I have a digital subscription to The New York Times. The print edition of the Sunday Times alone is just too heavy, never mind the daily bundles, and I skip over a lot of stuff that doesn’t interest me – business, for instance. With digital, you can zero in on what really grabs you. And what grabs me is stuff that I can’t find anywhere else.
Let me give you an example. Melissa Eddy had a piece on the German chancellor Angela Merkel on December 5, 2018, and her use of the word “shitstorm.” The heading was “Some Words Defy Translation. Angela Merkel Showed Why.” Shitstorm, which is capitalized in German, was chosen as the Anglicism of the Year for 2011. It was accepted into the official German dictionary Duden in 2013. The word was official before the First Lady of Democracy put it on her tongue. First, there was the shock of the headline. How does a staid, proper lady like the German chancellor who has carried the freedom of Europe on her back for decades end up using a street word like shitstorm. “I can die happy now that Merkel has used the word,” Anne McElvoy, a senior editor with The Economist, wrote on Twitter.
When I read the article, I realized that shitstorm is not a street word in Germany; it’s a grammatically proper term applied to controversial items on the internet that generate a great deal of discussion. Digital blowback, if you like. It’s an English borrowing, but more restricted, and specific in German, than in English. I lean towards English’s broad understanding of shitstorm, however, rather than the narrower definition of frenzied digital blowback on social media. With waters rising, waters warming, animals disappearing, ice melting, reefs bleaching, fires burning we are entering an environmental, planetary shitstorm. In love and war and language, all’s fair game. German is constantly making inroads into English, so it seems only fair that English sometimes makes inroads into German. We use words like rucksack and angst and kitsch and even kindergarten without even thinking that these words derive from the German. And how about uber and zeitgeist and schadenfreude, the taking delight in another’s sufferings and hardships?
So, yes, let’s be happy that we’ve given the German language shitstorm. Maybe next week there’ll be another foray into a compound word – tweetstorm, for instance, a word that Donald Trump has made infamous and Webster’s accepted into English in January 2019. If German has a genius for compounding, why can’t its offspring (English) have similar genius? In the meantime, I’m chuffed that a venerable paper like the Times with a long pedigree can give space to what some might think is an arcane investigation into language. I can’t quit on a paper that prints a playful meditation on a word.