Zeitgeist : Time :: ? : Place
November 3, 2005 12:51 PM   Subscribe

If zeitgeist is the "spirit of the time," what would the "spirit of the place" be?

I'm looking for a word that gets to the particular character of a place. I suppose I could just say "the spirit/character of Benton Harbor" or wherever, just as one could say "the spirit of the 20s." I can't help but think there's some parallel to zeitgeist, and my lack of German leads me to platzgeist. It also occurs to me that the usage of zeitgeist has been or could be broadened to include place as well as time.

Can you suggest a word, English or borrowed (from German or elsewhere)?
posted by cramer to Writing & Language (18 answers total)
Genius Loci.
posted by LionIndex at 12:56 PM on November 3, 2005

posted by cog_nate at 12:59 PM on November 3, 2005

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:02 PM on November 3, 2005

Ortgeist gets a few more hits and (to my sense of the language) would be more appropriate for your purposes.

You could use Gestalt, perhaps. As in, "the Benton Harbor gestalt." But check the meaning to be sure that's what you're going for. Gestalt is a "more than the sum of its parts" kind of thing. The idea that Benton Harbor has this essential nature that could not be reconstituted by putting together its individual aspects (e.g., the weather, the restaurants, whatever).

Also, LionIndex's appeal to latin is good.
posted by jedicus at 1:04 PM on November 3, 2005

Ambiance ("The special atmosphere or mood created by a particular environment") is most commonly used in English in this context (perhaps overused -- cf. real estate ads), although I've also heard milieu and mise-en-scène. (Why do all these terms come from French?)

"Ambience" is a very common alternate spelling. Since there's an "e" in the Latin root, it's not really incorrect.
posted by dhartung at 1:11 PM on November 3, 2005

What's wrong with plain ol' "culture"?

Mis-en-scène has a specific literary meaning (the beginning of a narrative starting in the middle of events) that I think disqualifies it. Terroir is specific to geography. Ambiance is a possibility, but I agree with dhartung that it's overused.
posted by mkultra at 1:17 PM on November 3, 2005


One of the first Google hits for Ortsgeist (note the 's' in the middle; this one would at least be grammatically correct) reads "... der Ortsgeist (genius loci) von Magdeburg ...", so this might be the best bet for your "Zeitgeist : time = ? : place" analogy. Never heard it used, though.

And I'd like to vote against 'Gestalt'. People would probably look at you funny.
posted by mumble at 1:31 PM on November 3, 2005

If you are looking for the closest analogue to zeitgeist, ortgeist is definitely it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:35 PM on November 3, 2005

I like soul, as in, "the soul of Ireland can be found in the pubs of Galway," or some such.
posted by GaelFC at 1:42 PM on November 3, 2005

Is "Platzgeist" a legitimate word in German?

I would use "ambience" or one of its synonyms
posted by rongorongo at 2:54 PM on November 3, 2005

Best answer: Genius loci is exactly what you want except that nobody studies Latin any more, so most people won't know what you're talking about. Ortsgeist, while correct German, is not and never will be English, so forget it. Terroir is used solely in the context of wine (and associated foodie snobberies). Gestalt is not even in the same ballpark. I'm afraid ambiance is about the best you can do among actually existing English words that people actually recognize. But me, I'd stick with "the spirit of (the) place."
posted by languagehat at 3:09 PM on November 3, 2005

For me, the overuse of the word ambiance has kind of changed its meaning to something more manufactured or created, rather than the innate spirit of a place.
I also like "soul".
posted by clh at 3:31 PM on November 3, 2005

Dude! Terroir (as suggested by cog_nate) is perfect! But it's so closely associated with wine that it might not make sense except in the context of "products from a place."

Or, just say "je ne sais quoi" to be really general about it.

On preview, I mostly agree with languagehat but I think there's a chance that terroir might be a little more flexible than that. Mebbe not though.
posted by rkent at 3:37 PM on November 3, 2005

Possibly "the air of" and related expressions might come close?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:46 PM on November 3, 2005

Colloquially, I'd say the closest single-word equivalent would be vibe.
posted by rob511 at 4:02 PM on November 3, 2005

mkultra, I think you are confused about the meaning of "Mise en scène". The beginning of a narrative starting in the middle of events is usually referred to as "In Medias Res" (Latin for "In the middle of things"). "Mise en scène" is french for "putting into a scene". It is usually used in regards to film criticism when refering to the visual style of a scene or shot.

In any event, Genius loci is probably the best equivilent of Zeitgeist that I can think of, as it literally refers to the spirit of the place, as languagehat said.
posted by deafweatherman at 10:36 PM on November 3, 2005

"Mise en scène" isn't really the style, though, as much as the arrangement of physical objects on stage (or in a film shot). I don't think it gets at the "spirit" of anything, just the scenery.
posted by occhiblu at 7:39 AM on November 4, 2005

mkultra, I think you are confused about the meaning of "Mise en scène".

Duh, you're right, total brain fart...
posted by mkultra at 12:23 PM on November 4, 2005

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