The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a linguistic shift across the globe, introducing many phrases to the English lexicon, from “social distancing” to “super-spreader event.”
In German, however, the number of new words inspired by the pandemic exceeds 1,200, according to a list compiled by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. This is a dramatic increase from the normal 200 or so words that annually enter the German language, according to the institute.
The lengthy list, assembled via careful monitoring of new terms as they appear in articles, is due to German’s tendency to combine words together — for instance, “Coronamutationsgebiet,” which is a mashup of the words for “corona,” “mutation” and “area,” and refers to a place where coronavirus variants are quickly spreading.
Other intriguing combinations include the uniquely German “CoronaFußgruß,” which translates to “corona foot greeting” and describes the alternative to handshakes that many were forced to adopt during the early stages of the pandemic. “Gesichtskondom,” or “face condom,” is one of several new words for masks, while “Maskentrottel” refers to a “mask idiot,” or someone who fails to wear a face mask properly. “Abstandsbier” directly translates to “distance beer,” the now-common way of safely socializing.
Christine Möhrs, who worked on the Leibniz Institute list, told the Guardian that, when viewed together, these words reflected the history of the pandemic.
“Things that do not have a name can cause people to feel fear and insecurity,” she said. “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.”
Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguistics professor at Freie Universität Berlin, told NPR and The Washington Post that even though many of these words will likely fade away as oddities borne of a pandemic, the sheer number that had been coined to describe life with COVID-19 was extraordinary.
“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,” Stefanowitsch told the Post. “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.”