Your RDA of Irony

Thank You Notes

First, today is the second anniverary of this website. So far, I have yet to make a noticeable inroad on the New Yorker’s circulation. Maybe next year. I owe many my thanks for their encouragement and comments. And the rest of you at least should wish me a happy anniversary.

And now for today’s lesson in linguistics and hypocrisy.

After an edifying summer working as an intern at my wife’s place of employment, the college student refrained from killing anyone. On the contrary, he actually wrote thank-you notes and my wife received one. (His script was legible, his writing grammatical, and his prose articulate–it is hard to believe that he was born within the last 30 years.) If you were not amazed by his anachronistic literacy and courtesy, you had to be impressed by his stationery–embossed with the name and logo of his college: Stanford.

The logo included the school motto: “Die Luft der Freiheit Weht.” I knew that Stanford was conservative but this was intimidating. Being a prurient intellectual, I had to learn what that Teutonism meant. The translation is “the wind of freedom blows.” Since it is German, it could be an expletive.

My next question was “Who first said it?” The answer is Ulrich von Hutter–a 16th century poet who now is so obscure that he really was a $2000 question on Jeopardy. Hutter’s quote was a reference to the Reformation. Ironically, Hutter said it in Latin: “videtis illam spirare libertais aurum.” The Latin was good enough for Hutter–and everyone else for 350 years, but then a Stanford president translated it into his linguistic specialty–German–and made it the school motto.

In 1891, German seemed a respectable if unorthodox choice for a school motto. However time-honored, Latin was effete and archaic; German was the language of modern science and philosophy. On the other hand, Caligula did not sink the Lusitania. Yes, Julius Caesar had invaded Belgium and France, but he did not violate any treaties in doing so. So in 1917, Stanford claimed that it did not have an official school motto; that German garble was just a 26-year-long misimpression.

(Actually, I am surprised that Stanford did not simply claim that “Die Luft der…” is not German but Northern Swiss.)

In 1923, Stanford resumed using that misimpression as its school motto. Of course, 18 years later the school again had to explain its motto. This time it did not deny some acquaintance with the phrase. Yes, it was German–but it was good German. Ulrich von Hutter had never been a Nazi; that certainly was an advantage of dying in 1523. (And he died of syphilis–which is quite a democratic disease.) So anyone who criticized Stanford’s school motto was siding with the Germans!

Yes, you can see why Stanford is the Republican think tank.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Happy Anniversary, indeed! Some of the most entertaining, informative reading on the web!

  2. crmciver says:

    Happy Anniversary!

    My family’s claim to be from Switzerland rather than Germany seemed unlikely. I had long ago decided this was a nice excuse dreamed up for one or both of the world wars. Now, one of my cousins actually traced the ancestors to Switzerland. The family is honest after all– although still mostly Republican 😉

  3. Brent Hoffmann says:

    Happy second anniversary, Gene. I look forward to a third and more.

  4. Peggles says:

    Happy Second Anniversary, Eugene, and many more. I look forward to your clever musings every day.

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