To: "birding-aus, birding-aus" <>
Subject: Zirkeln
From: John Clifton-Everest <>
Date: Thu, 01 Mar 2001 10:10:25 +1100
There is probably little real need for a linguist-germanist to
contribute to this one, once the native speaker, Klaus, has spoken and
certainly got it right.  In language studies we have a rule that 'the
native-speaker is always right', a rule that overlooks the fact that two
native-speakers can come up with quite conflicting explanations of
something, one of which has to be wrong. You cannot fault Klaus,
'der Zirkel' is indeed an alternative German word to 'der Kreis',
meaning a circle, though it tends to be used in a metaphorical sense
rather than a literal one, in the way  we speak of somebody's 'circle of
friends'.  Its principle literal meaning is not just a 'compass' (in the
sense of 'a pair of compasses -- not the magnetic one) but also what we
used to call 'dividers', i.e. the same sort of device, but with two
steel points, used for measuring, in particular, the length of segments
on a drawing or design.  From that usage was derived the principal
meaning of the verb 'zirkeln' = 'to measure exactly'.  However the verb
is also used derivatively, and not infrequently in colloquial German, in
the sense of 'to work at a problem from all sides'.  Underlying it is
something of the method employed when lifting out a tree-stump or
removing an obstinate tin-lid: you try to apply a bit of leverage from
different sides in turn, until the thing comes loose.  It can be more or
less figurative too, meaning simply 'to work round a problem'.  I have a
number of German quotes illustrating this, none of which is
ornithological in nature, but presumably it is the bird's method of
trying to prise the bark off using different sides and angles that led
to this usage in behavioural studies.
I hope this casts more light than darkness,
John Clifton-Everest
Associate Professor John M. Clifton-Everest
Department of Germanic Studies
University of Sydney
(61) (2) 9351 2262
Fax (61) (2) 9351 5318

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