Germans are practical people (they are famous for it!) and they like to give abstract ideas a shape. This presumably is the motivation behind the German Wort des Jahres, or “Word of the Year.”


In 1971, the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e.V. (Society for the German language) began the tradition of choosing a word that was significant for that particular year. Since 1977, at least one German word has been selected and published annually. This article will present you with an overview of this tradition, as well as some examples of previous winners.


Current Words of the Year


Let’s start with 2015. Which word would you expect to have been chosen? Which was the most important event in Germany, and many other European countries as well? If you guessed Flüchtlinge (refugees), you are correct.


The etymology (or origin) of this word is quite interesting. Very often, German and English words have the same root. The English word “to flee” is an example of this. It is related to the German words fliehen, flüchten, the noun die Flucht (escape), as well as the word of the year Flüchtling (plural: Flüchtlinge). This last one literally means “a person who is fleeing.”


The word was selected due to the massive migration coming from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan to Europe, especially Germany. In 2015, it was the most discussed political topic in the country. In fact, the whole event changed Germany’s reputation in terms of immigration. Prior to this, Germany had never been considered to be a country that a lot of people immigrated to, unlike the US, Canada and Australia. The refugee situation changed this.


As a result, the German population was split into two groups: one that welcomed the refugees and one that reacted xenophobically. It is not clear yet what will be the end result of this process, but one thing is sure: the Flüchtlinge (refugees) have changed the country.


The second Wort des Jahres in 2015 was Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie” in French). This was the slogan created after the assassination of twelve people in the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The idea was to identify oneself with the people who were killed. Within two days of the attack, the slogan had become one of the most popular news hashtags in Twitter history.


The third one is Grexit (“Greece” plus “exit”). At a certain point it seemed that Greece was about to leave the European Union. This exit was discussed a great deal because it would have significantly changed Europe. However, this word was probably not chosen for its content, but instead for the new type of word formation it represented, which also served as a prototype for several other new words. Examples of these are Brexit (Britain + exit, again from the EU), or Schwexit (referring to football player Bastian Schweinsteiger leaving Bayern München).


Notable past Words of the Year


Another interesting Wort des Jahres, selected in 2010, was Wutbürger (angry citizens). This term refers to “normal” citizens who are angry about decisions made by politicians.


This was the case with Stuttgart 21, a movement supported mainly by middle-class citizens, who protested against the planned upgrade of the main Stuttgart station. Among the reasons for this protest were the exorbitant costs, unclear consequences for the environment, and the excessive estimated time frame of ten years, during which half the city centre would be reduced to a construction site. Although the new train station will still be built, this movement made it clear that political decisions often don’t reflect the needs of the people.


In 2005, Bundeskanzlerin (female chancellor), was chosen. This reflected the important event that occurred in 2005, which was the election of Germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel. However, the reason for this word being selected was not Merkel’s election itself, but the new female form of Bundeskanzler (chancellor) that was created as a result.


In general, Germans are very picky when it comes to words describing people. Usually, there must be both a male and female form. For example, a male university student is a Student, while a female student is a Studentin. This is basically true for all words for describing people, including job titles (Manager/Managerin for example).


However, due to the fact that only men had held the office of Chancellor up until 2005, there was no need for the female version of this word until then. It was simply Bundeskanzler. Therefore, the election of Merkel was significant in that is created a need for this new word.


It’s also interesting because now we have a whole set of new linguistic issues. What about the word Bundeskanzleramt, which translates to the “Federal Chancellery” or the place where the Chancellor works? Do we now change that word to Bundeskanzlerinamt? In this particular case, no, we don’t. Instead, the Bundeskanzlerin still works in her Bundeskanzleramt. Quite undeutsch (not German), isn’t it?


The Unwort des Jahres


It did not take too long until new versions of the Wort des Jahres popped up. In 1991, the Unwort des Jahres was created. While the word Unwort doesn’t exist German, the prefix un- does indicate the concept of “opposite,” often with a negative connotation, such as modern/unmodern, interessant/uninteressant, etc.


The Unwort des Jahres is published by Sprachkritische Aktion (Critical Action Group for Linguistic Expressions). This organisation wants to create awareness of inadequate wordings. They focus on words and expressions that are inappropriate or that violate the idea of humanity.


What would you expect to be chosen as a bad, inhumane word for 2015? The Unwort des Jahres 2015 has already been published. Can you guess what it is? It is Gutmensch. And what does that mean? It means “do-gooder,” used pejoratively to mock those who “do good” by supporting diversity, multiculturalism, and the rights of minorities, etc. So, the speaker actually intends to express the opposite of what he or she actually says.


Other versions of the Word of the Year


Since 2008, young people have been able to vote for the Jugendwort des Jahres (Word of the Youth). For example, in 2015 Smombie was selected, which refers to  somebody who walks around like a Zombie while staring at his or her smartphone.


In addition to this, Austria and Switzerland, which are the other two German-speaking countries, began to feel that they were not well represented in the Wort des Jahres. This led them to launch their own Wort des Jahres and Unwort des Jahres. Specifically, the Österreichisches Wort des Jahres (Austrian Word of the Year) was established in 1999.


In 2015, Willkommenskultur (culture of welcoming people) was chosen in Austria. This word describes the actions and attitudes of the thousands of volunteers that helped refugees find a safe life.


The Österreichisches Unwort 2015 is Besondere bauliche Maßnahmen (special structural measures). This euphemism, which was used by the Austrian Home Secretary, actually refers to the long fence erected at the border with Slovenia in order to keep the refugees out of Austria. Used in this context, it doesn’t clearly state what the intention is behind these words.


There is also a Österreichisches Jugendwort des Jahres (Austrian Word of the Youth). In 2015, the Austrianism zach, derived from zäh (tough, chewy, vicious, sticky), was chosen. It is used to refer to difficulties.


However, it wasn’t until 2003 that Switzerland launched its own Wort des Jahres (Schweiz) (Swiss Word of the Year). The first word that was chosen was Konkordanz (demokratie) (democracy by concordance). It refers to the attempts to involve as many people as possible in the political decision-making process. It is typical of the Swiss tradition of grassroots democracy.


In 2015, the judging panel opted for Einkaufstourist (shopping tourist). Switzerland is said to be a high-priced island in middle of a sea of cheaper surrounding countries. For that reason, many Swiss people travel to the neighbouring countries for shopping. I must admit, I can’t see why this is a good word, but that might just be a Swiss secret.


The Swiss Unwort des Jahres 2015 (Schweiz) is Asylchaos (chaos of asylum). Not many refugees ended up going to Switzerland, so talking about chaos was more to invoke fears than to describe reality.


Now, try to imagine what could be a Word of the Year in your country, and post your answers in the comments below.


Image Sources

Hero Image by Ryan Hyde (CC BY-SA 2.0)