Downtime

Hamsterkauf! Coronazeit! There’s a German Word for Your Pandemic Experience.

Slate

During the otherwise Nietzschean abyss of the early pandemic, one of the few bright lights was a German word: Hamsterkauf, which first emerged during World War II and began circulating in German media last March. Literally “hamster buy,” this coinage described the act of succumbing to our basest animal-brain instincts to hoard more necessities than we would ever actually need, much like the eponymous rodent’s proclivity to stuff its bucktoothed visage until its overfed little keister gets stuck in a tunnel and it suffocates.*

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Ah, those delightful Germans! Always with the single word that describes a very specific thing that any normal language would never have a single word to describe! Well, unsurprisingly, the Hamsterkauf was just the Eisbergspitze. Over the past year, German has coined some 1,000-plus new terms endemic to the Now Times—ironic capitalization, by the way, being an annoying method that English speakers use to create new language.

Speaking of which: Unlike English, whose own recent neologisms often read as nonwords that are only cute the first time you encounter them—coronasomnia, situationship, pandammock (all right, that last one was something I made up just to describe the hammock I got in quarantine)—German’s COVID lexicon just looks … German. And that’s thanks to the language’s rules of compound noun formation, which dictate that you can make a new, longer legitimate word out of almost any existing ones. (For a country that makes you choose your children’s names off a preapproved government list, this has never ceased to amaze me.)

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Now, to really make a decent German compound noun, you have to either memorize a very long if-then chart, be a native speaker, or have what’s called a Sprachgefühl—literally “language feel,” or an instinct for what sounds right. But for a semi-workable shortcut, it comes down to this: You start with two nouns, or an adjective and then a noun (with the adjective first, as per another lengthy set of rules about word order), and then maybe you add a verb (or a verb turned back into a noun!)—and then you stick ’em all together. Simple, ja? Now here comes the tricky part: Often you have to put in connecting letters, and which letter you use depends on the smaller words’ last letters; this will ostensibly make your big new word easier to pronounce.

So take for example this word I’m making up right now to describe a certain type we all know and loathe: ein Maskenarschloch. I’ve taken the word die Maske (mask), put an “n” connector in there as per the rules for words ending in “e,” and then tacked it onto the word Arschloch (asshole, itself a compound word in their language and ours).

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Shockingly, Maskenarschloch (MOSK-uns-ARSH-lok) is not one of the words on this exhaustive list of German COVID-era coinages. There’s already a magniloquent viral Twitter thread in appreciation of new superstars such as Impfneid (vaccine envy)—but what about the particular cacophony of imperious voices bickering over how (or when, or if) to relax social distancing and lockdown measures? That’s an Öffnungsdiskusionorgie (OOF-nungs-dee-skoo-ZEEONS-or-ghee), literally an “orgy of discussions regarding opening,” which is coincidentally also the only orgy it’s currently safe to attend.

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Then of course there’s the ol’ socially distanced drink, or Abstandsbier (AHB-stonds-BEE-uh, or “distance beer”), which carries with it the many connotations of the word Abstand, including “gap,” “interval,” “empty space,” and “difference,” truly encapsulating just why chugging a Godforsaken Beck’s on a frigid sidewalk whilst avoiding small talk might be an unsatisfying Quarentänebruch (KVAH-ren-TAYN-uh-BRUK), or quarantine violation. If, however, quarantine violation is in fact your jam, then you just might be part of the Querdenkenbewegung (KVAYR-den-kun-bu-VAY-gunk), or “thinking askance movement,” which is German for “some putz who equates a 4-inch piece of cloth to the literal Holocaust” and, like its American numbskull counterparts, is an entry portal to a vast conspiracy theory multiverse—and hey, theirs also starts with a Q!

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And sure, you likely have plenty of words in your current lexicon to describe Ted Cruz, but here’s a new one: Risikoeinreisender (REE-SEE-koh-AYN-RYE-sun-duh), literally “risk-arriver,” aka one who tromps undeterred into another country straight from an outbreak-rich region without regard to whether he might infect the entire staff of his $309 cabana at the Cancún Ritz-Carlton. (Hopefully the check-in counter at said Ritz-Carlton was already equipped with my personal favorite of this entire Teutonic enterprise: a clear fiberglass Spuckshutztrennscheibe (SHPOOK-shoots-TREN-shy-buh)—literally “spittle-protection separation pane.”)

While it’s always fun to see exactly which surprisingly singular phenomena have heretofore claimed their own German word, I think that the nomenclatures of the Coronazeit (ko-RO-nah-TSITE) are particularly resonant for non-German-speakers because this really is a singular moment in time (I hope), one whose singularity everyone understands, but nobody enjoys.

Even I, a blasé Germanist, could ruminate all night on such lexicographic majesty as Geisterspieltag (GUY-stuh-SHPEEL-tak), literally “ghost game day,” or the practice of playing Fußball in an empty stadium. But alas, I don’t have time for all 1,000-plus words, given that my daughter has been in Zoom school for a year and possibly just set something on fire. But here’s one new German word that even I don’t really understand: Coronakindergeld (koh-RO-na-KIN-duh-gelt), the ongoing financial support for parents stuck at home with their kids.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2021: This piece originally misstated  that Hamsterkauf was coined during the COVID-19 pandemic. The word first appeared during World War II and then reappeared during the pandemic.


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