What is the meaning of Saumensch in The Book Thief?

Quick answer:

The German word Saumensch means "sow person," in reference to a female pig. However, in The Book Thief, this insult is used by Rosa as a perverse term of endearment for Liesel.

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The German word sau means a sow (a female pig) while mensch means person; therefore, Saumensch is an insult directed at a girl or woman, calling her a pig (similar in English when a woman is called a "bitch," in reference to a female dog). To compare a person to an animal is one of the most common types of insult in any language, particularly for women, and the word is a fairly vague term of abuse in German.

In The Book Thief, Rosa calls Liesel a Saumensch. Initially, the word functions as a conventional insult, but its meaning in context changes over time, as Liesel comes to realize that Rosa genuinely cares for her. The use of the word then becomes a comforting idiosyncrasy of Rosa's, a perverse way of showing her affection. She later asks Liesel to call her "Mama," but does not stop cursing her even when she demonstrates her love in this way.

The use of the word Saumensch in The Book Thief is a prime example of the way in which words depend on context. This is universally true, but it is a matter of particular importance in this book. Anyone hearing the way in which Rosa addresses Liesel would assume that Rosa is harsh or even abusive. Even Liesel herself thinks this at first; however, her opinion changes as she comes to understand Rosa better.

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