Zeitgeist

[ tsahyt-gahyst ]
/ ˈtsaɪtˌgaɪst /

noun German.

the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What does Zeitgeist mean?

The Zeitgeist is the collective attitude or outlook of people or a culture at a specific point in time.

Zeitgeist can be used in discussion of the current moment, a narrow period of time  in the past, or a broader period or era. Literature and other media are sometimes said to express the Zeitgeist of the time they were created in or of a past period of time. It is sometimes lowercased (zeitgeist).

Example: The Zeitgeist at the time was a feeling that anything was possible.

Where does Zeitgeist come from?

Zeitgeist is borrowed from German and literally translates to “time spirit” or “spirit of the times.” It comes from the German zeit, meaning “time,” and geist, meaning “spirit” or “ghost” (as seen in poltergeist, which means “a noisy ghost”). The term was originally used by German philosophers in the 1800s, including Georg Hegel and Johann Goethe. One of its first known uses in English came in an 1848 book by British literary critic Matthew Arnold, who often discussed Goethe in his work.

Zeitgeist may still be used in philosophical discussions, but it is perhaps more popularly used in observations about what people are or were feeling during a particular moment of time. It is especially used in discussions of public attitudes and cultural shifts during past periods, which are easier to identify and analyze with hindsight. Sometimes it is applied to an entire era, such as the Victorian era, whose Zeitgeist is often described as being focused on industrial progress. It is often applied to decades. For example, the Zeitgeist of 1980s America is often said to have been a preoccupation with wealth and consumption. Sometimes, Zeitgeist is used in discussion of how it changed, as in The free loving Zeitgeist of the early ’60s was soon replaced with anxieties driven by assassination and war.

Zeitgeist is often used to discuss particular works of art that are considered to have skillfully represented the prevailing outlook of a certain time, such as books, music, and movies, as in The film perfectly captures the Zeitgeist during the tech boom of the early 2000s.

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How is Zeitgeist used in real life?

Zeitgeist is often used in observations about cultural trends and in statements about media that are said to have captured the overall feeling of an era.

 

 

Try using Zeitgeist!

Is Zeitgeist used correctly in the following sentence?

The musical Zeitgeist of the 1980s was dominated by flashy performances and flamboyant fashions.

Example sentences from the Web for Zeitgeist

British Dictionary definitions for Zeitgeist

zeitgeist
/ (ˈzaɪtˌɡaɪst) /

noun

the spirit, attitude, or general outlook of a specific time or period, esp as it is reflected in literature, philosophy, etc

Word Origin for zeitgeist

C20: from German, literally: time spirit; see tide 1, ghost
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist
[ (tseyt-geyst, zeyt-geyst) ]

The general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era; Zeitgeist is German for “time-spirit.” For example, the Zeitgeist of England in the Victorian period included a belief in industrial progress, and the Zeitgeist of the 1980s in the United States was a belief in the power of money and the many ways in which to spend it.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.