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When you learn a language, you are not just learning the words and phrases that make up that language; you learn about the culture of the country it’s spoken in, too. In fact, you can learn a lot about a country’s culture and politics from its words alone.
There’s no better example of this than the publication known as the Wort des Jahres – the Word of the Year. This is published at the end of each year by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS), otherwise known as the Association for German Language. Each year, one word is named the Wort des Jahres, along with 9 other German words that have been widely used in Germany over the year.
Some of the words might be new, and others might be significant for cultural or political reasons.
Here’s the list for 2014!
WORT DES JAHRES 2014
1. Lichtgrenze: Light border.This refers to the light installation placed along the exact route of the former Berlin Wall, to mark the 25 year anniversary of its fall. It’s not really surprising that this is the Wort des Jahres. If you like, you can read my post on it here.
2. Schwarze Null: Black zero.This is an expression used in accounting to describe the situation where you’re not making any money, but not losing any, either. It refers to the German government’s efforts to achieve a balanced budget in 2014.
3. Götzseidank: Thank Götze. Götze is the footballer who secured Germany their win in the 2014 World Cup. This is a clever play on the German phrase Gottseidank, which means “Thank God”.
4. Russlandversteher: Russia sympathiser. This word refers to the German debate about Russia’s annexation over Crimea. Apparently, nearly 40% of Germans endorse it. Those who sympathise with Russia, however, are called Russlandversteher. This is a slightly derogatory term similar to the word Frauenversteher, a man who understands women more than he does men. In other words, a man who is a bit soft, or a bit of a wimp. There are loads of words like Frauenversteher in German (and now Russlandversteher can be added to the list!). Click here for my post The German Wimp: A Broad Definition to learn more.
5. Bahnsinnig: Train-crazy. This is a mash-up of the words Bahn (train) and wahnsinnig (crazy), and refers to a particularly bad German train strike in 2014.
6. Willkommenskultur: Welcome culture. This word is related to issues surrounding German immigration. Amongst other things, it describes the way the government welcomed highly qualified foreign workers to come and live and work in Germany. Take a look at this BBC news article if you’d like to know more.
7. Social Freezing: Well, Germans love their English! This fake English term refers to Apple and Facebook’s controversial plans to give their female employees the chance to freeze their eggs free of charge, should they not want children now but decide to have them later on in life.
8. Terror-Tourismus: Terror tourism. This refers to the 270 or so German-Muslim youths who travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war in 2014, and the debate over whether letting them return to Germany posed a threat to the country’s security.
9. Freistoßspray: Free kick spray. Another football term used to describe the new way the referee sets the free kick area in football: Using a special spray.
10. Generation Kopf unten: Generation head down. Nah, this isn’t describing hard-working German students with their heads firmly stuck in textbooks, but rather the way German youths walk with their heads down all the time because they’re constantly looking at their smartphones.
UNWORT DES JAHRES
As well as the top 10 words of the year there is the Unwort des Jahres – the ‘Un-Word of the Year’, which goes to a German word deemed disrespectful, negative or otherwise offensive, and that has also been prominently used during the year.
The Unwort des Jahres for 2014 is: Lügenpresse: The lying press/media.
This word refers to anti-immigrant parties calling on the media to tell the ‘truth’ about what’s happening in Germany. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the anti-immigration group known as PEGIDA staged a rally in the German city of Dresden, where they apparently chanted, “Lügenpresse, halt die Fresse!” (“Lying press, shut your mouths!”). The word Lügenpresse was also used during the Nazi era, so it already had very negative connotations.
A list of words really can teach you a lot about a country and its culture. Based on this list of words, what are your impressions of Germany right now? Does anything stand out for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!