We live in a world where texts are copy-pasted, images are being downloaded and uploaded again, tweets are re-tweeted and blog articles are re-posted. Standard multiplying procedures in the digital age. A few hundred years ago, the common procedure to multiply pictorial works on paper was to get prints first from woodcuts and later on from engravings on copper plates.
The modern German language offers some phrases and words which originate from these times. Let us have a somewhat nostalgic look at them.
The German word for the metal “copper” is “Kupfer”, thus we have:
- “abkupfern”: Verb, meaning “to copy in a plagiary way”, to crib1. Often used in the present perfect form “abgekupfert” (copied).
- “gestochen scharf”: Adjective, meaning “pin sharp”. “Gestochen” is the present perfect of “stechen”, meaning “to engrave”. This is related to the sharp edges of the lines engraved in the copper plate, creating a pin sharp image.
- “Mein lieber Freund und Kupferstecher”: Literally “my dear friend and engraver”. A lightheartedly phrase used in the sense of “my dear old chap”.
- “Die Presse”: “The press”, nowadays rather called “media”. Still widely used in the German words Presselandschaft and Pressesprecher.
The modern use of abkupfern and gestochen scharf is probably not too different from their original meaning. The derogatory touch of abkupfern may be related to the notion that engravers at the time had not only the necessary skills for faithfully copying works of art, but also for counterfeiting banknotes. This went along with the impression of engravings being mainly reproductive works lacking any creativeness.
The phrase “Mein lieber Freund und Kupferstecher” may have been in use much longer, but we know that the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) used it as the opening words in letters to his dear friend and engraver Carl Barth (1787-1853), whom he devoted one of his rather cumbersome poems.2
The German novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) used it in his play from 1892, “Frau Jenny Treibel”: “Das hat so sein sollen, Freund und Kupferstecher; mitunter fällt Ostern und Pfingsten auf einen Tag” – “Sometimes, dear old chap, Easter and Pentecost happen to be on the same day.” It is rather doubtful that these quotations were the only source for the widespread use of the phrase, as Lutz Röhrich pointed out.3
The widespread profession of an engraver has been long gone, but the charming, old-fashioned abkupfern and gestochen scharf are still in use today4. It is still perfectly normal to say that a blog entry has been abgekupfert, although no copper plates are involved in the process anymore, just buzzing photons in fiber cables.
I am sure other languages feature similar words originating from the analog age of engravings and printing presses, as the English word press5 itself.
1 A side note on the verb “to crib”: The verb exists already in 1605, with the transitive meaning of “to put something into a crib” or “support it with a framework of timber”. It would be certainly interesting to retrace the story behind its intransitive form of “to plagiarize”.
2 “An den Gevatter Kupferstecher Barth / Wenn du dich gestochen müd am Stechtisch / Wie ich mich gesprochen matt am Sprechtisch / Laß uns sitzen sprechen und ausstechen / Reinen Rheinweins eine Flasch am Zechtisch / Freien Künsten stehen wir zu Dienste / Laß uns ihnen dienen nicht zu knechtisch.”
3 Lutz Röhrich, Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten, Herder (Freiburg-Basel-Wien, 1991, 1994, 1999), Vol. 3, p. 911.
4 See the Retropedia for more nostalgic examples.
5 See the Online Etymology Dictionary with interesting notes on the press.
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