Word of the Week: Zugzwang

Jan 17, 2014

chess Enlarge image (© picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com) In German, there is a particular word to describe the pressure you might feel in a game of chess, or any situation in which you feel the compulsion to make a move. The word Zugzwang (literally: "pressure to move" a piece in a board game) describes an urgent feeling usually found when a person experiences a push to do something, even if that action could be disadvantageous.

Originally, the word was only used to describe situations found in a game of chess. Sometimes, a chess player is put at a disadvantage when he or she is forced to make a move in a game. Even though it would be advantageous to skip a turn, the player is required to move one of the pieces, thus creating a less favorable outcome (in some cases, checkmate for the other player). This pressure to make an unfavorable move is what Germans call Zugzwang.

The first use of this word has been traced back to the mid-19th century, after chess historian Edward Winter found an unsigned magazine article in the Deutsche Schachzeitung ("German Chess Paper") that had Zugzwang in its title. Since then, the meaning of the word has evolved to encompass many situations in which a person or an organization feels pressure to make a move that they would not normally choose to make.

chess Enlarge image (© dpa) If, for example, a company is reducing the price of its products, its competitor might feel the Zugzwang to also reduce the price of its products -- even if it would have preferred to keep prices high. In another example: if a large group of protesters gather outside the office of a political decision maker, that figure might feel Zugzwang to give in to their demands, even if he disagrees with them.

But the word Zugzwang is no longer used only in German; over the years, it has made its way into the English language, and has even been used in a political sense. New York Times columnist Nate Silver used Zugzwang to describe the situations lawmakers were faced with during the federal budget debate in early 2011. He said any first move would be disadvantageous in another sense, whether it was job creation (more spending), cutting taxes (slashing federal programs) or raising taxes. But failure to make a move was not an option.

"In general, almost any detailed proposal that a politician might make is going to be received poorly," Silver wrote. The pressure to act was thus called Zugzwang.

Whether you're playing a game of chess or being forced to make a decision you would prefer not to, you can now describe that situation as Zugzwang


By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

© Germany.info

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