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Is there a cut-and-dry English word that means the same, or roughly the same, as the German word "Zeitgeist," other than its literal meaning of "spirit of the times"?

I've grown sour on its presence in conversational English due to heavy use as a clever buzzword and would like to know if there is a simpler alternative.

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I don't think there's a precise substitute, which is why we encounter "Zeitgeist" so often, though I agree that not only conveys the idea but also is cloaked in pretension. Perhaps "social climate" is a workable substitute? –  Dan Bron Aug 4 at 12:26
    
No other word means "zeitgeist". Only zeitgeist means "zeitgeist". (This is true of all words, by the way, and in all languages.) Everything else will mean something different. That is why it was borrowed in the first place: we did not have an equivalent of our own. –  RegDwigнt Aug 4 at 12:51
    
You might slip in élan du jour ocassionally, but it is neither english, nor a single word. –  Wayfaring Stranger Aug 4 at 12:55
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@bright I'm not sure I agree. Frankly, I think your fear is rather irrational and a prime example of the red-car effect. Ngrams shows that the relative popularity of the word has barely tripled since 1970. (Even the relative popularity of such a mundane word as despite has increased tenfold in the last century.) If you specifically set out to look for red cars on the street, you will start seeing nothing but red cars absolutely everywhere. Most to the point: why let others coerce you into not using a word? If I keep repeating "beer" cloaked in pretension, will you stop using that one, too? –  RegDwigнt Aug 4 at 13:08
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@RegDwigнt So you're claiming that synonyms don't exist? –  Superbest Aug 4 at 20:01

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The thesaurus answer gives some terms, but what's more interesting to me is the antonym old-fashioned. Based on that, I'd go with antonyms of old-fashioned which bring up such terms as contemporary, fresh, and in vogue. All of those terms, and especially the synonyms to in vogue work well.

In somewhat of a self-referential point of view, the use of the zeitgeist is pretty much in vogue today as the latest thing to discuss and, to turn a phrase, "word drop". At least, that's what my new friends who are all into Zeitgeist like to say.

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I love the clever wordplay in your answer, @user2370114, as well as the thought on looking at the antonym for ideas. –  brightmatrix Aug 4 at 12:59

Among the suggested synonyms I think two of them may come close to the notion of 'spirit of time':

atmosphere:

  • A dominant intellectual or emotional environment or attitude: the atmosphere of the 50s.

feeling:

  • an impression or mood; atmosphere: the feeling of a foreign city.
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