Word of the Week: Tohuwabohu

Jun 3, 2011

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Tohuwabohu

(c) picture-alliance / Image Source Enlarge image (© picture-alliance / Image Source)

Common descriptions and stereotypes depict Germans as disciplined, tidy, dutiful and organized people who in one way or another seem to have a deep inner  desire for order. If this description is right, how come there is this exotic sounding word Tohuwabohu in German?

An online dictionary even lists 66 synonyms for it, which clearly reflects its societal importance – especially as the main meanings are first Durcheinander (confusion) and secondly Unordnung (disorder/chaos). It almost appears that this single word points out a whole new dimension of "German-ness".

In its historical context, Tohuwabohu stems from the Hebrew original of the bible and can be found in the Old Testament in the First Book of Moses. It is used to describe the state of the earth before God started creating it. Accordingly, Tohuwabohu is composed of three words: "tohu" (desert, desolate place), "wa" (and) as well as "vohu" (emptiness).

Baum in Kenia Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/ dpa) The great thing about the modern sense of the word is that the sound of the word matches its actual meaning (=chaos). Looking for associations in order to figure out the sense of the word will be a hopeless and desperate quest. Likewise, Tohuwabohu is unique because in contrast to its 66 synonyms, it feels way more friendly and congenial, almost ironic and amusing. Therefore, it is more an informal than formal expression.

Interestingly, Tohuwabohu is relatively often used in a political context, when members of the parliamentary opposition intend to attack the governing coalition by depicting it as chaotic. 

Thus, Tohuwabohu is without a doubt relevant for German society. It might be at odds with common stereotypes about it, but mainly is what a messy kids' room or your apartment look like after a house party.

© Germany.info

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