As It Happens

Foot greetings and face condoms: Germans coin 1,200 new words about the pandemic

People in Germany have coined more than 1,200 new words related to life under COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the Leibniz Institute for the German Language.

Creating new language helps people make sense of new and scary things, says lexographer

A masked Berliner walks by a sign that says 'Mask on!' during lockdown. Germans have coined several new terms for masks, including 'face condom' and 'face sweater.' (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

People in Germany have coined more than 1,200 new words about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. 

There's coronamüde, which literally translates to "corona-tired," to describe pandemic fatigue. If that doesn't quite cut it, you could go with the more dramatic coronaangst. Either feeling is likely to set in when you're overzoomed from too many video conferencing calls.

"I think we are now in a very extraordinary situation and we have many different new things in our world. And I think when new, very relevant things happen in our world, these new things are looking for a name," Christine Möhrs, a lexographer who has been tracking the new terminology, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"If we can talk about things and have names for them, then we can, I think, communicate with each other, and it's possible for people to have an exchange about the current events and the current crisis. And I think this is a very important human mechanism."

A waitress wears a protective mask in a beer garden in Munich, Germany, in May 2020. Grabbing a beer with friends at a safe distance is called 'abstandsbier.' (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

Möhrs works for the Leibniz Institute for the German Language, which documents German words both past and present.

Her team monitors the press and social media for the proliferation of new terminology. Words that become widespread and entrenched are added to the dictionary.

During an average year, the institute says Germans coin about 200 new words. This last year, thanks to the pandemic, they've come up with six times as many.

"It's a very huge situation with very, very many new things, and so we need many more words for all these things," Möhrs said. 

People stand in line at a barber shop in Halle, Germany, on Monday, the first day it reopened following a hard lockdown. Germans coined the term 'coronafrisur' to describe their hairstyles under lockdown. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

Möhrs says her favourite is fußgruß, which means "foot greeting." Germans will sometimes tap feet with each other in lieu of a hug or a handshake.

"Despite keeping our distance, we humans have a need for closeness," Möhrs said. "So, fußgruß, I think it's not only a nice word, but also a nice thing that happens … in these very difficult times."

Words capture new activities, and feelings

Many of the new words are practical, describing new activities and situations. Abstandsbier, for example, means "distance beer" — grabbing a drink with pals from a safe distance.

There are also several words for "mask," including schnutenpulli, which translates to "mouth sweater," or gesichtskondom, which means "face condom."

Christine Möhrs is a lexographer at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. (Submitted by Christine Moehrs)

Other words, Möhrs says, capture moods and feelings. She cited two terms that have gained prominence during the recent vaccine rollout — impfneid, which means being jealous of people who've been vaccinated, and impfdrängler, a person who somehow skipped the queue and got a vaccine before they're eligible. 

"They are words that show that the mood of the population is currently quite charged," Möhrs said.

While Germans aren't the only people to coin new words during the pandemic — think "covidiot" or "anti-masker," for example — Möhrs says there's something about the German language's precision and use of compound words that lends itself to the expansion of the language.

She has no idea how many of these new words will stand the test of time. Some, like the recent word flockdown — being under lockdown during a snowstorm — are tied to very specific moments.

But whether they last or not, Möhrs says looking at language is a fascinating way to "capture what was formative for a particular time."

"Perhaps we can understand the world and what's happened in this world a little better when we can describe things and use our language in such a way," she said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?