Winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “Gesellschaft”

For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee  crowned co-champions. This year, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar correctly spelled Feldenkrais, sharing the top orthographical prize with Nihar Saireddy Janga, who spelled Gesellschaft. Where do these words come from – and what do they mean, anyways?


Feldenkrais is a trademarked name “for a system of aided body movements intended to increase bodily awareness and ease tension,” as Merriam-Webster, the official dictionary of the bee, explains it. This form of somatic education takes its name from Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist born in what is now the Ukraine, who designed and founded the Feldenkrais Method.


First theorized by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gesellschaft is “a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons,” according to Merriam-Webster.  Gesellschaft characterizes the more modern, impersonal, and institutional relationships of modern society, compared to the more personal, traditional, and rural ones of Gemeinschaft.

Literally translated as “companionship” but used in the sense of “society,” Gesellschaft joins the German geselle, a “companion,” “associate,” or “fellow (guildsman),” with the noun-forming suffix –schaft, related to English’s own -ship, as in, well, companionship. The suffix, at root, means “state” or “condition,” ultimately cognate to the word shape.

To ace the shape of these words, Hathwar and Janga no doubt mastered the orthographical equivalent of Feldenkrais.

m ∫ r ∫




7 thoughts on “Winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “Gesellschaft”

  1. So instead of Hot Yoga, you could have Hot Feldenkrais; of course, that sounds more like food than exercise. I learn something new every time I visit your site! Thanks, again, for putting these together.


  2. Thanks, John, for providing a nice succinct definition for “Feldenkrais,” something that Feldenkrais teachers often struggle with. You’ve done us a solid – thank you so much!


    1. All credit goes to Merriam-Webster, really. We seem to have a short of language to discuss mind-body concepts in English, so I can imagine you weary of explaining to folks over and over again what Feldenkrais is!


  3. I’m guessing “Feldenkrais” (Cyrillic: Фелденкрайз) is a Yiddish surname because it doesn’t look inherently Slavic? I imagine the “-krais” element is either the Germanic Kreis (lit. “circle”) a district or county or, and possibly related, Slavic край (kraj) country, place, border as in the ‘edge’ etymology of Ukraine (Україна Ukrayina).


    1. I did some tinkering with “Feldenkrais.” It just gets so tricky with surnames, so I didn’t want to speculate. I find your assessment compelling. It’s tempting to see “felden” as cognate to “field” (cf. German, “Feld”).


  4. A clever Yiddishism, a mashup of פלד, (peled) meaning framework, skeleton or support, and קרס (karas), meaning bent or folded. Both are biblical words, appearing as פלדה (scaffold) and קרסל (ankle). It seems the man’s very name ordained him to his life’s work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s