Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Disease of Uncles

For this week: a German-originated word that, I think, began as a common noun, that now exists as a specific medial term and that I think should make a comeback as an everyday word. Only in English.
witzelsucht (VIT-sel-zukt) — noun: (formerly) a feeble attempt at humor. (currently) excessive facetiousness and inappropriate or pointless humor especially when considered as part of an abnormal condition.
This compound comes from the German words witzeln, “to joke,” and Sucht, “obsession.” Of course, the apparently obsolete meaning of the word seems especially appropriate to English ears because it sounds exactly like “sucked.”

I found witzelsucht here, on a webpage simply titled “Unusual Words.” I’m actually not sure whether the meaning offered is even accurate. Most sites only offer the current definition for the word. Even Webster only features it in its medical dictionary — nowhere else. The Wiktionary definition seems to meet the two meanings halfway, offering this: “a tendency to tell inappropriate or pointless stories and poor jokes; excessive facetiousness, especially when due to some medical condition.”

The implications of a medical condition that compels its victims to tell terrible jokes is an intriguing one, especially because it could explain the behavior of a few people I know. Honestly. I’ve had reason to encounter people who have caused larges groups of people to dread their very presence just because they insist upon telling jokes that elicit forced laughs and pained smiles. I wonder why they would open themselves to such ridicule. Now there’s this: a biological excuse. This article in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroses says witzelsucht can result from frontal lobe disorders. The case report on one victim is inadvertently hilarious:
A 57-year-old right-handed female had a 2-year personality change described as increased gregariousness, excitement, and a tendency to indiscriminately approach strangers without apprehension. She had become the life of the party and would laugh, joke, and sing all the time… On examination, her general demeanor was slightly euphoric and unconcerned. She was very talkative, animated, and disinhibited. Her most salient behaviors were almost continuous silly laughter and excitement… and frequent childish jokes and puns. The patient would also make frequent personal comments about the examiner or touch the examiner.
Funny, no? The sad epilogue to this bit of medical trivia is that the subject actually died a protracted, excruciating death as a result of her brain injuries.


Previous words of the week:


  1. Actually in German it sounds more like "sookt".

  2. Ah. Now that I look again at the pronunciation offered in the Webster medical dictionary, there's a diacritical mark above the "u" that I didn't notice when I wrote this.