Saturday, October 23, 2010

The License to Be Stupid

It’s been a while since I featured a super-specific German word on this blog. That’s why.
narrenfreiheit (NAHR-ren-fry-height) — noun: the ability and right of a jester to mock freely without being punished.
The pronunciation I’m offering matches how an English-speaker would pronounce the word, but I give that one because I feel the word has applications beyond the German-speaking world from yesteryear. I think a German-speaker would pronounce that double-“r” with a bit of a roll, but I don’t know how to write it out phonetically.

Literally “fool’s freedom” or “jester’s freedom,” narrenfreiheit refers to the days when the court jester could poke fun at whoever he chose, the logic being that a ruler surrounded only by yes men would never know if he or she were screwing up. In that sense, narrenfreiheit would be the antidote to “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome. Besides, jesters are funny. Let them do their job, royal court. And yes, Königin Giselberta does eat too much and her face does look a pig’s anus.

I picked this one because I like that Germans once again have a term to refer to a concept that would take other languages several phrases to explain but also because I’m interested in whether such a thing exists in the modern U.S. We have comedians who lampoon politicians (the cast of Saturday Night Live in a good year, for example) and bloggers who take down celebs (like Perez Hilton did until last week, when he stopped because everyone hated him), but we don’t have anyone who actually has the license to mock everyone and anyone with impunity. Sarah Silverman takes on ignorant, racist personas as a joke, but even people who understand what she’s doing still get pissed when she crosses a line and, for example, says the “c”-word on TV. (The racist “c”-word, not the lady “c”-word.) And, as I learned, certain people are always off-limits. Take a harmless dig at Obama’s toddler-aged niece after she sleeps through his inauguration speech and just wait for the hate mail to come.

I guess, then, that we don’t have narrenfreiheit now the way it once existed, but I suppose our clowns don’t mock with as much purpose as a court jester might have. All that being said, a good comedian wouldn’t miss an opportunity to get a laugh out of Königin Giselberta’s very clearly pig-anus like face.

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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