July 2014 - The Widow of a Danube Steamboat Company Captain

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I have a lot of Germans in my family tree: Zangers and Schneiders and Kleins and what-have-you.1 Mom was German and Swedish, and she often chided me when I turned obstinate and recalcitrant that, “There are no more stubborn people on earth than the Swedes. Except the Germans.”

She was wrong, of course. Stubbornness is not a national or ethnic trait, it is an existential one. The most stubborn people on earth are the ones who disagree with me.

That fact was immortalized on a national level by the Kingston Trio: “The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much.” Distinguishing between the frustratingly stubborn and the admirably tough is largely a matter of geopolitics.

The Germans have carried that stubbornness rap for a long time. What they consider efficient and rational, others consider hypercritical and rigid.

But the Germans seem to be mellowing somewhat. Just last year, they took a step toward détente with the rest of us by eliminating the longest word in their language—a clear step toward understanding and tranquility—an outreach that seems inexplicably to have eluded Vladimir Putin entirely.


That’s the word. To which, of course, the only possible response is, “Gesundheit.”

In fact, rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz is one we lawyers have to own. It is—or was—a legal term.

Turns out rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz2 is what you get linguistically when you combine the German penchant for efficiency3 with a perceived need to monitor the production of beef labels.

Once you decide someone has to monitor the production of beef labels, you need someone to do that—a lawyer, probably—so you end up with a word which, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education,4 is the name given “the law delegating beef label monitoring.” And now that has been repealed, its name has also disappeared.

This, of course, was tragic news to sesquipedalians. I dare say Ninth Circuit Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, whose opinions have included words like “aduncous,” “ichor,” “inspissate,” “fuliginous,” and “vaticinations,” must have been in mourning for months.

But Rindy was coined in Western Pomerania5 to describe a body of law developed in response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy. And now that they don’t feel the need for close beef label monitoring—much less its delegation—they don’t feel a need for the word. As the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, Rindy “may now be the first linguistic fatality attributable to mad cow disease.”6

As you can tell, I was fascinated by this story. I mean, lawyers are word people. We make our living trying to understand and explicate words. We spend hours cogitating the legislature’s choice of one word over another, the appellate court’s understanding of words like “substantial” and “reasonable.”7

Imagine how much tougher it would be if we had words like rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz.8

Sure, we have pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, but that’s a paltry forty-three letters. And really, it kinda belongs to the doctors unless you bring a summary judgment motion on the basis the other side cannot prove ... it.

You’d have a better chance of complaining that the other side’s expert suffers from chronic floccinaucinihilipilification, twenty-nine letters that invoke “the act or habit of estimating something to be worthless.” That would be a lawyerly bit of sesquipedelianipity.9

But our language just doesn’t seem to have the staying power German has. Even with Rindy gone, German lawyers are light years ahead of us.

Suppose your client has been in an automobile accident. When he comes in, you’re going to ask him what company carries his automobile liability insurance, right? You think he’s gonna be impressed by your ability to speak and understand the phrase “automobile liability insurance”? Of course not.

But if you were a German lawyer, you’d ask him about his kraftfahrzeughaftpflicht-versicherung (thirty-six letters). Honest. The BBC says that’s the German term for “automobile liability insurance.” And I’ve watched enough Masterpiece Theatre to know that not only is the BBC never wrong, but they also know lots of really cool words and how to say them pretty.

Imagine how impressed your client is when you—with the appropriate air of nonchalance—invite him to be seated. “Would you like some tea, Sir? Of course, no trouble at all. Sugar, cream, lemon? And your kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung would be ...?”

Aw man, James Bond is Columbo next to that. That is killer cool.

And when he tells you his carrier, you tell him he’s come to the right place because you have the highest rating available from the Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (German for errors and omissions carriers).

At this point, the German client’s gotta be dazzled. With access to words like that, German lawyers must be able to charge astronomical fees.

And they probably have members of the opposite sex—or the same sex if they are so inclined—throwing themselves at their feet. There must be a lot of tripping in singles establishments frequented by German lawyers; I don’t know how they get to the bar.

But if you’re really lucky, you get to use the present longest word in the German language. If you’re a German lawyer who was a really good spider in his/her/its last life, your client will tell you the driver of the other car was a donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenswitwe.10

Forty-nine letters. Longest word in the language now that Rindy’s gone. Seven scrabble racks, seven thirty-five-point bonuses in Words with Friends. Longer than my favorite English word: greatshotmygodbedsthatsgoingrightforthehole. And the German lawyer gets to use it.

“Ah,” he nods, sipping his tea and commiserating with an urbanity that only a European can muster. “Of course. So sad. We see a lot of that these days. Given their horrific driving record, I can only wonder why our government still allows ‘the widow of a Danube steamboat company captain’ to drive.”

RIP, Rindy; long live the widow of the Danube steamboat company captain.

(1) Even a Richter or two. If you think of the English equivalent, “righter,” it will not surprise you that Richter is the German word for judge.
(2) All right, I’ve tortured my editor enough. Henceforth, rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz will be referred to as “Rindy.” Not to be confused with Rinty, who was a dog (and if you’re too young to remember Rin Tin Tin, you should be reading someone a lot more hip than me).
(3) Think how efficient it is to cram whole sentences into one word. Imagine how much denser the forests are in Germany because of the paper they’ve saved by not using spaces in their sentences.
(4) I’ll pause here so that those of you who bet I would never cite the Chronicle of Higher Education in this space can pay off.
(5) No kidding? Those yappy little dogs are Germans? My mom would not have been surprised at all.
(6) Tough to get topped by the Chronicle of Higher Education, but funny is funny.
(7) Or “aduncous.”
(8) Yeah, I know. I said I was going to stop torturing my editor and use “Rindy.” I lied.
(9) It would also be annoying as hell, so pick your spots.
(10) Yes, three f’s in a row. The BBC says so, that’s who.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.