Alex Massie

Of Pigs and Cucumbers

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Pleased to be back in Blighty and pleased too to see that the Economist has launched Johnson, a blog about language and politics. From the most recent entry:

Germany has a cranky coalition government and garrulous politicians, and so conditions are good for political insults. In one intramural fight a health ministry official from the liberal FDP likened the CSU—Bavarian conservatives—to a Wildsau, or wild pig, for its rough handling of the liberals’ health-reform ideas. But the better insult was the riposte by the CSU man, who called the liberals a Gurkentruppe, literally a troop of cucumbers. Anglophone journalists have been puzzling over how to turn this into recognisable English. The Guardian honoured both literal meaning and homonymy by rendering it as “gherkin troops” and explaining that it means “rank amateurs”. The Financial Times opted for the colloquial “bunch of losers”. The Economist went with “bush leaguers”, which kept the sporting connotation it has in German but was a little unfair to non-American readers: it is a term drawn from baseball.

But why compare incompetent athletes to cucumbers? We have no definitive answer yet.

Surely, then, this is a question for the Deputy Prime Minister? Not only does Nick Clegg speak German fluently, but his own party are often thought gurkentruppe themselves. Whatever* it quite means.

*Actually, while the Economist's translation - "bush-leaguers" - is obviously superior to the, meaningless but fun, "gherkin troops" I'm not convinced it's wholly appropriate. Bush-league contains the notion of a cheap or unworthy act or ploy whereas gurkentruppe seems to be more about amateurishness. Then again, I dare say that politically, if less clearly linguistically, the Economist may be right. I leave it to German-speaking readers to settle the matter.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietygermanyliberal democrats