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Social distancing or hamstering? The Coronavirus effect on English and German

This time last year, if you switched the television on and heard the words ‘self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’ or ‘flatten the curve’, you would be wondering what on earth they were talking about. Yet, here in the UK we now find ourselves sitting down in front of the TV awaiting the 5pm daily update from the Government on the coronavirus – where these words have now become part of our everyday language.

The Oxford English Dictionary has even updated to reflect this change in the English language. Covid-19 has been the only new neologism added, but many terms have been given new topical meanings in reference to coronavirus. In English, we commonly refer to the ongoing situation as ‘the pandemic’. You may not have even noticed that this pandemic has been slowly expanding your vocabulary - after all, every day is a school day whether you know it or not! According to the Corpus analysis of the language of Covid-19, the word ‘coronavirus’ is being used almost 2,000 times more than the word ‘Brexit’ – a word that we were once, absolutely sick to death of hearing!

So, how is this pandemic affecting the German language? Well, in Germany, many of the English terms have been ‘Germanised’ such as ‘die soziale Distanzierung’ and ‘die Selbstisolierung’. However, they have also come up with their own collocation to name the pandemic the ‘Corona-Krise’. That simply does not work in English as ‘the corona crisis’, it sounds almost too colloquial to seriously be referring to the term. Yet in Germany it is different, it can be used formally and it is common practice to add ‘-Krise’ to the end of nouns to describe a crisis, e.g. Flüchtlingskrise (migrant crisis), Wirtschaftskrise (economy crisis).

Have you found yourself guilty of bulk-buying toilet paper or penne pasta? If so, the Germans would refer to this as ‘hamstering’. In Germany, a noun already exists to describe this panic-buying frenzy that set off at the start of the Corona-Krise and that is ‘Hamsterkauf’, which literally means to buy stuff in a manner similar to how a hamster stuffs all the food it can into its cheeks. This is a term that is now being commonly used in Germany and has become part of their everyday language. It is even a verb ‘to hamster’! In fact – if you try to google the word ‘Hamster’ you will find images of toilet rolls amongst the search results!

These are just some examples of how the coronavirus situation has affected language in English and German. It would be great to hear more of an insight from readers of this article on changes you have noticed in language over the last few weeks.

Comments and feedback are warmly welcomed! Stay safe!


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