Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language: Storm warning

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The other morning on the wireless (Home Service), Stephen Evans, the BBC’s man in Berlin, mentioned Angela Merkel’s favourite Anglicism: Shitstorm. So I suppose it is quite all right to discuss it here, between adults.

The word has been voted Anglicism of the year by a jury headed by Professor Dr Anatol Stefanowitsch. It beat Stresstest into second place. Both may be linked to the euro-crisis, but Shitstorm in German has a specific field of usage, referring to the kerfuffle that people stir up on the internet until it reaches a critical mass (to use another metaphor), and something has to be done. An example was the criticism of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German minister of defence, who was found to have plagiarised part of his doctoral thesis. In Britain dodgy dossiers are an established part of government, but German disapproval went beyond mockery, and the minister resigned in March 2011.

The odd thing to me is that Shitstorm does not sound particularly English in the first place. The Germans have their own words for both elements of Shitstorm. In Gegen alle Feinde, the German translation of Tom Clancy’s Against All Enemies, we find the phrase ein gewaltiger Sturm von Scheisse rendering the original’s ‘a big shit storm’. It seems doubly odd, from an Anglophone point of view, that we should long ago (1857) have borrowed Sturm und Drang, which we translate as ‘storm and stress’ only to have the Germans borrow stress as part of the compound Stresstest. I think the ordinary German word for stress test is Dauerprüfung.

The Oxford English Dictionary recently revised its entry for shit. It’s bread and butter to them. The second edition of 1989 had repeated the remark of the first (1914, for words beginning in sh-), saying: ‘Not now in decent use.’ Currently it says: ‘Now chiefly coarse slang.’ For shitstorm it gives the double denotation ‘a frenetic or disastrous event’. It adds ‘originally US’ and its earliest citation is from Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948). I am no prude about scatology, but I cannot see myself following Mrs Merkel in letting a shitstorm fall from my lips.