Germany’s nearly four-month lockdown has entailed no restrictions on the language’s propensity for multisyllabic, often tongue-twisting words. Germans have coined more than 1,200 of them to describe the rules and realities of life in the time of the novel coronavirus.
They’re not alone, of course. Over the past year, languages all over the world have had to expand and adapt to address the pandemic and the lives it has upended. The French adopted “quatorzaine” for a 14-day isolation period, and the Dutch use “hamsteren” to describe a frantic, hamster-paced stockpiling of supplies.
But in German — which has a grammar that lends itself to the forming of long, composite words and which borrows heavily from English — the rate and number of words added during the pandemic have no precedents in recent times.
Social distancing is Mindestabstandsregelung (minimum-distance regulation). Or, to get more precise, Anderthalbmetergesellschaft (one-and-a-half-meter society) for a group abiding by distancing rules. You need ways to cope? How about a little Glühweinstandhopping (hopping between mulled-wine stands) while, of course, paying attention to Mindestabstandsregelungen?
“I can’t think of anything, at least since the Second World War, that would have changed the vocabulary as drastically, and at the same time as quickly, as the corona pandemic,” said Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor of linguistics at the Free University of Berlin. “I can think of many other examples of a huge cultural shift that changed the German vocabulary. But they didn’t happen within a few months.”
Part of the need to find words so quickly is psychological, according to Christine Möhrs, a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. “By being able to talk about the crisis, I think, we reduce fears,” she said. “We can share our insecurities. But that means we have to find many, many new words, because so many things happened during the last months.”
Möhrs and her team have tracked more than 1,200 new coronavirus-related words as part of their ongoing effort to document changes to the language. Many of these words are borrowed from English, a habit Germans have practiced at least since the 1980s, when they started saying “computer” and “email” instead of “Datenverarbeitungsanlage” (data-processing unit) and “elektronische Post” to describe some of their new digital activities.
But aside from such English borrowings as “home office” and “lockdown,” the list of coronavirus-related German neologisms mostly features the traits that German neologisms are generally known for: length and precision.
As in most places, though, their use and meaning are also political. At the start of the pandemic, for example, the prohibition on going outside was called Ausgangssperre (going-out curfew). But German politicians soon realized that was a misnomer, because people could still go outside to exercise, shop for essentials or meet up with another person to go for a walk. The word changed to Ausgangsbeschränkung (going-out restriction) before later being subsumed by the more general English term “lockdown.”
But even “lockdown” was contested, according to Stefanowitsch, the linguist.
“People were saying it’s not really a lockdown, because we’re not actually locked into our homes,” he said. “It sort of became the one word where you could argue about whether or not it accurately describes all the changes that we’ve had to deal with.”
After some restrictions to slow the spread of the virus were eased in the fall, German media started using the term “lockdown light,” while critics of the lockdown’s multiple extensions dubbed the new regimen Salamilockdown, meaning a lockdown that happens in slices rather than at a single stroke. The list of new words that Möhrs and her colleagues compiled includes more than 30 versions of the term.
In recent months especially, with debates over vaccines flaring, words such as “Coronadiktatur” (corona dictatorship) and “Impfzwang” (forced vaccination) have been shared widely on social media and at anti-government demonstrations.
“By using such words, a meaning is suggested that was never intended,” Möhrs said. “Even if a politician says, ‘Vaccines are not mandatory, and there is no Impfzwang,’ the sentence still contains the word,” she said. “When you think about a sentence like, ‘Don’t think about the blue elephant,’ well, the blue elephant is in your mind.”
Möhrs and her team are evaluating hundreds of new words for their list, with frequency of use among the criteria. It will take at least another year or two to determine whether any of them will make it into a dictionary. But Möhrs has some favorites already. The rhyming word “Fussgruss” (foot greeting), for example.
“It shows that we humans want to be connected to each other,” she said. “You put your feet together and say hello.”