Schlimmbesserung is a rare, but useful German term to designate an effort to make something better that actually makes things worse. According to Sebastiano Timpanaro, the brilliant Italian philologist, the term originally derived from the exacting discipline of textual criticism. During classical and medieval times all texts had to be copied by hand. This process led to several recurrent problems. One of them was the tendency of the copyist to replace a less familiar term with one that is more usual. For example, in copying a Latin text the scribe might substitute mysterium for ministerium. It is the job of the text editor to detect such "improvement" and to reverse them.
An ordinary example is the eighteenth-century correction of asparagus to sparrow-grass. (This change also illustrates the principle of folk etymology.)
The concept has a wide application to technology (inter alia). For example, my TV remote stopped working. The cable guy brought a replacement. But in this one the "mute" button doesn't work--for me a significant handicap.
The principle is also illustrated by a joke. A recent immigrant presents himself before a judge requesting that his name be legally changed. Looking at the papers, the magistrate noted that the applicant was one Boris Tufschitzky. "Yes, young man, I can imagine that in your native land the name of, er, Tufschitky might be a suitable, even distinguished surname. In this country, I fear that matters are otherwise. The court applauds your wish to acculturate. Just tell the clerk what new name you have chosen and we will effect the change."
Response: "Oh, your honor will love new name--very American. I wish to be called Joe--Joe Tufschitzky.
[One German speaker holds that properly the term should be "Verschlimmbesserung," with the prefix. That may be so, but the longer form seems too cumbersome.)
Labels: false improvements