A verbal portrait of our time

The original Duden published in 1880 contained just 27,000 entries, whereas the 2020 edition totals an incredible 148,000 terms. There are 140 years between them, and no doubt many of the terms listed in the first edition would be totally unknown to us today. In the current edition too, some of the older words have had to make way for the new. Among other things, the editors jetiisoned some of the more courtly, old-fashioned words, deleted some technological terms that are simply outdated and got rid of some linguistic creations that are no longer the language of the modern day. Only a few have been removed, but there are plenty of new arrivals.

Corona is nothing new to the Duden, but there are some pretty cool composite nouns joining the ranks

Corona was already listed in the reference book, but only as a female first name – no doubt an unlikely choice for parents in the future. As was to be expected, the pandemic has left its mark on this year’s version of the dictionary. New entries include anglicisms used in the German language, such as social distancing and lockdown, Covid-19 and German words for face covering, herd immunity, the reproduction number and the term ‘home office’, a ubiquitous term with so many people now having to work from home. The word Geisterspiel is used to refer to a match played behind closed doors, whereas this is not by any means a new concept, it has acquired a whole new meaning in times of Covid-19.

The yellow dictionary has also found a place for German terms coming out of the Fridays for Future movement, not surprising really when microplastic is threatening the oceans and insect populations are declining. The latter has been given one of those clever one-word terms in German: Insektensterben. How long is it likely to take English speakers to pick up that word as they did some 40 years ago with Waldsterben? And the green community’s demands are reflected in the inclusion of “eco” terms in German – for example, pesticide-free nutrition and the longing for more bee-friendly landscapes. When we think of our carbon footprint, we suffer from flight shame – a term the BBC even looked into in September 2019 – and hope that, together, we will master the climate crisis. But the air will not be clear until the diesel affair is fully put to rest.

The German language fading away

The full title of the first edition of the famous Duden dictionary in 1880 was: Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language. A lot has happened since then, including digitisation, which has already blessed us with countless anglicisms. And more have now been added. We’re constantly busy liking Netflix series, adding winky smileys to our comments in our WhatsApp groups, following influencers and using upload filters. We no longer just make appointments but need to doodle them, whiz around the place on our electric scooters, keep forgetting to charge our power banks and find tiny houses cool. A long time ago, cool was a new word to the German language, but it has long since been assimilated. A ray of hope among the jungle of anglicisms is the German term for a cat video, which remarkably is still referred to by its German name – Katzenvideo. Although video is not actually a German term since it comes from Latin.

Of course, some German terms also qualified for a listing in the reference book. While we probably have the hipsters to thank for the men’s chignon and beard oil, roof greening and measles injection very definitely have a different background. And these were accompanied by the term Einlaufkind, a player escort. For those of you who are not avid football fans, they are the girls and boys who walk into the football stadium with the likes of Messi & Co.

And in the case of the three new German terms for hate speech, hate comment and everyday racism, all of which are one of those clever one-word composite nouns, we can only hope that they will soon no longer need to be listed in the country’s most famous dictionary.

When these two girls sit together as older ladies, many today’s new words will no longer feature in the dictionary.