Word of the Week: Firlefanz

Jan 13, 2012

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


"Firlefanz" - 1920 Enlarge image A 1920 cover of the printed score "Firlefanz" One Step by Albert Becker, op. 77. Chemnitz (Verlag Fritz Haedrich). (© picture-alliance/akg-images)

A quirky expression of French origin that wended its way into medieval German language usage, "Firlefanz" is a charming little confection of a word used to denote the "frippery" or silliness of beautiful yet useless things.

It can also be used along with the verb "machen" - as in "Firlefanz machen" (to "make" Firlefanz) - to simply suggest "clowning / fooling around."

The French root of the word is "virelai" - a type of tune used to accompany a group dance that involved multiple individuals performing similar steps together. In German this type of song was referred to as a "Reigenlied" and "Reigen" (or Reien, Reihen (rows), Reihentanz (row dance), from the old French word for dance - "raie") referred to this type of dance featuring multiple dancers who moved or jumped in unison. They would usually be placed in chain-like formations or circles (Kreisreigen, or Ringeleigen), facing each other in rows (Frontreigen), or paired up in rows.

From its French origin (virelai) to a middle high German word "virlai" the expression "Firlefanz" developed to describe such a dance, a silly undertaking or a superfluous thing.

At first, "Firelanz" referred to a funny and fast "Springtanz" (jumping dance) or an eccentric, silly person (which, incidentally, is the same word in German - "Person").

Today it is used more as a figure of speech or slang expression to denote "Tand" (an old German expression for a beautiful thing), or cheap (yet stylish) stuff.  But it can also mean "Albernheit" (silliness) and "Torheit" (foolishness), just as well as serve as a synonym for "meaningless information" or "superfluous ornamentation."

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