The Oxford Dictionaries’ selection for 2015 Word of the Year — the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji — suggests that British linguists live in a rather carefree world. In other countries, the selections were not as upbeat.
On Friday, the Society for the German Language, or GfdS, published its list of the year’s top 10 words. “Fluechtlinge” — “refugees” — was No. 1. In Russia, a group of academics, writers and journalists led by Mikhail Epstein chose the same word. In Austria, a recent popular vote organized by Graz University’s Austrian German Research Center picked “Willkommenskultur” (“welcoming culture”). Refugees were on many minds in other ways, too: the Austrian No. 2 word was “Intelligenzfluechtling,” or “refugee from intelligence” — a neologism for someone dumb, probably also born of the migrant crisis.
“Flyktningdugnad,” or “refugee volunteer,” is second on the top-10 list of the Norwegian Language Council, and “vluchtelingenhek” (“refugee shelter”) has been shortlisted by the Dutch dictionary group Van Dale (the voting is still going on). “Refugiado” is on the short list of the Portuguese publishing group Porto Editora.
Russia says it has taken in 300,000 refugees from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, bringing the total to 1.1 million. The refugees who dominated the public debate in Germany — the country has accepted 1 million asylum seekers — have mainly passed Russia by, though some have made their way across the vast country on trains and then crossed the Norwegian border on bicycles.
The right-wing Norwegian government doesn’t want them — it has begun an advertising campaign to deter them and it’s even offered to pay asylum seekers to leave. Austria, which receives refugees who have endured hellish journeys by sea to Greece, on foot across former Yugoslavia and then through hostile Hungary, tries to provide some relief. Portugal hasn’t had much of an influx, but even there, there are pro-refugee and anti-refugee demonstrations.
Another recurring theme in the “word of the year” selections is terrorism and its implications. In France, the Festival du Mot’s vote picked “laicite” and “liberte d’expression” (“secularism” and “freedom of expression”), the rallying cries after Islamist terrorists attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January. On the German list, “Je suis Charlie” is No. 2, even though it’s in French. The Dutch shortlist has “cyberkalifaat” a reference to the Islamic State’s Internet success. And Portugal simply has “terrorismo” on the shortlist.
Things seem tougher than last year , when Germany’s top word was “Lichtgrenze” — the memorable line of lit-up balloons placed along the former Berlin Wall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its destruction.
Even the words that reflect purely local concerns are not particularly cheerful. In Russia, “sanctions” took second place, with a new coinage for imported food banned under President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western embargo making the top 10. Germans have “Selektorenliste” (“selectors’ list”) — a database of identifying information on German citizens that the country’s intelligence service shared with the U.S. National Security Agency. And they couldn’t avoid “Mogel-Motor,” or “cheating engine” — a reference to the Volkswagen diesel scandal.
The Oxford Dictionaries picked the happy emoji because it accounted for 20 percent of all the emojis used in Britain and 17 percent of those sent in the United States. The British judges also picked lumbersexuals, denoting a metrosexual who goes for a rugged lumberjackish look. There were fun neologisms elsewhere, too: “pappakropp” (that’s “dad bod” in Norwegian) and “Flexitarier” (German for a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat). Even so, crises apparently are where the linguistic evolution is happening most. Political leaders have a lot of work in 2016 to change people’s preoccupations.
Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky is based in Berlin.