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'Zeitenwende' amid Ukraine war named German word of the year

December 9, 2022

The times they are a-changin', or so the German government would argue. It called its foreign and defense policy overhaul after Russia's invasion of Ukraine an "epochal change." Now it is the word of the year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Germany's word of the year stems from a speech Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave in the Bundestag, the German parliament, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in FebruaryImage: Michael Sohn/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Society for the German Language (GFDS) in Wiesbaden named "Zeitenwende" the word of the year for 2022 on Friday after Chancellor Olaf Scholz used it to describe his overhaul of Germany's foreign and security policies following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The word is not new to Germany's dictionary — defined by Duden as "the ending of an epoch or era and the beginning of a new time" — but in 2022 it became a political buzzword. 

What does 'Zeitenwende' mean?

The compound word "Zeitenwende" could be loosely translated several ways, perhaps to "a changing of the times" or an "epochal shift," or, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it in a recent English-language essay, "an epochal tectonic shift."

 In the days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Scholz said in a government statement that Russia's actions marked "a turning point in the history of our continent." 
The German government first used it to refer to its plans to boost defense spending, and later changes to other policies like its rules on exporting weapons to hot conflicts, announced in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

But Scholz and his ministers have also used the term to refer to a broader change in the international order in 2022 and the rush to cut or scale back ties with Russia.

2 — Krieg um Frieden, war for peace

Each year since 1977, the GFDS selects a ranked list of the 10 most memorable words of the year, and 2022's list is undeniably shaped by the war in Ukraine, almost from top to bottom. 

The group's second term wasn't really a word, even by the German language's lengthy standards, but rather three. 

GFDS admitted it was a "seemingly contradictory" choice of phrase, but explained its decision as follows: "For propaganda purposes in Moscow, it is a 'special military operation,' and for many, particularly in NATO, it's simply a war of aggression. But also in political parties with a pacifist tradition, the view has established itself that Ukraine must be supported with weapons, to defend its integrity as a state and later achieve a lasting peace in eastern Europe." 

The most obvious political party GFDS might be referring to here are the Greens. Once an opposition party railing against NATO membership and the presence of US nuclear weapons on German soil, and arguing that even the Bundeswehr's limited international involvement went too far, the party has arguably become the most hawkish voice within the three-way coalition in Berlin. 

3 — Gaspreisbremse, gas price brake

Inflation caused in part by the war in Ukraine, and rising energy prices even more directly related to the conflict, was the other topic dominating the list. 

Germany's prior reliance on natural gas from Russia for electricity put it, like the vast majority of Europe, in a difficult position as tensions frayed further. 

The government currently plans to put a cap on electricity prices starting in January. It aims to guarantee a maximum price of 40 cents per kilowatt hour for around 80% of a typical household's energy usage (the missing 20% is designed to encourage people to save energy), and around 70% of medium or large businesses' needs.

4 — Inflationsschmerz, inflation pain

Inflation was creeping up before Russia's invasion, for an array of reasons mainly tied to the COVID pandemic, but the additional pressure on food and fuel prices threw more fuel on the fire. 

Fourth on the list was the pain of rising prices around the country, a phenonomenon not really seen for decades in Germany. 

After years of the ECB trying and failing to encourage inflation of around 2% with rock-bottom interest rates and other measures, it leapt as high as 10.4% in October of this year, although in the most recent figures it dipped slightly, to 10%.

5 — Klimakleber, 'climate gluers'

A rare entry with no direct links to Ukraine or the cost of living is the alliterative German compound noun "Klimakleber," which literally translates to "climate gluers."

It refers to groups such as Last Generation's climate protests that involve people gluing themselves to roads or other sites of interest, say next to a renowned painting in an art gallery. 

As recently as Thursday, one such demonstration briefly prompted the closure of the northern runway at Munich International Airport. 

To give an idea of how widespread this term has become, particularly in more critical corners, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder's first response to the disruption in Munich was to say how "Klimakleber" were doing harm to their own cause.

The act of throwing food or liquids are paintings in art galleries arguably attracted the most attention late in 2022 though, sympathetic and critical alike.

6 — Doppel-Wumms, double whammy

Wumms! That's the sort of word you might see in a German translation of a 1960s American comic. Pow! Kersplatt! Boink! 

Olaf Scholz, who tends to be a somewhat staid and sober speaker, therefore drew a fair amount of attention in October when he called his plans to put tabs on gas and electricity prices a Doppel-Wumms

Not all the attention was positive though. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland used it as the premise for an op-ed subtitled "how German politics is being infantilized." 

7 — Neue Normalität, new normalcy

COVID-related terms had dominated 2020 and 2021's lists, but the pandemic's own Zeitenwende was visible on the list this year. 

The only COVID term to make the list was "new normalcy," reflecting a next stage in dealing with the virus, with fewer restrictions, shorter quarantines, and fewer deaths as a share of the caseload as public exposure and therefore resistance to the new virus gathers strength. 

Once upon a time, Germany deemed an incidence of 50 COVID cases per 100,000 people over seven days unacceptably high in any local area. This Friday, the nationwide tally stood at 219.9.

8 — 9-Euro-Ticket, you get the jist without our help

As inflation started to bite in the summer, and as tempting people into the post-COVID "new normalcy" proved difficult, the government came up with a one-off idea that proved highly popular.

It was supposed to tempt people back onto buses and trains, perhaps also saving some overpriced fuel as a side-benefit if they left their car at home.

For three months in Germany, people could buy an unlimited monthly national public transport pass — valid everywhere except on high speed trains — for just €9 (around $9.50). 

Turning this into a permanent scheme is one of the demands of the "Klima-Kleber" from the Last Generation group. 

Is Germany's €9-ticket a gimmick or a role model?

The government is trying to establish a permanent project that's less of a bargain: a €49 ticket should come into effect next year as it stands. 

9 — Glühwein WM, mulled wine World Cup

It wasn't deaths building stadiums, stymied protests, or even Germany's shock early exit at the Qatar World Cup that got a mention in the GFDS list. 

The unique timing of the competition, deep in the northern hemisphere's winter to avoid the worst heat in Qatar's summer, had prompted some Germans to suggest combining two favorite winter hobbies: mulled wine and the World Cup. 

As it turned out, the German team was on a plane home soon after the Christmas markets and their mulled wine stands opened, so fans will have to settle for watching the later games in a more neutral capacity. 

10 — Waschlappentipps, wash cloth tips

And finally, we return to German Angst over the cost of living to round out the 2022 list. 

The Green state premier of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, drew a fair amount of mockery with his energy saving tips in August as politicians worried about the security of gas supplies and other electricity with winter approaching. 

In one interview, talking about how to save energy in the bathroom, Kretschmann said: "The wash cloth is also a useful invention," seemingly seeking to suggest to people that not every single shower or bath they take might be completely necessary. 

It's quite hard to argue with the advice on one level, and it was part of a much wider interview about what Kretschmann did at home to save energy, but it's probably safe to say the comment did not come across quite as intended.

Other political parties also jumped at the chance to criticize. The socialist opposition Left Party, for instance, said in response that the Greens "had not even managed to extend the 9-euro ticket" but were now offering "cynical energy saving tips" to poorer people who had already been cutting corners for years. 

ar/msh (AFP, dpa)