From “Bankrupt Greeks” to “pushback” – The worst word of the year


The title of “worst word of the year” (Unwort des Jahres) is not enviable. It is usually given in neologisms or other words or expressions with a negative connotation, which dominate the public debate and journalistic language and usually indicate abominable behaviors of violence, disrepute, intolerance, violation of human rights or the principles of democracy. Sometimes these words are used to embellish, disguise or unburden a negative behavior from its emotional weight.

This is the case with the English word “pushback” which translates as “push back, push back”. Constance Spice, a spokeswoman for the Committee of Linguists, which declares Germany the “worst word of the year”, explains that when this “repatriation” concerns refugees, it actually “beautifies inhumane behavior, which deprives these people of every possibility to claim the constitutionally guaranteed right to asylum “. In addition, the commission points out, the term downplays the fact that “repatriation” constitutes violent behavior and can have a tragic end, while concealing the responsibilities of those who commit these violent acts.

The composition of the committee

But who are the experts who can decide on all this? They are Professors Constance Spiss (University of Marburg), Christine Cook (University of Magdeburg), Martin Reisigl (University of Vienna), David Remer (University of Trier), and the journalist Aix Catara. Journalist Harald Schumann also took part. It is noted that the committee is not affiliated with a specific political party or educational institution and all its members work without pay.

Everyone can, if they wish, send their own proposal for the “worst word of the year”. For 2021, the committee considered 1,300 different proposals. After the “pushback”, the second place was occupied by the term “Speech Police” (Sprachpolizei), which discredits those who suggest a language without sexism or other discrimination. The term is considered misleading, because it erroneously implies that the opponent of discrimination claims for himself the right to set the rules and enforce them correctly.

Looking back

The “alternative events” of Donald Trump and his supporters had also preoccupied the committee.
The “worst word of the year” was first initiated in 1991 by Horst Dieter Schlosser, a professor of philology at the University of Frankfurt. Every year the committee’s decision is certainly influenced by the issues that dominate the political agenda. In 2019, for example, with the debate on climate change in full swing, the phrase “climate hysteria” was chosen. In 2017, with Donald Trump mediating in the US, the phrase “alternatice facts” stood out, often used by Trump supporters to disorient political opponents (“This is not fake news, but alternative facts). »).

Finally in 2012, in times of Euro-crisis, the second place in the list of the worst words of the year was occupied by the expression “bankrupt Greeks” (Pleite-Griechen), which, according to the reasoning of the committee “slanders an entire people – and with it a part of the German population – in an unjust and non-existent way. “

Giannis Papadimitriou (EPD, DW)  

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