Taking shit from the chancellor

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Well, shitstorm, anyway: Melissa Eddy, "Some Words Defy Translation. Angela Merkel Showed Why." NYT 12/6/2018:

Some words can’t be translated easily. But they can cross national borders, lose their original context along the journey, assume different meanings and crop up in unlikely places.

This week, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany proved that point — memorably.

Speaking at a technology conference on Tuesday, Ms. Merkel, known as a staid, no-drama politician, told a self-deprecating anecdote about being widely mocked online five years ago after she described the internet as some mysterious expanse of “uncharted territory.”

She chuckled at the memory of the digital blowback.

“It generated quite a shitstorm,” she said, using the English term — because Germans, it turns out, do not have one of their own.

As Ben Zimmer observed in 2006 ("Taking shit from the president"),

[T]he late New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal exempted presidential swearing from the newspaper's ban on shit during the Watergate era. Rosenthal's obituary in the New York Observer (quoted by a Gawker commenter) tells the story:

When a Watergate tape revealed that Richard Nixon had said, "I don't give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it," The Times printed shit for the first time, though only in the text of the tape, and not in the accompanying news story. 

When a Newsweek reporter called Rosenthal to ask if this was a seismic change in the paper's standards, he replied, "No. We'll only take shit from the President."

But in 2014, the Times repeatedly quoted Barack Obama's admonition to his staff "Don't do stupid shit" as "Don't do stupid stuff" ("Not taking shit from the president?", 6/1/2014).

Melissa Eddy's article notes that shitstorm was accepted into the German Duden dictionary in 2013, and quotes a linguist about its loss of taboo status as a side-effect of borrowing:

The word’s casual use in German is interesting to linguists, given its somewhat taboo nature in English, said Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor of English linguistics at the Free University in Berlin. But taking such a word out of its original context shifts — and softens — its meaning, he said, making its use acceptable in the new language.

“I’m sure she wouldn’t use a direct German translation,” Mr. Stefanowitsch said of the chancellor. “But she can use a word like this in English, because it does not have the associations that have grown over time in the original language.”

Here's a video clip of Chancellor Merkel's speech:


  1. Ben Orsatti said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    Isn't it true that "shitstorm", in German, is restricted exclusively to the internet (i.e. forums, comments, posts, blogs, etc.)? That is to say, a German wouldn't use the word to describe, for example, an overwhelmingly negative newspaper, radio, or television media reaction to a political faux pas?

    Also, I think the English word "shit" is so readily adopted as a loan word in other languages, even in preference to native etymologically-related cognates, because of its monosyllabism. And it's euphonic — It begins with a nice, soft, breathy swoosh, glides into a short "i", and ends neatly in a nice, non-plosive dental consonant. And it can get into places where the other, fiercer, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon ejaculation is not welcome. To wit, by the time I get through the extended middle vowel to the second syllable of "scheiße", my stubbed toe is no longer sounding the alarm, and it just doesn't seem like "le mot juste". Why "mot juste" sounds better than "right word" is something an actual linguist would probably have to explain.

  2. Lukas said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    > Isn't it true that "shitstorm", in German, is
    > restricted exclusively to the internet

    No. It's used similarly to how it's used in English.

    About the larger topic, in general, swearing, whether using native words or imported, is less taboo in Germany than in the US. Whenever I'm in the US, I have to be careful to control my language.

  3. bks said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    Cf. cacafuego

  4. RP said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    I think there are (at least) two issues: (1) the fact, noted here before, that loan-swearwords are less taboo than native swearwords, and (2) the fact you note that swearing is less taboo in some cultures (though there is a risk of sweeping generalisations – acceptability of such words varies by region, social class, age group, the particular social situation and many factors besides which country you're in – there may be many Americans who accept these words just as readily as the Germans you have in mind, and others who don't, or not in all circumstances).

    But German linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch is quoted saying “I’m sure she wouldn’t use a direct German translation". So it's not simply a matter of (2) swearing being more acceptable in Germany, if he's correct.

  5. John F said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    I myself am a bit like Kryten from BBC's Red Dwarf. I'm not overly liguistically prudish in my reading or viewing habits, but I'm much more prudish in my music listening and when it comes to speaking there are some words I can barely get my mouth to form, let alone vocalise.

  6. mdhughes said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 10:15 am

    So the NY Times is at the far end of prudery in the US. Certainly the west and the tech industry are earthier; shit and variants are common and unremarked on (it's basically impossible to discuss tech without "bullshit" or "shitshow"), but you'll still avoid the F-bombing professional situations.

    What I'm wondering about is where those lines are drawn? There's an interesting study from NZ: https://bsa.govt.nz/publications/research/123-2013/6367-what-not-to-swear-the-acceptability-of-words-in-broadcasting-2013

    But I don't see any obvious acceptability of swearing by region studies.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    Interesting example of misnegation in the report linked by mdhughes:

    There is a slight softening for some of the most offensive words with percentages of acceptability moving 1–5 percentage points but they remain high

    Presumably the percentages of acceptability of the most offensive words remained low, not high.

  8. Axel said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 1:09 pm


    > No. It's used similarly to how it's used in English.

    I disagree. It's not used in German in the broader sense of " a frenetic or disastrous event; a commotion, a tumult" (Oxford English Dictionary) but only for a "social media outrage". This narrow meaning was the main reasons for electing it as "Anglicism of the Year 2011". As the jury stated: "Shitstorm fills a gap in the German vocabulary that has become apparent through changes in the culture of public debate.” See also Anatol Stefanowitsch's statement (he is a member of the jury): http://www.sprachlog.de/2012/02/13/and-the-winner-is-shitstorm/ The Duden also offers this definition: "Sturm der Entrüstung in einem Kommunikationsmedium des Internets, der zum Teil mit beleidigenden Äußerungen einhergeht": https://www.duden.de/suchen/dudenonline/shitstorm

    After it was introduced in 2010/2011, it came into widespread use by the media to describe this new kind of protest. That's why I think in this case it's misleading to focus too much on different levels of acceptability of swearing in Germany and the rest of the world. "Shitstorm" is a lean word, it's seen as a technical term for a specific Internet phenomenon, it's heavily used by prestigious news media. Additionally, the Low German "Shiet" is much more socially accepted than the standard German "Scheiße".

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

    Ben O — "To wit, by the time I get through the extended middle vowel to the second syllable of "scheiße", my stubbed toe is no longer sounding the alarm" — Interesting, because for me (a native speaker of British English), I almost invariably use scheiße where others might use "sh*t".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

    Selected readings

    "Fecal compounds" (3/5/16)

    "Insults, insults, and more insults" (11/23/18)

    "Translating Trump" (1/12/18) — on how to render "shithole countries" in other languages

    "Das Wort 'Shitstorm' hat nun einen Platz im Duden" (7/4/13)

    "Vulgar language: 'arsehole' geese" (11/20/18) — passim, especially in the comments

    "'Poop'" (2/18/17)

    "No shitting here" (9/10/15)

    "Bad shits" (3/15/14)

    "Toilet: A Love Story" (9/1/18) — in the comments

    "#nobullshit bank" (4/1/18)

    "Dung Times" (3/14/18)

  11. Alessio said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    Sturm und dung

  12. Ben Orsatti said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 4:09 pm

    Philip Taylor said:

    "Ben O — 'To wit, by the time I get through the extended middle vowel to the second syllable of 'scheiße', my stubbed toe is no longer sounding the alarm' — Interesting, because for me (a native speaker of British English), I almost invariably use scheiße where others might use 'sh*t'."

    Does "Scheiße" have currency in Br.E.? In the U.S. (or, at least, in Western Pennsylvania), a native-Am.E.-speaker would be looked at askance, were he to suddenly curse in, say, German. It would be viewed as "affected". Or, is "Scheiße" in Br.E. one of those words comparable to "schmuck" in Am.E., that's been in the vernacular so long it's not even recognized as Yiddish anymore?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

    I don't think that Scheiße has entered the British lexicon at all; it is more a personal thing, in that having travelled a reasonable amount my idiolect has widened to include a few words or phrases from many of the countries I have visited. 我不知道 / Scheiße / Dzień dobry pani are three that come immediately to mind, but there are probably more.

  14. tsts said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

    German is my first language, and I would definitely say that "shit", when used in German, does not sound as awful as the German "Scheisse". That one was always taboo growing up. However, I remember some people (including my parents) occasionally using the Northern German "Schiete" instead, which was considered much more acceptable and which sounds a little similar to shit. (Near Brunswick, in an area where any form at Plattdeutsch had already largely disappeared for a few generations.)

  15. RP said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

    "I don't think that Scheiße has entered the British lexicon at all"

    I think it perhaps has. I have heard it used by Brits on occasion, and not by linguists. Also, I know this isn't wholly authoritative, but it's interesting to see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/scheisse (where it is defined as "euphemistic form of 'shit'" and has a list of illustrative quotations) and (even more dubiously) some of the entries under https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Shice
    Also, even mainstream dictionaries contain "shice" and "shicer" in senses such as "worthless" and "worthless person or thing" respectively. The OED marks the former as possibly obsolete and the latter is also labelled as "dated" at oxforddictionaries.com, but interesting nevertheless.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 7:50 pm

    Shit, as an exclamation (as opposed to a noun, as in "that's shit" or "what is this shit"), was imported into German in the 1970s by cool kids who didn't want their parents to understand that they were swearing.

    Their children, of course, have neither been able to repeat that trick, nor have they needed to. But they did interpret shit as a bit of a euphemism.

    There's no tradition in German of bleeping words out on radio & TV or of using asterisks or other disguises in written quotes. Plenty of words are avoided in polite company (a concept that keeps shrinking, as elsewhere), but you either use them or you don't – you don't try to have your shit sandwich and eat it, too.

  17. Chandra said,

    December 7, 2018 @ 11:06 pm

    I have heard people here (Canada) use "shizer" as a softer euphemism for "shit", which seems to be German-influenced, though I'm not sure if it has been bastardized from "Scheisse" or some other word.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 3:50 am

    I've heard Scheiße often enough from anglophones to take it as at least a marginal loan rather than switching to German for cursing.

    I not too infrequently hear English "shit" used as an exclamation in Swedish. I don't perceive any particular difference in offensiveness from native skit [xi:t]; though for all I know there's one in the minds of the users.

  19. monscampus said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 4:33 am

    In the dialect of Hesse the word is pronounced just like "shizer". So it could have been influenced by immigrants from that part of Germany.

    The term 'shitstorm' in German has absolutely nothing to do with swearing and is not considered rude, it's just a technical term solely used for the internet and not considered vulgar, there's no other word for it. Computer-illiterate people have never heard of it. I suppose we all know that English and German are two different languages and don't work in the same way. I wonder what makes German challenged readers (sorry) of this blog pick out English loanwords (as mentioned above) and misinterpret them as if they were used the same way as in English? Why not ask native speakers (I'm one of them) instead of speculating? That's what linguists on other online forums (or fora, if you prefer) usually do. There native speakers of different English varieties ask each other about the current usage of certain phrases instead of making educated guesses. This also applies to variants of German spoken in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, the differences can be quite puzzling.
    So please let's not just jump to conclusions on recognising a loanword in a foreign language. Variatio delectat.
    BTW, the Sch-Wort isn't quite as common in German media and conversation as the (English) f-word. And 'Shit happens!' is only ever cited in English. Apparently also in other languages.

  20. Terry Hunt said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 6:17 am

    Another Brit here who occasionally uses Scheiße, as do my parents, having picked it up when we lived in Germany for 3 years in the 1970s when my father, a soldier, was posted there. Such postings were and are common in the British Army, which may explain why German expressions are a little more widely current in the UK than one might otherwise expect.
    For that matter, I sometimes find myself exclaiming Ai-ya! when, say, stubbing a toe, which stems from a previous sojourn in Hong Kong in the 60s.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 10:11 am

    I agree with Philip Taylor – or in any case, Scheisse in BrEng is not like Schmuck in AmEng. I think (and this thread of comments seems to confirm) that it is very common for people who know a foreign language to swear in a foreign language – it is an easy way of limiting any possible offense to overhearers, and almost inevitably, except perhaps in the case of childhood bilinguals, the foreign word doesn't feel as strong as the native word.

  22. jan schreuder said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 1:04 pm

    I am a dutch anesthesiologist and have lived and worked in the US for 30 years. When an anesthesiologist swears in the OR everyone gets concerned if not slightly panicky. When that happens I explain that unless they hear me swear in Dutch (especially "godverdomme" they don't have to be concerned.
    Btw. I also find that English words of endearment are more easily uttered by me than their dutch equivalents ('I love you" "ik you van you")

  23. Gregory Bryce said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

    The second segment of the English subtitles, "already in the past four years."
    «Already» is certainly not idiomatic English there, but it's one I have encountered a number of times in English-language emails and conversations by native German speakers.

    What would be idiomatic there? "Particularly in the past four years"?

  24. Gregory Bryce said,

    December 8, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

    Sorry, I clicked on "Submit Comment" too quickly. My first statement was not a complete sentence.

  25. RachelP said,

    December 9, 2018 @ 5:47 am

    @jan schreuder
    A propos isn't it right that the Dutch for 'shit' is ' shit' and that is not a borrowing from English. Perhaps it is relevant to the propentity for related Germanic languages to borrow each others 'shit' words, that they all have the same origin?

  26. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    December 10, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    @RachelIP: (from wiktionary) Schijt: From Middle Dutch schite, from Old Dutch skīta, from Proto-Germanic *skītaz, *skitiz. Cognate to Low German Schiet, German Scheiße, English shit, Danish skid, Swedish skit.

    Seems like it all boils down to the same explanation — different cultures have different tolerances for vulgarity, depending on whether it's expressed in terms of sexuality, bodily functions, or blasphemy. E.g., working-class Northeastern U.S. observant Catholic might think nothing of calling his work buddy a "m****rf****r" in jest, but might wince at curses in derogation of the 1st Commandment (e.g. invoking G-d or the saints in anger), whereas the Danish see no problem in calling someone a "drittseck" (shitbag), and Italians regularly invoke the most creative blasphemies, that aren't even viewed as such anymore.

    What interests me is the flipside of that, brought up by Jan Schreuder: "I [a native Dutch speaker] also find that English words of endearment are more easily uttered by me than their dutch equivalents ('I love you" "ik you van you")".

    I'd love to know if there have been any empirical studies on that end of it.

  27. Lukas said,

    December 11, 2018 @ 3:09 am

    > It's not used in German in the broader sense of " a frenetic or
    > disastrous event; a commotion, a tumult" (Oxford English
    > Dictionary) but only for a "social media outrage".

    Perhaps that's the definition in the dictionary, but it's not how the word is being used, at least in my social circle. "Shitstorm" is often used precisely in the way described int he Oxford dictionary. It's not limited to just a "social media outrage."

    Source: that's how everybody I know uses the word.

  28. Lukas said,

    December 11, 2018 @ 3:11 am

    > English words of endearment are more easily uttered
    > by me than their dutch equivalents

    I've noticed the same, in others and in myself. For some peculiar reason, there's a much lower barrier to saying "I love you" compared to native equivalents. Same when it comes to words related to sex.

  29. JB said,

    December 11, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

    Perhaps Chancellor Merkel will one day write her memoirs, entitled "In Scheißgewittern'?

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