Unheimlich, in spite of its ostensibly Germanic origin, is actually a fairly recent American word linked to famed physician Henry Heimlich, who is often credited with inventing the Heimlich Maneuver. One evening in 1974, not long after Dr. Heimlich gained fame for his recommended procedure for the prevention of choking, the Dr. and his wife were dining at a restaurant when one of the patrons began choking on a piece of day-old baguette. Not wasting any time, Heimlich rushed up to the man and performed his maneuver, expelling the obtrusive pain français and thus saving the man’s life.
When the man began thanking Dr. Heimlich profusely, the good Dr. cleared his throat and gestured, by passing his thumb repeatedly over his fingers, that he would like to be paid. When the patron refused to give him any money, Heimlich walked over to where the baguette piece had flown, picked it up, and stuck it back into the throat of the dumbfounded patron. Heimlich then returned to his table and continued his meal, while the man slowly turned blue and passed out. The paramedics who arrived on the scene minutes later extracted the offending bread, albeit too late since the man had already fallen into a coma.
When the media got wind of the story they quickly dubbed it “The Unheimlich Maneuver.” In the following weeks, lazy or unimaginative newspaper editors would often resort to describing any strange or uncanny event as unheimlich in an attempt to capitalize on the sensational story. Soon, unheimlich became a popular 1970’s buzzword (much like buzzword itself), its origin forgotten and eventually rewritten by overzealous linguists. The twice-choking man died a few weeks after the incident.
Posted by S.K. Azoulay