Words“It’s not the word’s fault,” my German teacher said, as he explained to us why you shouldn’t say the word Führer.

“When someone says it [Führer], this is all we think about,” he said, drawing a toothbrush moustache on his face with his index finger and making the “Heil, Hitler” gesture.

In the dictionary, Führer has many definitions including driver, guide and leader.  Type “our guide” into Google Translate, and it generates, “unser Führer.”

It doesn’t take into account that Hitler used this title to refer to himself – a painfully negative association in the minds of many (if not most) Germans.

A word is more than just its definition. It has feelings, too.

It is only in hearing the word, listening to it, watching where it shows up (or doesn’t) and sitting down and exploring its nuances that I truly start to understand it.

I can tell you, for instance, that if you put other words in front of Fürher like Geschäft or Reise then it becomes innocuous.

And in a very clear context, you might be able to get away with using it alone. But if you want to talk about a leader, Leiter is a much safer choice.

Now I know the word – at least in Berlin.

Sometimes the same word in the same language can have different definitions depending upon country or sometimes even region or city.

When I journeyed through Ecuador, my colleague Rachel and I wrote a children’s song titled, “Chévere,” which there meant, “cool.” When Rachel later traveled to Guatemala, she learned that there, chévere meant “hot dog.”

No longer was the song about how cool God was – it was now an ode to the Oscar Meyer wiener! Context is essential.

For as much as I may know having worked in other contexts, even cross-cultural ones, I can’t make assumptions. I have to treat each one as a different being. A different living organism of people and culture that is complex and constantly changing.

One that bears both scars and beauty marks, bruises and brilliance, fear and hope.

One that has a story, or rather many, that I need to hear, understand and feel, so that, together with others, we can respond to needs and see transformation in this city.

About the Author

Danielle is a Charrette | Berlin alum.

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