Sprachgefühl and word experts


David Astle, famous Australian word columnist, dropped Sprachgefühl, a German label for word-feeling, he said, into an Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) story during the week (it was a story about WORDLE, the word puzzle having its first birthday). It is impressive Mr Astle but I am not sure you are entirely correct—the definition is more closely … “a feeling for language; an ear for the idiomatically correct or appropriate”.


I try to avoid reading professional linguists or etymologists for fear of stealing their ideas. And, if the truth be known, I also find them incredibly smug. They carry on as if their answers to the origins and usages of words are definitive and without question. I guess you have to be infallible to be a celebrity expert.

A linguist is a person who studies language, although the word is also used to refer to a polyglot (one who knows several languages), or a grammarian (a scholar of grammar).

An etymologist is a person who studies the origins and history of words.

However, I am far more willing to listen to a lexicographer. Lexicographers are compilers of dictionaries. They review what writers and people are using in the real world. They then decide whether enough people are using it for it to be a “real” word.


I have been researching word origins for about 15 years and my research would suggest that, more often than not, word origins are disputed. I am highly fallible and happy to admit to just choosing the best story (although my inner scientist usually makes me own up to the fact, and by the way, for a time, I did train as an entomologist, that’s insects not words).


Astle is a multitudinous beast—he is not only an etymologist but also a cruciverbalist. A cruciverbalist compiles crossword puzzles (or enjoys completing them).

Astle, whose cruciverbalist moniker is DA, inflicts pain on his fellows by compiling the most obscure cryptic crossword clues for readers of the SMH and The Age. I found a delightful testimonial from the late Bill Leak, cartoonist:

“I used to regret not being born Catholic because it meant I’d been denied the joys of self-flagellation. Then I discovered DA and he solved my problem.”

My wife and I have been attempting the cryptic crosswords in the SMH since the beginning of COVID—DA is a shared demon. As Halloween approaches, and given the despair he has caused, I just want to pierce him through the heart with a government report—a weapon that no word expert could possibly understand.


Thanks for Sprachgefühl Mr Astle but I prefer Fingerspitzengefühl. It is intuitive flair or instinct, superior situational awareness, and the ability to respond most appropriately and tactfully. It literally means finger-tip feeling. I first came across the word in Allen Roberts’ Strategy Audit blog.

We tender writers need to possess both Fingerspitzengefühl and Sprachgefühl to deliver our services clearly and succinctly and leave being cryptic to cruciverbalists such as Mr Astle.