‘Lockdown’ voted Germany’s English word of the year

The term "lockdown," which has become common for closures and contact restrictions during the coronavirus crisis, has been chosen as the 2020 "Anglicism of the Year."

'Lockdown' voted Germany's English word of the year
A sign in a Düsseldorf bakery stating that service will continue during the Lockdown. Photo: DPA

“What convinced the jury about the word lockdown, in addition to the central role it plays in the discussion about measures to contain the pandemic, was its rapid integration into German vocabulary,” the panel led by Berlin-based linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch announced Tuesday. 

The term is also used in German compound words like Lockdown-Verstöße (violations of the lockdown) and Lockdown-Lockerungen (loosening of the lockdown).

The similar word “shutdown” refers to shutting down public life rather than on restrictions on freedom of movement, the jury said.

However, it has become less popular than “lockdown,” probably because it can't be used as broadly.

The Anglicism of the Year initiative has recognised “the positive contribution of English” to German vocabulary since 2010. 

Among the terms honoured so far were “influencer” (2017) and “shitstorm” (2011), or the phrase “… for future” (2019).

READ ALSO: Shitstorm 'best English gift to German language'

History of Lockdown

Regarding the history of the use of the word “lockdown,” the jury wrote: “After paraphrases such as 'Maßnahmen gegen die Corona-Pandemie' (measures against the corona pandemic) or 'Maßnahmen gegen die Ausbreitung des Coronavirus' (measures against the spread of the coronavirus) were initially used at the beginning of the pandemic, the word lockdown then quickly spreads from the second half of March.”

Its use sharply increased again in October, just before the country introduced a “Lockdown Light” or partial lockdown which only saw some businesses close but stores and schools stay open.

In English, the word has been in use regularly from the early 1970s onwards, initially for situations in which prison inmates were not allowed to leave their cells for a longer period of time, such as after a riot. 

From the 1980s onward, it also referred to situations in which an entire area was sealed off for security reasons. This meaning is also occasionally seen in German, for example in media reports about rampages at American schools.

However, it was only in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic that the meaning expanded to its current one.

A closed cinema in Stuttgart made a play on words with Lockdown in December. Photo: DPA

Runner-up words

According to the jury, words such as “social distancing,” “superspreaders,” “home office” (though not commonly used as a term in English) and “homeschooling” were also good candidates for 2020. 

With the term “social distancing”, however, there had been a discussion as to whether a restriction of physical contact could still be considered social restriction at all in the communication age.

The term is now being replaced more often by the German compound word “Kontaktbeschränkung” or “contact restriction.”

The word “superspreader” refers to an infected person who passes on the virus to a large number of people. It is also used with a moral undertone when referring to culprits of a particular outbreak.

READ ALSO: Why is Bavaria so concerned about impact of 'American super spreader'?

In 2020, the word “home office” had become a synonym for working at home on a lockdown basis – and there, due to the lack of a study, often rather in the kitchen or living room.

The word “homeschooling,” actually a term for a marginal practice in Germany in which parents teach their children at home in order to keep them out of the state school system, quickly became a catch-all term for school substitute activities by parents or else for teachers teaching via video.

From corona dictators to baby elephants

The Anglicism of the Year joins the ranks of the other international linguistic annual reviews. As Germany's “Word of the Year” 2020, the Society for the German Language in Wiesbaden already chose “corona pandemic” on November 30th.

On January 12th, the term “corona dictatorship” was proclaimed “Unword of the Year” by a jury in Darmstadt.

READ ALSO: 'Corona dictator' named one of Germany's ugliest words of the year

In German-speaking Switzerland, “Systemrelevant” was named word of the year, followed by “Maskensünder” (sinner who doesn't wear a mask) and the verb “stosslüften” (impact ventilation).

In Austria, “coronaparty” was the Unword. “Babyelefant” was the word of the year.

The animal's imagined size is supposed to describe the recommended distance in times of pandemic.


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10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.