Word of the Week: Ohrwurm

Jul 1, 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.


Pop Music Made in Germany Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/chromorange) What are your associations when you think of earwigs? They crawl on patios in search of human ears, they look - well - not that nice and they are obviously a specific species of bugs? To give you some more information, earwigs are called Ohrwürmer (or Ohrenkriecher) in German, they belong to the group of flying insects (Pterygota) and eight out of its 1,800 species can be found in Germany. If you're not very sure what this has to do with the word of the week, then you're partly right.

However, the word Ohrwurm (literally "ear worm") also has a second meaning in German. You use it to describe a situation in which you have a song stuck in your head. Figuratively speaking, a certain part of a song crawls into your ear and lingers there for a while - exactly like an earwig and symbolized by the frequent repetition of that song in your head.

(c) picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Yet there are some quite remarkable differences between the zoological and the musical Ohrwurm. Whereas the intention of the earwig to get into your ear is deliberate, the musical Ohrwurm only occurs unintentionally. Try to anticipate its time of occurence – it won't work. Some musicians pretty desperately attempt to find certain combinations of notes which trigger it, a specific recipe has however not been found or has been well hidden. Moreover, in contrast to the slightly negative connotation of an earwig, the musical Ohrwurm can be both a song you very much like and a song you very much dislike. The primary premise for its occurrence is a strong emotional reaction to the song, whether negative or positive. Interestingly, songs with lyrics trigger an Ohrwurm way more often than songs without lyrics. Likewise, an Ohrwurm occurs in more than 70 percent of the cases in everyday situations (e.g. when you clean up, wash the dishes) or in situations where you just laze around (e.g. waiting for something) and are cognitively relaxed.

Maybe you are not too surprised that Sigmund Freud had his own theories about the Ohrwurm. To him, an Ohrwurm was as you might guess an unsconscious articulation of wishes. In that case, you will certainly not be able to treat an undesired and annoying Ohrwurm with the amusing anti-Ohrwurm devices you find on the Internet. They try to cure you and eliminate your Ohrwurm  by playing specific new melodies/songs.

However, some doubts remain whether even the most elaborate devices can make you get rid of a classic Ohrwurm.

© Germany.info

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