Monday, December 5, 2011

Besetzerin meines Körpers

The Lively German and I were conversing the other day when I, as occasionally happens, produced something notable in German. Although he questioned my meaning, I wasn't sure it was an error. The large amount of schnapps we had consumed had, as usual, loosened up my mind quite a bit. I don't remember the exact context but I do remember using Besetzerin (from besetzen, to occupy) as opposed to Besizterin (from besitzen, to own), in reference to my own body.

English has of course neither the ability to play with gender (in German I'm using the female form of the word), nor such an intriguing single-letter difference. This is what, my favorite etymology dictionary, has to say: *Occupy, Latin occupare "take over, seize, possess, occupy," from ob "over" + intensive form of capere "to grasp, seize". *Own, Old English agen "one's own," lit. "possessed by," from Proto-Germanic, aigana- "possessed, owned". Interestingly, in my schizophrenic mother tongue [shall we be Latin-based or shall we be Germanic?], the words don't even come from the same roots.

The following day, it struck me that most people probably feel much more a part of, or even wedded to, their bodies than I. My family is phenotypically quite odd; many of my relatives are physically unattractive people, but then on occasion there is one who seems to have stolen the entire allotment of good-looking genes for an entire generation. I'm one of them. I've written before about the uneasy relationship I have with this body of mine (see here). With every year that passes, as I experience only a fraction of the aging that I by all rights should be going through, I feel less and less comfortable with it. Perhaps this explains why I feel like I occupy this body instead of owning it.

Although I've been the longest and most present occupier (the one who holds the keys), many others have roamed its labyrinths. I try to be selective about the visitors, but tend toward egalitarian and hospitable impulses. And so the visitors span nearly all social classes and numerous nationalities. Even I have the feeling that I haven't seen the whole of it; I roam endlessly as if in a dream, poking around among bricked-up dead-end passageways, wringing my hands over the rooms where the keys have long ago gone missing.


Anonymous said...

vs.: Die Eignerin/Besitzerin meines Körpers.


As you write etymology of 'own' is 'eigen' (This body is 'mein eigen', is my own) , better 'sich aneignen' -- to get into ownership (Ich eigne mir meinen Körper an.).

'To possess' in the meaning 'to occupy'.
So, 'to possess' has both meanings: to occupy -- besetzen and to own --- besitzen. Etymology of 'besitzen' is 'sitzen' -- 'to sit'. Etymology of 'besetzen' is 'setzen' -- 'to set'.

So, in the end English offers two meanings aswell in two words, which differ in only one letter.

Katchita said...

Thanks for this great comment! My feeling is one of occupation, but nothing like possession. Others have been much more concerned with possessing this body than I; needless to say they quickly found the main door slammed shut whenever they were anywhere in the vicinity.

Sit and set are close synonyms in English; I don't find them to be sufficient to explain the much greater difference in meaning between own and occupy. But perhaps the difference between besetzen and besitzen is also not so great in German?