When German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “shitstorm” during a speech this week, it had nothing to do with the fact that she is about to step down as her party’s leader.
While speaking at a digital forum in Nuremberg on Tuesday, Merkel regaled the room with a 2013 incident where she was mocked on social media for describing the internet as “unknown territory.”
Laughing at the online fallout over her comment, she said “Das hat mir einen grosen Shitstorm eingebracht,” which translates as “it generated quite a shitstorm for me.”
Her use of the vulgar English term brewed its very own storm among commentators at the New York Times, the Guardian and the Economist, among others.
According to the venerable Duden dictionary of the German language, the word is defined as “a storm of outrage in an Internet communication medium that, in part, goes along with offensive utterances.”
“So, its meaning corresponds to the English ‘online firestorm,’ and it does not have the vulgar meaning and associations that ‘shitstorm’ has in English,” Melanie Kunkel, an editor at Duden, told CNN.
She explained that the word entered common parlance “within a few years.” In 2011, its popularity won it the title of “Germany’s Anglicism of the Year,” prompting Duden to add the word in 2013 due to its “common use,” Kunkel said.
“The word fills a gap; it describes a phenomenon which has arisen with the widespread use of social media – a phenomenon for which we have, indeed, no German equivalent.”
Languages are constantly borrowing words from each other. Sometimes a word’s wholesale appropriation will retain its original meaning – such as the German word Wanderlust in English, meaning a strong desire to travel. On other occasions, however, meanings evolve.
The head of media relations at the European Central Bank even said on Twitter that he has been explaining for around five years to German colleagues that the word “isn’t really ok in English.”
Merkel certainly seems oblivious to its ruder interpretation. In 2012, she used the term during a discussion with former British Prime Minister David Cameron to describe the eurozone crisis.
While the English language has appropriated a number of German words – including “uber,” “schadenfreude” and “poltergeist” – linguists believe the German lexicon has adopted a larger number of English words.
“There have been (English) loan words from the 19th century onwards… but it really increased with the growth of Anglo-American culture and the American occupation of Germany” after World War II, Nicola McLelland, a professor of German and history of linguistics at the UK’s University of Nottingham, told CNN.
She added that “some portions of the German population feels quite excluded by advertising using slogans and labels” with some English words, which they find hard to follow.
This weekend, Merkel will watch as her party, the Christian Democratic Union, meets to elect a new chairperson after nearly two decades under her leadership. She also announced in October that her current fourth term will be her last and she won’t seek re-election in 2021.