Why words come and go

  • 2023-10-06
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
  • Comment
a close-up of an opened duden
© Getty Images/tioloco

Scarcely anyone today uses words like ‘Firlefanz’ (frippery) or ‘hanebüchen’ (scandalous). They tend to be replaced by neologisms. German Studies professor Claudia Wich-Reif explains how some words slip into oblivion whilst others emerge.

It’s not just society, our language too is subject to a transformation. Over the years, this repeatedly results in the disappearance of terms from our active use of the German language. ‘Scarcely anyone now knows words like ‘Firlefanz’ (frippery) or ‘hanebüchen’ (scandalous)’, explains Claudia Wich-Reif, Professor of German Studies at the University of Bonn. The reference work Duden, the best known German language dictionary, has removed various terms from its current edition, including ‘Lehrmädchen’ (female apprentice), Schnürleibchen (corsage) and ‘Fernsprechanschluss’ (telephone connection).

Language as a mirror of society

‘We aren’t normally aware of changes to our language, they just occur’, says Wich-Reif. Yet the reasons for such transformation are often quite simple. ‘Many words fall into disuse because they’re no longer necessary, since we now have more modern words to supplant them’, says the linguist. Which woman would nowadays tolerate being called ‘Weib’ (wench) rather than ‘Frau’ (woman)? Which unmarried woman would genuinely wish to be addressed as ‘Fräulein’ (Miss)? And who still refers to a ‘Blinker’ (direction indicator) as ‘Winker’ (flasher)? That’s right, nobody. 

Words also die out because the devices for which these terms were used no longer exist. This is how words such as VHS cassette, Walkman, telegram or Discman have disappeared from our vocabulary. And of course words are also dropped because they’re no longer politically correct. This category includes terms that were previously used to refer to cultural minorities, but which are no longer used due to their substantive discriminatory nature. These words are often extrinsic designations, that is to say words that are used by an indigenous society to describe or designate another group or member of this group. ‘The reason for these words dying out is societal discussion. This results in major alterations to our use of language – especially when it involves people, and the issue of how we wish to appropriately encounter one another’, Wich-Reif believes.  

Language is therefore subject to a transformation in many respects. And the professor also sees this as positive. She thus considers the phrase ‘German should remain German’ to be nonsense and refers to the word airbag in explanation. ‘The literal translation “Luftsack” wouldn’t adequately explain the concept’, the Germanist feels. ‘Language changes because we use it and we also change, otherwise we’d still be speaking Old High German, which is the initial German language and dates back to around 750 AD.’  

How do words make it into the Duden? (in German)

How do words make it into the Duden? (in German)
How do words make it into the Duden? (in German) ©

Digitisation in particular gives words additional meaning

Words may disappear, but at the same time others are added to our vocabulary. Duden has included 3000 new terms in its current edition, including ‘aufploppen’ (open with a plopping sound), ‘Brexiteer’ (brexiteer), ‘Craftbeer’ (craft beer), ‘Enkeltag’ (a day where grandparents spend time with their grandchildren), ‘Faktenfinder’ (factfinder), ‘Flugscham’ (shame at the ecological impacts of a flight), ‘haten’ (express hateful feelings, especially on social media), ‘Insektensterben’ (decline in diversity and the population density of some insects), ‘Klimakrise’ (climate crisis), ‘Lifehack’ (a useful tip for everyday life provided via the internet), ‘plastikfrei’ (plastic-free), ‘Uploadfilter’ (software that filters the safety of data to be uploaded) and Wiesn (a designation for several public festivals, especially the Oktoberfest in Munich). ‘Our vocabulary has grown dynamically, especially in the fields of technology, climate, the environment, mobility, gender and healthcare’, says Wich-Reif.  

The COVID-19 pandemic alone ensured a veritable explosion in the creation of new words in the German language. The Institute for German Language (Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache) has counted 2500 words, phrases and denotations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. These include ‘Maskenpflicht’ (the obligation to wear a face mask), ‘Abstandsgebot’ (social distancing), ‘Zweitimpfung’ (second vaccination), ‘Super-Spreader’ (highly virulent form of virus) and ‘Zwei-Haushalts-Regel’ (two household rule). The expert has determined that ‘It is primarily new formulations consisting of familiar elements that are most likely to prevail’. Yet at the same time there were some words that were known of old, at least in certain specialist quarters, and that only became known in the general population with the outbreak of the pandemic. COVID wasn’t new to virologists, outdoor catering comes from technical administrative jargon and the word system-relevant is known to experts in system theory. 

Familiar words are meanwhile taking on additional meanings, especially due to IT technology. A virus is therefore no longer merely a pathogen, but can also cause computers to crash. The troll, a demonic being, is also well known. Yet by extension of its meaning, it also designates internet users who seek to annoy others.  

Some neologisms are also pure inventions from journalism. Bild for instance (the largest tabloid newspaper in Germany) is a veritable word slinger. ‘Renten-Hammer’ (pensions hammer), Teuer-Schock (price shock), Inflations-Beben (inflationary quake) emanate from the pen of the writing guild. ‘These are often casual formulations. We only speak of neologisms when they have also been included within dictionaries’, Wich-Reif states. 

Indeed the word ‘sitt’, which is derived from ‘satt’ (well-fed) and is supposed to refer to the state of having had enough to drink, failed to become established. ‘Nobody really uses the term. But apparently it doesn't bother us that we don't have a single word for it’, believes Wich-Reif. Most people obviously classified the word ‘sitt’ under the category of ‘Firlefanz’ (frippery). 

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