Pandemic Inspires More Than 1,200 New German Words

Mar 6, 2021
Originally published on March 8, 2021 4:09 pm

The pandemic has changed how people talk and write. In English, dictionaries have noted a few dozen new entries and revisions: social distancing, frontliner, super-spreader, "Zoom" as a verb.

But in Germany, lexicographers at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language have compiled more than 1,200 new words related to the coronavirus pandemic.

German's propensity for compounding words has been a big part of the proliferation.

For example, Coronamutationsgebiet is an area where coronavirus mutations are widespread. A Geisterveranstaltung (ghost event) is an event with no people in attendance, usually sports. Live music is allowed, provided the audience remains in their cars, at an Autokonzert.

New nouns are often formed in German by combining two or three nouns, says Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor of linguistics at the Freie Universität Berlin.

"That's one of the explanations for why we find so many new words," he tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition. "It's just so easy to coin them. Many of these words disappear again after they've been used once. But some of them have stuck around."

There are several variations on "face mask."

Mundschutzmode includes "Mund for mouth, Schutz for protection and Mode as a term for fashion. So a literal translation would be mouth protection fashion," Stefanowitsch says.

But Germans have also referred to a Gesichtskondom — a "face condom," which he notes creates a "novel image" in your head. Behelfsmundnasenschutz would be an "improvised mouth nose protection."

Maulkorb, or muzzle, is not on the list of new words. But people opposed to mask requirements are using the word muzzle in a new way: "to portray adherence to sensible public health measures as an act of submission under an authoritarian government," Stefanowitsch says. "So that's been a stroke of genius from their perspective."

Only a small fraction of new pandemic words will likely make it into the dictionary. He thinks the ones that are most precise have more lasting potential.

"Kontaktbeschränkungen, contact restrictions, and Ausgehbeschränkung, going out restrictions, those are interesting," he says.

"One of the things that the pandemic has really shown us is that people have been trying to differentiate linguistically, trying not to use too strong a word for a measure but also not trying to make it sound too harmless. And so I think those words, they're interesting, because they show the function of language and the potential of language to create ever smaller distinctions in meaning to try to get things exactly right."

There's also a deeper emotional aspect of all this new language, according to one of the researchers at the Leibniz Institute.

"When new things happen in the world [we] look for a name," Christine Möhrs told The Guardian. "Things that do not have a name can cause people to feel fear and insecurity. However, if we can talk about things and name them, then we can communicate with each other. Especially in times of crisis, this is important."

Peter Breslow and Kitty Eisele produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A few new words and phrases have been added to America's vocabulary during this pandemic - lockdown, social distance, face mask. But in Germany, they've coined something like 1,200.

ANATOL STEFANOWITSCH: My name is Anatol Stefanowitsch, and I'm a professor of linguistics at the Freie Universitat Berlin.

SIMON: That's Free University of Berlin. Professor Stefanowitsch says that the German language's propensity for compounding words is a key to this pandemic proliferation.

STEFANOWITSCH: Putting together two, sometimes three nouns to form a new noun - that's one of the explanations for why we find so many new words. It's just so easy to coin them. Many of these words disappear again after they've been used once, but some of them have stuck around, of course.

SIMON: There are lots of variations on face mask.

STEFANOWITSCH: Mundschutzmode - OK, so that's one of these long compounds where you have Mund for mouth, Schutz for protection and Mode as a term for fashion. So a literal translation would be mouth protection fashion.

SIMON: Or mouth condom.

STEFANOWITSCH: Gesichtskondom, yes. It's another compound that just puts together two words that are familiar and creates this novel image.

SIMON: Novel - yeah, yeah, that's the word.

STEFANOWITSCH: Another long one that you're going to like is Behelfsmundnasenschutz, an improvised mouth-nose protection.

SIMON: Some words are created to try to frame the pandemic politically, as in this face mask variation.

STEFANOWITSCH: And it's the word Maulkorb, muzzle, and that has enabled certain people who are critical of the actions that the government has taken to curb the pandemic to portray adherence to sensible public health measures as an act of submission under an authoritarian government. So that's been a stroke of genius from their perspective.

SIMON: Professor Stefanowitsch says only a small fraction of these new pandemic words will likely make it into the dictionary. His vote is for the ones that are most precise.

STEFANOWITSCH: Kontaktbeschrankungen, contact restrictions, and Ausgehbeschrankung, going out restrictions - those are interesting. I mean, one of the things that the pandemic has really shown us is that people have been trying to differentiate linguistically, trying not to use too strong a word for a measure, but also not trying to make it sound too harmless. And so I think those words, they're interesting because they show the function of language and the potential of language to create ever smaller distinctions and meaning to try to get things exactly right.

SIMON: And some phrases may stay because they're vivid. That's good for language.

STEFANOWITSCH: Lockdownfrisur, for example - lockdown hairstyle, referring to the fact that because the hairdressers were all closed, the people had these hairstyles that they wouldn't have usually had. Maybe some people are going to keep their lockdown hairstyles because, you know, maybe that's the first time they realized they look better with long hair or something.

SIMON: Linguistics professor Anatol Stefanowitsch in Berlin, who wants to make sure to remind us that...

STEFANOWITSCH: BJ Leiderman (speaking German).

SIMON: Needs no translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.