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German word of the day: Das Unwort

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German word of the day: Das Unwort
Photo: DPA
This content was produced independently by The Local and contains advertiser links.
16:44 CET+01:00
An “Unwort” essentially refers to an ugly word, and there were no shortage of them to choose from in an annual competition whose results were announced Tuesday.

One of the strengths of German is how easy it is to create new words to describe anything, be it feeling, concept or actual object. Yet this has often been abused throughout history to the modern day to create negative and often taboo words which reflect rising political or social sentiments.

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This is where the idea of an Unwort comes in. ‘Un’ itself is often added to a noun to connote something unpleasant or unacceptable, much like in English. For example, when Un- is added to Tier (animal) it becomes an Untier, or a monster.

Every year since 1991, German linguists have chosen an Unwort des Jahres (Unwort of the Year) on the principles of going against “human dignity” or the “principles of democracy”. Usually marking a negative trend in politics, such an Unwort discriminates against specific groups or is deceitful or misleading.

2018’s 'Unwort des Jahres'

Linguistics professor Nina Janich announced the “Unwort des Jahres” as “Anti-Abscheibe-Industrie”, or anti-deportation industry, on Tuesday at the University of Darmstadt.

The neologism was first used by Christian Democratic (CSU) politician Alexander Dobrindt during an interview in May. The head of the CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag had described a lawsuit against the deportation of rejected asylum seekers as sabotage of the rule of law.

According to an analysis Tuesday in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the “powerful” term addresses “powerful and deep-seated emotions and fears".

Essentially, "criminals" (which many in the right assume these deported asylum seekers to be) are taking advantage of the German legal system by trying to reverse their deportations. And that the lawyers who help them are also corrupt by earning money on their cases.

Janich said that such a statement by an important politician of a ruling party shows "how the political discourse has shifted linguistically and in substance to the right, and thus also the rules of what’s say-able in our democracy are changing in a precarious way".

In other words, politicians can now getting away with expressing themselves in a less measured way than in the past, using more fear mongering and less logic. This also shows in some of the other Unwörter which were submitted, and initially used in 2018 by conservative politicians, such as Sprachpolizei (language police) and Asyltourismus (asylum tourism).

The former refers to things one supposedly can and cannot say in Germany and the latter is a smug term towards the masses of refugees who come to Europe, as though they descend upon the continent by choice.

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A man photographing the 'Unwort des Jahres' after it was announced on Tuesday morning. Photo: DPA

A record number of submissions

A full 508 words were submitted for the “Unwort des Jahres” competition, which the judges narrowed down to 15 for the final round of the selection process.

For the 2018 competition, the jury received a total of 902 submissions, a record for the competition’s history. Anti-Abscheibe-Industrie was suggested 10 times. It was not, however, the most heavily submitted word. “Asyltourismus” was suggested more than 120 times.

In 2017 the term Alternative Fakten (alternative facts) was chosen, while in 2016 the word Volksverräter (traitor to the people) was selected.

This isn’t the only linguistic competition in Germany. Exactly a month ago on December 14th, the word Heißzeit was announced as the German Word of the Year by the Society of the German Language.

Yet it is also not the nicest word, considering that it refers to both the unusually hot and dry summer that stretched on between April and October in Germany, as well as climate change in general.

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Do you have a favourite word you'd like to see us cover? If so, please email our editor Rachel Stern with your suggestion.

This article was produced independently with support from Lingoda.

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