New German words capture new realities of pandemic life

Even in virus-free times, German words are exceptionally evocative. German speakers are able to express themselves so specifically because of one of the quirks of the language: compound nouns. In German, multiple words bunch together into one lengthy megaword. Sometimes, these single words stray far from the literal meaning and capture common human experiences, such as the classic Schadenfreude—made of Schaden, which means harm, and the word for joy, Freudewhich means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.

Treppenwitz (literally “stair joke”) refers to a comeback that you only think of after leaving someone’s house; Drachenfutter (“dragon food”) is a penitent meal you may have to cook for a loved one if they’re furious with you. Luftschloss (“air castle”) is a faraway dream that’s unattainable, and Ringrichterscham (“boxing referee shame”) is the embarrassment felt when in the presence of a couple who are bickering. Backpfeifengesicht (“face in need of a fist”) describes a particularly punchable face—a word that was once applied to Ted Cruz.

These compound nouns are constantly forming and evolving based on the circumstances, so naturally, the COVID-19 era has produced many new ones. While English speakers have somewhat expanded our vocabulary with phrases such as social distancing, flattening the curve, and herd immunity, German has recorded about 1,200—and they’re having more fun with them. One way to refer to masks, for example, is Gesichtskondom, meaning “face condom.”

While many of these words seem long, they are so exact at expressing what they mean. Germans say Spuckschutztrennwand for an “anti-spit partition,” while English speakers have to inexactly describe: “temporary, plexiglass plastic wall to shield spit.” Coronafußgruß is a “corona foot greeting,” which gets at not being able to say hello in the normal way, as does Ellenbogengesellschaft, which refers to the new reality as an “elbow society.” Better that than to receive the Todesküsschen (“kiss of death”), a cheek kiss that’s the typical greeting in some parts of Germany but which may now contain virus particles.

Many of these words were shared with Fast Company by online language educator Babbel, but about 1,200 have been compiled by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language, which documents new vocabulary every year. These 1,200 were found in print across the German-speaking world over the past year, so they’re not necessarily part of everyday language, but the institute is monitoring them to see which spread more generally into day-to-day-speak.

German has captured many of the new oddities of pandemic lifestyles. It has words for a socially distanced beer, Abstandsbier; corona hairstyle, Coronafrisur; and “cuddle contact,” someone you may break distancing protocol for, Kuschelkontakt. A Geisterveranstaltung is a “ghost event,” such as sports matches that have no attendees. They call an essential worker an Alltagsheld, or an everyday hero. Someone who’s gone out of their way to shop for the needy is known as an Einkaufsheld, or shopping hero.

Even pre-pandemic, Germans knew the art of the insult and applied it with such relish and inventiveness. Ways of saying idiot, for instance, include Evolutionsbremse (someone who puts a brake on evolution), Arschgeige (butt violin), and Teletubbyzurückwinker (someone who would wave back at a Teletubby). There is a whole catalog of words for wimp, known as Weicheiwörter, or “soft egg words,” including Warmduscher (one who showers warm), Sitzpinkler (one who sits down to pee), Sockenfalter (one who folds their socks), Beckenrandschwimmer (one who swims on the edge of the pool), and Handschuhschneeballwerfer (one who wears gloves to throw snowballs).

The art of the insult has gotten even better in coronavirus times. Covidiot is the closest we have in English to describe someone defiant against COVID-19 rules, but it really doesn’t come close to Nasenpimmel, “nose dick,” identifying a nose hanging out of a mask because the person hasn’t covered the whole of their face. Someone who hoarded goods at the start of the pandemic was disparaged as Klopapierhamster, or “toilet paper hamster.” Similarly derogatory is “balcony clapper,” Balkonklatscher. An Austrian magazine reported that a Berlin nurse said these clappers should “put their applause elsewhere, because it changes absolutely nothing.”

An op-ed in Der Spiegel, whose author admitted she loves compound nouns and found the list almost poetic, discussed how Germans have always been adept at making up these words, but added that at times of crisis, that talent exposes flaws elsewhere—including in the handling of the coronavirus. She said that in creating these words, her country is like a management company, “which works better in controlling, regulating, documenting, i.e. bureaucratizing, than in acting,” she wrote. She lamented that “the government administers solutions; it does not solve problems.”

Probably the best COVID-19 compound words are the ones that have slightly adapted existing German words to get at new, shared human experiences. Niesscham, “sneeze shame,” refers to the shame you feel when sneezing in public, a tweaking of Flugscham, the shame of flying when it’s environmentally costly. And then there’s Impfneid, or vaccine envy, a take on Futterneid, or food envy.

Speaking of food, here’s one we can all relate to. In normal times, Germans talk of Kummerspeck, literally “grief bacon,” the all-too-relatable experience of drowning our sorrows by going to the fridge and eating something fatty. Now we’re doing the same but calling it Lockdownspeck: lockdown bacon.

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