24

The word "Gutmensch" consists of

  • gut = good
  • Mensch = human

Sounds like a compliment but actually the word is very insulting.

It describes someone who (for example)

  • is not able to take criticism, since their cause is always just
  • considers objective arguments as inconsiderate and hurtful
  • instinctively tries to control any dispute and calm the situation
  • suffers ostentatively at the slightest indignation
  • scorns at dark humour

The list is not exhaustive, I'm just trying to convey the right frame of mind.

There is this sense of entitlement and an attitude like that of a teacher. If you argue with them, they will not listen but try to show you the error of your ways. If they are wrong, they will try to end the discussion with "it's not really that important, isn't it?".

A "Gutmensch" is not a bad person, they are perfectly normal people and can be found in any radio conversation and at most family meetings. But there is some trace of malice, some wickedness, or some almost undetectable twist of mind. This is the important part.

Let's say you dine with an activist of Greenpeace and the evening is completely filled with the fight against pollution. This person is definitely not a "Gutmensch", since he is genuinely concerned.

Or you invite a vegetarian who insists on not eating meat. Not a "Gutmensch". The person next to the vegetarian who starts the discussion about eating meat and won't accept any conclusion except "we should all stop eating meat", that's a "Gutmensch".

How would you translate this word (one of my favourites) to English ?

UPDATE:

Yes, I've tried to look up the word on my own. The results were:

  • do-gooder
  • goody two-shoes
  • starry eyed idealist

and

good mind, this last one was actually marked as "abfällig" (derogatory)

None of those words felt like they were spot-on. They don't feel right, because of various reasons, I'm trying to give my personal impression of each of those words:

  • do-gooder : very plain, direct translation. I don't think I heard this before. Seems rather constructed to me.
  • goody two-shoes : I definitely didn't hear this before
  • starry eyed idealist : someone who is blinded by his ideals. The greenpeace activist from my example would probably be a starry eyed idealist. But that's not necessarily bad.
  • good mind : the dictionary says this is derogatory. But it seems rather harmless to me.

Would you say "He is such a good mind" about one of your friends ? Sarcastically, I mean ? Seems like a harmless joke, only in a specific context I would consider this insulting. If you called one of your friends "Gutmensch", he would be severely injured.

I didn't post those results, since I didn't want to spoil the question. Usually if someone asks me "do you think X is an appropriate translation for ...", all I can think of is X. And I wanted to see if those terms come up on their own.

  • 14
    Sounds like you're describing anyone on the Internet. – Robusto Jul 15 '15 at 16:29
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    Have you consulted a German - English dictionary? Please indicate what efforts you have made to research this question yourself, describe what you found, and explain what remaining questions you have. – Jim Reynolds Jul 15 '15 at 16:47
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    @Blubberguy22 There’s at least one of them that does. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 15 '15 at 17:21
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    Politician? :) – Barmar Jul 15 '15 at 18:08
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    I am sorry, but I (as a German) think your interpretation of the word "Gutmensch" is incorrect. In your examples, the Greenpeace activist would in fact be considered by many as a "Gutmensch", simply because he is doing something good and following the so called PC. The narrative here is that there is a left-wing PC and some things are forbidden to say and a "Gutmensch" follows this ideology as opposed to the person using the word. It has nothing to do with the "Gutmensch" itself or in what way he/she presents oneself. – dirkk Jul 16 '15 at 11:35

13 Answers 13

19

Moralist reproduces the good denotation of gutmensch with a similar dark connotation:

noun

1.0 A person who teaches or promotes morality.

1.1 A person given to moralizing.
ODO

Almost everyone considers their own morality to be good. Most consider their moral judgments to be superior, or at least on par with the best, but in the modern mind, a moralist is often portrayed with an irrational moral opinion used unsympathetically to cajole and coerce others into conformity against their will.

John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, by Sidney Hook, reveals the positive denotation of one who constructs a superior moral framework:

To those who know him by his less technical writings, John Dewey appears as a great moralist and educator.

In his introduction of The Unity of Plutarch's Work, Anastasios Nikolaidis used moralist with the dark connotations of irrationality and coercion:

These findings, however, do not entail that Plutarch was a crude moralist who stigmatized deeds and conducts, meted out prescriptions for correct ways of living or put forward ideal, and therefore unattainable, patterns of behaviour.

Although the preacher from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was predominantly a hypocrite, he was primarily a moralist, who struggled against his own gutmenschlich qualities at the expense of his secret mistress, Hester Prynne:

The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of women's frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast—at her, the child of honourable parents—at her, the mother of a babe that would hereafter be a woman—at her, who had once been innocent—as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.
Emphasis added

  • This answer is perfect. The double meaning, the irritating morality, the aspect of teaching, it's all there. But one thing I would like to ask. Is being a moralist a permanent occupation ? A "Gutmensch" that's like a hidden taint. You don't spot them right away. Unfortunately I think we're now in territory were even germans would be prone to disagree. This is probably already a personal interpretation of "Gutmensch". I will wait a few hours to give everyone a voice in this and unless a better translation is presented(which I doubt) I will accept this answer. – lhk Jul 15 '15 at 19:00
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    Thanks, lhk. I have observed a full gamut of moralists who can be evaluated on progressive scales in various dimensions: the rational > irrational scale, the amiable > belligerent scale, the sincere > hypocritical scale, amateur > professional scale. It seems the highly irrational, belligerent, hypocritical, professional moralist would be more undesirable, while the rational, amiable, sincere, amateur moralist would be a more welcome companion. – ScotM Jul 15 '15 at 19:54
  • The rare perfect answer to a translation question. +1. – Tushar Raj Jul 16 '15 at 14:19
12

prig

prig n.

A person who demonstrates an exaggerated conformity or propriety, especially in an irritatingly arrogant or smug manner. Google definition.

also

someone who thinks that they are better than other people because they always obey strict moral rules

http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/prig#prig_4

You can double the insult by adding self-righteous as in the following example:

A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to Hell than a prostitute.

C.S. Lewis

http://www.oursaviouroatlands.org/foundations/writings-on-anglicanism/17-top-25-c-s-lewis-quotes.html

  • The OP mentions nothing about conformity. – Jim Reynolds Jul 15 '15 at 16:49
  • I think you should lead off with "self-righteous" and offer "prig" as the optional addendum. (also a definition for self-righteous would be good.) – Hellion Jul 15 '15 at 17:08
  • I like this very much, would never have come up with prig on my own. Especially the smug manner is quite fitting. But I'm not sure that this is the right translation, because "they always obey strict moral rules". This is not the case with a "Gutmensch". Could you maybe provide another example how to use this ? The quote from C.S. Lewis is a little strong. – lhk Jul 15 '15 at 18:41
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    Actually, @JimReynolds, to quote the OP's reference to conformity (Emphasis mine): 'invite a vegetarian who insists on not eating meat. Not a "Gutmensch". The person next to the vegetarian who starts the discussion about eating meat and won't accept any conclusion except "we should all stop eating meat", that's a "Gutmensch".' – FG Magma Jul 15 '15 at 23:02
9

A brief look at online discussions in English about German and Germans seems to reveal that the word is somewhat politicized and means someone who is a naive moralizer. One post suggested consulting a lexicographic site:

"Let's just consult with the Duden :)

Gutmensch, der Usage: Mostly derogative or ironical Meaning: [naive] person whose behaviour in terms of political correctness or whose way of promoting political correctness is considered uncritical, exaggerated, unnerving or the like."

Another poster noted the following German expression: "Das Gegenteil von 'gut' ist 'gut gemeint'", that is, the opposite of good is well-meaning.

English has approximate expressions "goody-goody" and "goody two-shoes," which capture the aspect of annoying moralizing but have a connotation of ineffectiveness. The German implies that the attitude actively gets in the way of solving problems.

8

Self-righteous as mentioned in Chasly's answer comes very close. (His "prig" is probably a century out of date, CS Lewis was probably writing in the 1930s).

Self-righteous does not necessarily follow moral rules : it can be combined with a good dose of hypocrisy to overcome that need. (The outspoken guardian of moral values, found half-naked with his secretary comes to mind, or the campaigner of teaching abstinence whose teenage daughter has a baby). The self-righteous fellow can be either genuinely unaware of the hypocrisy, or purposefully blind to it (the latter can lead to anger when challenged).

The phrase "I am not a racist, but ..." can be one sign of the self-righteous.

It does imply a tendency to preach, and sometimes to be not bound by the rules others are expected to follow. Linguistically, "gut" (good) finds expression as another positive term "right" in a context that doesn't make its negative meaning quite obvious.

7

These aren't nouns, but from your description, the adjectives "holier-than-thou" and "patronizing" come to mind. Also, upon further reflection, I'm adding "condescending" and "zealot" to the list.

Merriam-Webster online defines these as follows:

holier-than-thou - "having or showing the annoying attitude of people who believe that they are morally better than other people"

patronize - "to adopt an air of condescension toward : treat haughtily or coolly"

condescend - "to show that you believe you are more intelligent or better than other people"

zealot - "a zealous person; especially : a fanatical partisan"

  • Looks like chasly from UK beat me to "self-righteous". Also, "zealot" seems like it might apply. – Doug Warren Jul 15 '15 at 16:34
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    I don't think the rest work as well, but 'holier-than-thou' even mirrors the antiphrasis of the German. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 15 '15 at 19:56
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    It just occurred to me that a more compact synonym for "holier-than-thou" might be "pious", which can be used either as genuine praise or as sarcastic condemnation. – Doug Warren Jul 15 '15 at 20:04
7

Also consider the word sanctimonious, which has the following definition in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

sanctimonious:

adjective

derogatory

Making a show of being morally superior to other people.

4

A more casual term you might hear in American English is boy scout or girl scout, in reference to members of the Boy Scouts of America or Girl Scouts of the USA organizations, respectively. These organizations are designed to train their child members to grow into honorable, moral, and upstanding citizens, among other things. As a result, boy and girl scouts are often stereotyped as self-appointed heroes of society, being trained to do things like identify and intervene in bullying, obey the rules/law to the letter, and avoid perverse thoughts and actions.

So, if you want to tell someone their desire for political correctness and moral purity is overbearing, you could tell them "Quit being such a boy/girl scout."

4

As I see German opinions questioning the "moralist" interpretation of "Gutmensch" let me add two more facets:

  • I am native German as well, and I have lived in the South, middle, and North of Germany for years so I have seen a span of different cultural eco-subsystems. All along my several decades of conscious language use I have experienced the word "Gutmensch" used in the "moralist" way in my variety of social contexts.

  • "Gutmensch" as a "moralist is nothing new in German language use. Wilhelm Busch [1], German humorist, poet, illustrator and painter living 1832 - 1908, wrote in "Die fromme Helene" (translation by [1]): A saintly person likes to labor For the correction of his neighbor, And sees, through frequent admonition, To his improvement through contrition.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Busch

PS: Being characterized as one of "extremely and belligerantly conservative people" in a previous post I'd contend: dear reader, please check the top-voted criteria against that post - of course a "Gutmensch" would not accept being named one.

3

The OP lists as a criterion: "There is this sense of entitlement and an attitude like that of a teacher."

This brings to mind schoolmarm, in the derivative, neuter, non-misogynist sense:

  1. A person, male or female, who exhibits characteristics attributed to schoolteachers of the old times (as strict adherence to arbitrary rules, is strict on those who don't comply to those rules, etc.)

(Wiktionary)

In light of the other criteria, the connotation of outmoded pedagogy fares well:

It describes someone who (for example)

  • is not able to take criticism, since their cause is always just [Insubordination calls for a whack on the wrists with a ruler.]

  • considers objective arguments as inconsiderate and hurtful [An arch schoolmarm, if justifiably contradicted, may react defensively in this way.]

  • instinctively tries to control any dispute and calm the situation [Rightly so, as any teacher would do, though perhaps at the expense of constructive discussion.]

  • scorns at dark humour [Any kind of humour in a 19th-Century classroom would seem to have been blasphemous.]

3

As is often the case when translating words from one language to another, the literal translation of the words has little to do with the intended meaning. "Gutmenschen" or "good people" is an ironic label used with sarcasm. It has a quite close connotation to the American phrase "Politically Correct" or simply "PC". This phrase would also appear complimentary if taken literally, but it is used sarcastically. The implied derision in both cases comes from conservatives who place a high value on liberty and feel that there is an inexorable push toward a liberal utopian society that could only be realized in a totalitarian state. The conservatives know that no such utopia has ever resulted from totalitarianism. "Gutmensch" expresses contempt toward those who tend toward this utopian world view.

2

Although this is not a single word, and describes the opinionated behaviour not the person, it does combine egotism, haughtiness, obstinacy and the claim of moral superiority.

"get on your high horse" - English Dictionary Cambridge

to start talking angrily about something bad that someone else has done as if you feel you are better or more clever than they are.

"to get off your high horse"

if you tell someone to, or suggest that someone should, get off their high horse, you are suggesting they stop behaving in a superior manner ⇒ "It is time the community got off its moral high horse and started searching for answers.", "So come on, John, get off your high horse."

Definition of HIGH HORSE merriam-webster

: an arrogant and unyielding mood or attitude

2

I am not certain I agree with your description of the term (as described by you). In my opinion it is usually used for someone who is both concerned with being politically correct so as not to hurt people's feeling and also perceived (usually by conservatives) as dangerous naively.

For example, someone who is concerned/angered by the current policy of Germany toward asylum seekers can except to be labeled as a gutmensch by the politically (non-extreme) right. Also I am almost certain that both greenpeace members and vegetarian (with idealistic reasons) will be called "gutmensch" by a considerable portion of the population. In fact, googling either "greenpeace gutmensch" or "vegetarier gutmensch" will lead to a significant number of hits.

This is why I feel that the direct analogue is the term "bleeding heart". It seems to be used by the same people to denigrate the same political opponents.

0

For several years, I have been struck by the use of "Gutmenschen" , always in a derogatory and jeering sense, coming from extremely and belligerantly conservative people to refer to anyone who stands up for the environment or human rights or abused animals. Perhaps their implication is that such defenders of good causes are insufferably self-righteous, but I hear and read it in contexts where the people being denigrated (advocates for immigrants or Greenpeace) are taking action rather than preaching and where their simple, humane behavior seems to get under the skin of the critics - people whose attitude is similar to that of Rush Limbough or Donald Trump- So "bleeding hearts" seems like the best English equivalent.

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