A Single Word Speaks Volumes for Germany

A list of new terms shows what's on people's minds: A 'Sparpaket' battles 'Haushaltslcher'

For some time, I've thought that it would be useful to Monitor readers if our bureaus around the world could each produce a list of 10 words or so that really encapsulate the countries in which they work.

Now I see that the German Language Society has already done my part of this project. As each year closes out, the society, based in Wiesbaden, Germany, announces a "Word of the Year."

The Word of the Year for 1996 was Sparpaket - an excellent choice. Literally it is "savings package," or as we usually say in English-language polit-speak, "austerity program."

It refers to the government's program of spending cuts, tax changes, and deregulation moves intended to get the economy out of the doldrums.

Sparpaket was in headlines throughout the year. For anyone interested in checking in on how Germany is doing, with time to grasp only one concept, I recommend Sparpaket.

And although the German language has a (deserved) reputation for long words, note that Sparpaket is shorter than its English counterpart, and laudably concrete, rather than abstract. As a metaphor - a government program seen as a package of different measures dumped into the same carton, tied up with string, shipped out, and unwrapped at the other end - it was not bad.

Runners-up for Word of the Year were Haushaltslcher, for budget gaps, and Lohnfortzahlung, which was headlinese for "continued [full] payment of wages in case of illness." Germany needed a Sparpaket, Chancellor Helmut Kohl kept telling the people, because there were so many Haushaltslcher - you see, you're almost fluent in German! It wasn't always clear each time we heard about a budget gap whether it was a new one, or an old one that was being revised. Cutting back on Lohnfortzahlung was supposed to help close the budget gap, but the government's efforts here were a notable failure.

The Word of the Year - or actually words, since there are 10 each year - are chosen to reflect the spirit of the times. The words are not necessarily the elevated language of the serious newspapers, who evidently operate without a German equivalent of Strunk & White to tell them, "Omit needless words!"

Clever coinages and puns make it onto the list with regularity. Two favorites from years past: Ostalgie refers to nostalgia for the good old days of East Germany, or Ostdeutschland (1993). And Besserwessi refers to know-it-all western Germans - a pun on Besserwisser (know-better or know-it-all) and Wessi, western German (1991).

There is also an Unwort of the Year, announced Jan. 28. My dictionary renders "Unwort" as "taboo word," a word so awful you hardly want to call it a word. The Unwort for 1996 was Rentnerschwemme, or "glut [literally 'flood'] of pensioners." Germany has a low birthrate and a high proportion of senior citizens. The country is facing a social-security crunch even more severe than the one Americans have been discussing for years.

But the six-member independent jury, headed by Horst Dieter Schlosser at the University of Frankfurt am Main, that selects the Unwort, objected to the choice of metaphor that was implicit in the term. "This verbal image," the jury said, "conveys the false and inhumane impression ... that what's involved here, the increased number of people with a right to an appropriate support in old age, is an unforeseeable natural disaster [flood] requiring 'unpopular' emergency measures," rather than a predictable demographic development.

The German Language Society used to determine the Unwort as well as the Word of the Year, but in 1991 the society ran afoul of the government by criticizing a term the chancellor himself had used. The federal Interior Ministry, which supports the society financially, took exception. Since then, Professor Schlosser, in his academic sanctuary at the university, has been in charge of the Unwort. "But he's one of our members, so it's not all that separate," says Anja Steinhauer, a linguist at the society.

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