronounciation: ballon here uses the French "on" sound, not the German one (which sounds much more like English).
Speaking of Germans borrowing words from French, while I was writing this post I came across this new version of 99 Luftballons, featuring French verses at the start and end:
A "hot air balloon" is a Heißluftballon. I wonder whether this is understood as a [hot][airballoon] (i.e. a hot balloon, because [airballoon] = [balloon]) or as a [hotair][balloon]. Would any native speakers of German care to weigh in on this in the comments?
Once again, we have another compound-within-a-compound.
2) a) Weit means "far". Not "wide". So a literal translation of "far and wide" would be weit und breit. When you see breit, think of "broad", not "bright". Damn those false friends.
2) b)Flug means "flight". If you squint, you can see the family resemblance. The verb "to fly" is fliegen, and the eponymous insect is die Fliege.
So our not-necessarily-red, balloons are flying somehow.
Finally, der Wettbewerb is the German for "the competiton" (see also the verb bewerben, "to apply" and die Werbung, advvertising).
To read a compound noun in German, we have to work backwards through the chunks. So with Luftballonweitfgulwettbewerb, we get: a competition for the furthest-flying balloon, i.e. a balloon launch.
I love words like this, and for some reason I'm particularly fond of this one. But are these competitions good? I don't mean in terms of "organised fun". Indeed, the idea that I might write a note one day and have someone a long way away read it and get in touch at some point eally tickles me. Comments on this blog are a big part of what makes me want to keep writing (hint, hint).
Rather, I mean to question whether such competitions are ethically sound. You might be a tad incredulous at that. What harm could there possibly be in releasing a few balloons? Well, actually, there are (at least) two concerns.
First, because the balloons are released into the wild, the vast majority end up lying around in unknown locations and aren't disposed of properly. The rubber (German: Gummi) used in party balloons is not exactly eco-friendly. It doesn't biodegrade, and it isn't good for animals that eat the balloons.
Second, the world is running out of helium with which to fill balloons in the first place (and no, you can't just use hydrogen instead). Despite it being the second most common element in the Universe, there is a limited amount of helium on Earth. It is being generated by radioactivity in the rocks beneath our feet, but we are using it up faster than it is being created. Admittedly, balloons at parties and competitions are only a small part of this use. More helium is used in liquid form for things like superconducting magnets which are used in fundamental particle physics research, exploring fundamental questions about the nature of the Universe, and MRI machines, key pieces of modern medical technology (in turn developed thanks to advances in fundamental physics). So it seems a shame to waste even a little helium, when we need it for important applications. In this BBC article, chemist Peter Wothers is quoted as saying
"We're going to be looking back and thinking, I can't believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it's so precious and unique"
So I'm in two minds about this*. On the one hand, it's a fun activity and Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb is a fun word. On the other, balloon launches are bad for the environment on three counts.
Whatever you think of Luftballonweitflugwettbewerbe, if you are going to have one, here's a handy demonstration of how not to go about it, from some students at my former uni ...
Related posts: Periodic Table of Etymologies: Sunstuff. << Where the name "helium" comes from,and how the element is formed.
Bonus material: Haven't you always wondered whether you could use a helium balloon as a parachute? xkcd has the answer.
* not really. In case it wasn't obvious, I'm exaggerating for effect, plus this word is a convenient excuse to talk about environmental issues and teach you some German at the same time.
Over to you:
- Have you ever taken part in a Luftballonweitflugwettbewerb? Did you win?
- What are balloon launch competitions called in other languages/ variations of English?
- For German native-speakers: is Heißluftballon to be understood as [Heißluft]-[Ballon] or as [Heiß]-[Luftballon]?
- Are party balloons a serious threat to the global supply of helium?
- Do stray balloons cause major problems for wildlife or the environment?
- Am I worrying too much about these issues?
- What are your favourite super-composite words?
As usual, leave your answers in the comments below. Cheers!