Using “zeitgeist” Coherently

By Maeve Maddox

Zeitgeist is one of those lovely German borrowings that packs into a single word a thought that would require several in English.

Zeitgeist: [tsīt’gīst’, zīt’gīst’] n. The spirit or genius which marks the thought or feeling of a period or age.

NOTE: In German, all nouns are capitalized. The OED capitalizes Zeitgeist; Merriam-Webster does not.

German Zeit means “time” and Geist is cognate with our word ghost, which doesn’t only mean the spirit of a person who has died, but can also mean an informing spirit, as in the term the Holy Ghost.

Coined by Matthew Arnold in the 19th century to put a name on the spirit of social change and uncertainty that characterized the Victorian Age, zeitgeist has crept into the popular vocabulary where it is flung about without much thought as to what it means. A special interest group and Google have co-opted the word to special uses. “Zeitgeist” is the name attached to a movement launched by a group of social reformers who wish to reallocate world resources under a global government. Google has a statistics function called “Zeitgeist” that aggregates how often particular topics are searched over time. In the web context, a “zeitgeist” is “an idea or image that is iconic of a particular moment.”

Some writers use it as a mere synonym for “trend,” or “fad.” Some plant it in the (usually) redundant phrase “zeitgeist of the moment.” Others, perhaps wishing to create a phrase on the model of Oprah’s “aha moment,” talk about a “zeitgeist moment.”

Here are some examples of the questionable use of zeitgeist:

If it’s true that a taste for simple rustic dishes is emerging as the culinary zeitgeist of the moment, Trattoria San Pietro is likely to become even more popular than it already is.

The Zeitgeist is getting all sticky…. (Headline for an article about a trend to use use bees in the production of artwork.)

Favorite Zeitgeist Moments (forum thread in which a “zeitgeist moment” is defined as “Just little moments in any song that really grab your attention, even if you don’t like the rest of the song it’s in.”)

The scoreboard flashed 715, fireworks erupted, the fans celebrated. Braves radio announcer Milo Hamilton famously captured the zeitgeist of the moment… (Hank Aaron hitting his 715th home run)


The only time it might make sense to talk about “the zeitgeist of the moment” would be in comparing the present age to a previous one, as Stephen Jay Gould does in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory:

By contrast, the common themes behind the reformulations defended in this book all follow from…a set of integrated approaches that strongly contribute to the Zeitgeist of our moment.

Gould is clearly thinking of two “Zeitgeists,” Darwin’s and ours:

Whatever the contribution of a Victorian Zeitgeist to Darwin’s thinking, or of a contemporary Zeitgeist to our revisions, the differences are testable…

Some popular writers do use zeitgeist in the sense of views associated with a particular period of time. Here’s a reviewer of romance novels:

I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness.

Stanislav Grof, writing about the “biomechanical” set designs of H. R. Giger, observes that the zeitgeist of the twentieth century is

characterized by staggering technological progress that enslaved modern humanity in an internecine symbiosis with the world of machines.

For Matthew Arnold, the 19th century author to whom we owe the term, the zeitgeist is much more than the prevailing world view at a given time in history. It’s a force that influences events. A dehumanizing zeitgeist is something to be resisted. The OED gives this illustration of Arnold’s first use of the word:

I..took up Obermann, and refuged myself with him..against your Zeit Geist.

Obermann was a book by French author Etienne Pivert de Senancour (1770-1846). Senancour disliked the trappings of civilization and sought tranquility in nature. Obermann is full of descriptions of Nature and praise of solitude. The quotation in the OED reference is from a letter to Arnold’s friend Arthur Clough, who had written a poem that Arnold felt reflected the Victorian zeitgeist. In reading Obermann, Arnold was seeking refuge from a zeitgeist from which he felt alienated.

To talk about a “sports zeitgeist” or a “culinary zeitgeist,” or a “fashion zeitgeist” when all one means is “trend,” is to waste a high-powered word.

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7 Responses to “Using “zeitgeist” Coherently”

  • David A. Garner

    Great post! I studied German in college and I notice this all the time when people are writing.

  • Nelida K.

    Maeve,
    Here you have one more example of “zeitgeist” used as an….adejctive, of all things: “zeitgeisty” (in a mail alert from the NYTimes).

    October 17, 2010 Compiled: 5:33 AM
    MAGAZINE
    Truthiness
    By BEN ZIMMER (NYT)

    The fifth anniversary of Stephen Colbert’s introduction of a zeitgeisty word.

  • Maeve

    @Nelida K.
    Whatever next?! I’d have to say that “zeitgeisty” has the same ring as Stephen’s “truthiness.”

    Thanks.

  • Nelida K.

    You’re welcome, Maeve. Must excuse myself for the inadvertent typo, I meant “adjective”, of course.
    While we are at this, I read this comment on a post [http://bit.ly/9gwAll]:
    “The professor was devastated most by the loss of his calendar, but then after canceling credit cards, calling the police, etc., he returned to the place where it was stolen and low and behold, the bag had been returned and the only thing taken was the laptop.” Perhaps you would like to comment on “lo and behold” and its meaning, which is not at all “low”….
    Cheers.

  • Alex Utopia

    Zeitgeist is not really “a single word” it´s actually two words used toghether. Zeit and Geist, meaning Time and Spirit.

  • walrus

    @Alex Utopia You’re sort of right, except in German single words are stuck together like this, and since these are of German origin, the English use of zeitgeist has followed suit. However, when there is no space, in English we call that “a single word.”

  • JK

    Thank you for this post! I almost just used zeitgeist when I really meant trend. You are right – it is too powerful of a word to squander about!

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