In German, no word worse than 'social tourism'

Sozialtourismus sounds innocuous. But according to the jury that named it 'Germany's worst word' for 2013, it's actually insidious.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters/File
A woman looks at the sign of a bus departing from Sofia's central bus station to London via Austria, Germany, and France on Jan. 2. Last year, German worries over immigrants, particularly from Bulgaria and Romania, coming to Germany and taking advantage of social benefits there led to the coining of the word Sozialtourismus, or 'social tourism.' A panel last week dubbed it Germany's 'worst word' in 2013.

Sozialtourismus or "social tourism," sounds innocuous enough – a combination of getting to know other people combined with visiting other parts of the world, perhaps.

But in Germany, it has far less hospitable connotations, which led an independent jury of linguists, media, and cultural representatives to dub it the Unwort des Jahres – literally the "Non-word of the Year," a.k.a. “Germany's worst word" – for 2013.

The "worst word" award is given annually to an expression deemed to have been particularly derogatory, discriminatory, and offensive in an effort to get people to take a more critical look at the language they use – and sometimes misuse.

Sozialtourismum is one. It refers to the fear of poor immigrants from Bulgarian and Romania – mostly ethnic Roma – flooding into German cities and abusing its generous welfare system once the last restrictions to free labor imposed on those two countries were lifted in January. It was the Association of German Cities that set off bells alarms last spring, warning that increased immigration from those countries would bring poverty, illegal behavior, and begging, and would "threaten the social welfare and social peace of German cities."

To describe the phenomenon, the Association coined a new term: Armutseinwanderung, or "poverty migration." It caught on like wildfire.

The debate escalated after the EU labor market opened to residents of Bulgaria and Romania, intensified by economic worries and populist rhetoric.  To stop what politicians and the media were now referring to Sozialtourismus, – so-called foreign "tourists" alleged to be taking advantage of Germany's social services – some politicians called for restricting access to welfare payments. "Those who cheat will be kicked out,” said Horst Seehofer, chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union, sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

But the Sozialtourismus catchword fosters a climate of hostility toward immigrants, especially the poorer, unwanted ones, the panel of eminent linguists said last week when it announced the Unwort des Jahres award in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt.

It reduces immigrants to "social tourists" set on cashing in on, say, family benefits, obscuring the immigration that is driven by human despair, and obscuring people's rights to emigrate, said Nina Janich, a linguistics professor at Technische Universität Darmstadt and the jury spokesperson. Sozialtourismus and other widely used expressions, such as Armutseinwanderung, routinely downgraded immigrants, she said.

Past Unwort des Jahres awards shed light light on the way Germany tackles some of society's major challenges, be it immigration or gender role:

  • Back in 1993 the award went to Überfremdung, or "over-foreignization," a word that captured people's fears of the presumed negative impact of migrants in German culture at a time when Germany was debating whether at all it was an "immigration land.” The jury called it a xenophobic slogan.
  • Herdprämie, or "stove bonus," the 2007 winner, was a derogatory way of referring to a proposal by the Merkel government to give families that chose to keep small children at home rather than send them to a daycare center. The linguists felt talking about Herdprämie only strengthened Germany's deeply anchored ideas about gender roles.
  • Döner-Morde ("Döner Murders"), the choice in 2011, continues to be used quite a bit today. It refer to the series of more than nine murders carried out between 2000 and 2006 by a neo-Nazi group. Most victims were of Turkish and Greek origins, and two ran fast-food restaurants selling doner kebabs, better known in the US as shwarma or gyros. The jury said the term trivialized the murders and discriminated against the victims.

The Unwort des Jahres program started in 1991, awarded by the government-backed Association for the German Language (Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache), which also selects the German Word of the Year. But in 1994, a disagreement between the government and the jury led Unwort organizers to take the award independent, in order to prevent government influence.

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