Thursday, February 08, 2007

Patzer Etymology

I recently came across "Patzer: An Etymological Study" by Dr. Helen Weissenstein (Chess Review, April 1961, page 117), which may be of some interest to the many chess bunglers and bloggers out there who like to use that term in self-descriptions.

Weissenstein says she had met I. A. Horowitz at the Manhattan Chess Club one evening, where the famous American master and chess author asked if, given her expertise in language, she might be able to answer a question concerning a well-known chess term:

"The day before he had watched a game during which one of the players, having made a few juicy blunders, called himself a patzer. Had the word been used correctly, Mr. Horowitz asked. Can a player still qualify as a patzer even though he acknowledges being one? Does not the expression imply a personality that will never admit his blunders?"

At first, Dr. Weissenstein responded that "the word patzer had no such limitations and that also a person of great humility could claim the title provided he had the necessary qualifications." But after a little research in historical linguistics, she had her doubts. Here are some of her findings:

There is an old German word batzen, now patzen, derived from backen, "to bake." As a noun batzen meant a clot, lump, a sticky mess; as an intransitive verb to be sticky, gluey, and as a transitive to do smeary, bad, superficial work, to blunder. We can see at once that this is where our friend, the patzer comes in, making nice big blunders.

To the same family of words belongs also an adjective, patzig, archaic batzet or batzig, meaning bloated, boastful, impudent, conceited.

Shame-faced, I have to confess that I did not think of this adjective as I answered Master Horowitz's question much too hastily. Now, having concluded my research, I would not dare to decide one way or the other because unfortunately I found so little literature about the word....

Master Horowitz may easily be right in his assumption that the word patzer contains an element of conceit and bragging. Patzer and patzig come from the same family, and family will tell as we all know. And we certainly must admire his keen perception and flair for language. Which brings home for us the old truth that a master is always a master and a patzer--a patzer.

As Weissenstein's implicit application of the term to herself in her conclusion suggests, it really does not matter what the historical usage of the term might be, since people communicate with words as they function for us in the present moment. If the original coinage was intended to describe pretenders to knowledge, our own more uncertain and self-reflexive age has found in the word a proper way of coping with our perhaps overly-self-conscious acceptance that chess is much more difficult than we can even pretend to master.

I might also note that I think Weissenstein's research argues against Jim West's conjecture that the word "patsy" (from the Italian word for fool or "pazzo" according to William Safire) may be connected to "patzer," especially since there is no sense in which a "patsy" can be said to have an inflated self-image.

But what do I know?

6 comments:

Wahrheit said...

Michael, have you run across the book Secrets of a Grandpatzer? I like the book, the title and the author's description of a grandpatzer, basically someone who reaches 1700-2000 and beats up on patzers!

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I will have to look for a copy. It sounds interesting. Its author wasthe late Dr. Kenneth Mark Colby (1920-2001), who might make for an interesting profile....

Wahrheit said...

Yes, it's not surprising that the book has good insights into chess players as well as the game of chess, seeing that the author was a psychiatrist. I found it to be a delight and I've had it in my bookshelf for over 20 years.

How I came to obtain the book, and some interesting details about the man I obtained it from, will be the subject of a post soon.

Tom Panelas said...

Grandpatzer is a wonderful term, but shouldn't a title like that require a rating much lower than 1700? Shouldn't a Grandpatzer be reliably worse than a mere patzer?

Perhaps a Grandpatzer should have to earn GP norms, playing events in which he or she competes against other established patzers -- and loses.

Michael Weiss said...

Michael, You're quite right that a word means what we say it means and it's history is irrelevant for defining its synchronic meaning. We call this idea "the etymological fallacy" in the biz.
If I can add a few detail to the etymology:
Patzer is an agent noun from German patzen 'to play badly' (especially a muscial instrument and, by extension, chess). It seems to be an English formation since German Patzer (at least in the source I checked) means 'error'. The verb patzen is a South German (Bavarian and Austrian) variant of a form also attested as batzen. The older meaning is indeed 'to be sticky' (as of dough) which supports the ultimate etymological connection with backen 'bake'.

Another form that might be related is American English putz as in "Stop putzing around". This is evidently a Yiddishism, but connection with putz 'penis' or German putzen 'to clean' is semantically unlikely. Now back to work.

Anonymous said...

Colby suggests in his book that the term comes from the German "Verpatzen" = "to make a mess" -- for whatever that might add.