Das Wort "Shitstorm" hat nun einen Platz im Duden

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So says Die Welt. But this Teutonic  lexicographical event has gotten an unusual amount of  press coverage in other languages: "English profanity earns place in standard German dictionary", Reuters; "English rude word enters German language", BBC News; "'S***storm' adopted into German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary", The Independent;  "Shitstorm. Němčina má nové slovo, kvůli krizi zdomácnělo", iDNES.cz; "Duitsers omarmen Engelse shitstorm", NOS OP 3; "H αγγλική βρισιά shitstorm μπήκε στα λεξικά της γερμανικής γλώσσας -Τη χρησιμοποιεί και η Μέρκελ", iefimerida; "Shitstorm entra no diccionário alemão depois de usada por Merkel na crise", Diário Digital; "La langue allemande officialise l ' anglicisme ' shitstorm '", ActualLitté; etc.

No doubt this is mostly due to the fact that Angela Merkel was a prominent early adopter. As Metro explains (""‘Shitstorm’ enters German dictionary after becoming popular during eurozone crisis", 7/3/2013):

After being used by Angela Merkel to describe the eurozone crisis, the word shitstorm has now made it officially into German dictionaries.

Duden, the German standard lexicon and the country’s equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, has now recognised the word.

But in German it has a slightly different meaning and has come to define a controversy on the internet rather than the general calamity it is in English.

Duden defines shitstorm as: ‘Noun, masculine – a storm of protest in a communications medium of the internet, which is associated in part with insulting remarks.’

The entry in Duden of course is not in English, but rather reads:

Substantiv, maskulin – Sturm der Entrüstung in einem Kommunikationsmedium des Internets, der zum Teil mit beleidigenden Äußerungen einhergeht

Philip Oltermann gives some additional cross-cultural background ("A shitstorm in a dictionary", The Guardian 7/3/2013):

The announcement that the word "shitstorm" has entered the most commonly used German dictionary, the Duden, after being used by Angela Merkel has triggered the usual wave of cliches: that Germans are darkly obsessed with pooping, farting and bottoms, psychologically stuck at the anally retentive stage.

As the great German linguistics blogger Anatol Stefanowitsch has shown in this excellent blogpost, the "Germans love shit" meme can largely be dated back to a 1984 book by the US anthropologist Alan Dundes, called Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder. Dundes claimed that German folklore was riddled with an "inordinate" amount of shit-related riddles and proverbs, and that Scheiß (or Scheiße) was "the most often used word in Germany today". But, as Stefanowitsch impressively shows, it's just as easy to think of shit-metaphors that litter English speech, a "shitstorm" being what can happen when the shit hits the fan, someone serves you a shit sandwich, talks bullshit or beats the shit out of someone, or when things generally end up up shit creek without a paddle.

Arguably, the tendency to psychoanalyse the German attitude to bodily functions goes back even further. In 1973, the American novelist Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying claimed that the architecture of German toilets revealed something sinister about the psyche of those who sat on them:

"Go into any German toilet and you'll find a fixture unlike any other in the world. It has a cute little porcelain platform for the shit to fall on so you can inspect it before it whirls off into the watery abyss, and there is, in fact, no water in the toilet until you flush it. As a result, German toilets have the strongest shit smell of any toilets anywhere … German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything."

Slavoj Zizek has elaborated this into a wider critique of German metaphysics.

Here's the cited Zizek lecture:

More from Oltermann:

Linguist Hans-Martin Gauger spent several years comparing swearwords in 15 different languages and concluded not so much that Germans were inordinately obsessed with faecal matters, but that there were inordinately reluctant to use sexual metaphors to express negative sentiments.

Look up "motherfucker" in the Langenscheidt dictionary and you get Arschloch (arsehole). In German you don't say: "Verfick dich (fuck off)," but "Verpiss dich (piss off)"; you don't feel "fucked off" but "beschissen (shat upon)". Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was happy to use the filthy German equivalent of "kiss my arse" in his 1773 play Götz von Berlichingen: "Er aber, sag's ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken!" Only the Swedes share a similar reluctance to use sexual metaphors as swearwords.

But it's easy to go astray in generalizing about cross-cultural cussing, as discussed e.g. in "Oh sleepies", 8/30/2006.


  1. Chris Eagle said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    "Duden defines shitstorm as: ‘Noun, masculine"

    How do imported words like this get gendered? Are there regular or semi-regular rules, is it up to the whim of early adopters, or what?

    [(myl) Probably the fact that Sturm is "Substantiv, maskulin" plays a role.

  2. Sandra said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    storm = Sturm, and Sturm is masculine

  3. Tom S. Fox said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    @Chris Eagle:

    The word “shitstorm” is masculine because the German word for “storm” — “Sturm” — is masculine. There are also cases where two genders compete against each other. The word “blog,” for example, can be neuter or masculine. Gender may also be imposed by morphological rules. Nouns ending in “-er,” for example, are generally masculine.

  4. Nachrichten des Tages - Seite 150 said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    […] […]

  5. Uri said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 8:39 am

    A "shitstorm" in the Teutonic sense refers specifically to a clamour of outrage on the Internet. The opposite, an outpouring of approval, is rather charmingly called a "candystorm".

    I do hope that the latter ends up being borrowed back into English, but it seems English doesn't really go in for reborrowings. The only ones I know of (apart from the archaic redingote) are Japanese cultural imports (salaryman, anime, cosplay, Godzilla, with only the first being an obvious reborrowing).

  6. Martin J Ball said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    I had never heard this word in English before reading about it being taken into German. Is it an especially regional usage?

    [(myl) It strikes me as a normal part of the informal vocabulary of American English, available since my childhood. Belle Waring used it in a poem ("What Hurts") published in 1990:

    Sentry. Night watch. Mother by a sickbed.
    Doctor on call. No surprise. Ready for
    a shit storm. Praying for a cool sunrise.

    Herbert Woodward Martin published The Shit-Storm: Poems in 1973. The earliest citation in the Partridge Dictionary of Slang is from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962:

    Here's a larger context for the Kesey citation — McMurphy is talking:


  7. Marion Crane said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    I had to laugh at the German toilet reference, since I definitely prefer that type of toilet over the newer ones. Never knew it is supposedly a German invention. Go Germans!

    Also, I like how specific their definition of shitstorm is, and accurately so: the Internet is the most culticultural place we have on earth (homogenic pockets notwithstanding) so borrowing an English term to explain an on-line phenomenon makes sense to me.

  8. Jeff Carney said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    Bummer. I was hoping "culticultural" was a real word. Some sort of meta thing, maybe.

  9. JR said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    Duden is not the equivalent of the OED, though; that would be the Grimm brothers' Deutsches Wörterbuch.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

    Ha, I had the same reaction to "culticultural" and spent a minute puzzling out what it was supposed to mean.

  11. deanishe said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    I've watched the rise of the word "shitstorm" in German with amusement for some time. It gladdens my inner child to see rude words in the headlines of quality papers.

    The tendency of Germans to redefine words they've pinched from English worries me, however. German kids are supposed to start learning English from day one now, while their parents are busy nicking our words but providing their own definitions. I can't help but think it's all going to end in tears.

    Whenever I'm listening to some German corporate type speaking fluent Denglisch, I'm always left in a state of some confusion because I have no idea if what they meant with all those English words has anything to do with what they're commonly understood to mean in English.

  12. Rosie Redfield said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    The excellent hiking manual 'How to Shit in the Woods' has a great glossary of shit words.

  13. Bill Lee said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    More from the Online Duden (I always considered the Brockhaus [ http://www.brockhaus.de/ ] a better dictionary)
    englisch shitstorm, aus shit = Scheiße und storm = Sturm
    der Shitstorm; Genitiv: des Shitstorms, Plural: die Shitstorms

    And note that often in the Best Seller lists Rechtschreibung books feature prominently in the Bestsellerliste ( though not this week: http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/charts/spiegel-bestseller-paperback-a-863148.html )

    More history from February of this year (auf Deutsch) in http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/sascha-lobo-ueber-die-entstehung-des-begriffs-shitstorm-a-884199.html

  14. Fred Macken said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    The dictionary definition seems to describe what in English we've been calling a "flame war."

  15. Martin J. Ball said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    Can any fellow Brits confirm that this is/was rarely heard in GB?

  16. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

    I'm now curious as to how the New York Times would have covered this story (perhaps they did — their metering system doesn't get along with my privacy preferences).

  17. hotsoup said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 12:28 am

    For that matter, is 'fucked off' common in American English usage? I associated it with BrE, and instead I would use 'pissed off'. Clearly indicating Americans' scatological neuroses, I suppose.

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 4:18 am

    Can any fellow Brits confirm that this is/was rarely heard in GB?

    Depends on how you define rarely. I certainly wouldn't expect to see it used regularly in newspapers, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear it said, or indeed for it to appear occasionally in the papers in a quote or a G2-style feature.

  19. GSo said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    The Norwegian minister of environment ended up in a shitstorm when commenting on his UK colleague using the Norwegian word "drittsekk" ("han er den største drittsekken"). It was translated literally to "shitbag", which increases the insult with something like the power of five. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/31542

  20. Fred said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 5:12 am

    I like the Dutch headline 'Duitsers omarmen Engelse shitstorm' > Germans embrace English shitstorm. A tad too graphic…

  21. Michael said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 5:25 am

    @deanishe: "The tendency of Germans to redefine words they've pinched from English worries me, however."

    It's not uncommon for borrowed words to undergo a (more or less) slight shift in meaning, that's not something that exclusively happens in German.

  22. Meesher said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 6:07 am

    Anyone who learned English from the character Mr Lahey on the Canadian tv program Trailer Park Boys might assume English speakers were obsessed with shit-birds, shit-apples and shit-trees, shit-wind, etc.

    @Uri: "Candystorm" is wonderful.

  23. Tom S. Fox said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    “The tendency of Germans to redefine words they've pinched from English worries me, however.”

    As Michael already said, it is common for imported words to receive a different meaning. Let’s take the French words “rendez-vous” and “séance,” for example. You probably didn’t know that the first simply means “appointment” while the latter means “session” or “meeting.”

    “German kids are supposed to start learning English from day one now…”

    Where did you get that nonsense from?

    “Duden is not the equivalent of the OED, though; that would be the Grimm brothers' Deutsches Wörterbuch.”

    The Grimm brothers’ dictionary is hopelessly out of date and only used by linguists, so how on Earth did you get to that conclusion? Is it because it’s the only German dictionary you ever heard of?

  24. Faldone said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 8:54 am

    I wonder how the Germans pronounce shitstorm.

  25. Faldone said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 9:04 am

    Never mind. I see it's visible in the clip from Duden.

  26. AlexB said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    A shitstorm is still no match for a sharknado.

  27. Oliver said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    A flame war is a reciprocal exchange of insults. A shitstorm unloads everything on the hapless target.

  28. Peter CS said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    @Martin J Ball – As a Brit I would agree with you that it isn't a widely used word in BrE – in fact I don't think I've ever consciously heard it used by a Brit. I would also suggest that most of the usages 'that litter our speech' in the second brown (how appropriate) paragraph in the original blog are more AmE than BrE. But perhaps I don't get out enough.

  29. tsts said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    I am wondering if one reason for accepting the word in German is that it sounds less offensive in English. Scheisse is considered a fairly rude term that is best avoided in polite company. In fact, in northern Germany people often use the dialect word "Schiete" instead, which is more acceptable.

    And of course, "Scheissturm" (is that 2 or 3 "s"? If 2, how to tell it apart from a shit tower? damn, German is hard, even for Germans) already has the meaning of "damn storm".

  30. Oliver said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    Its Scheisssturm…
    Since the last "Rightwriting"-refom…

    And Scheissturm would either be Shit-Storm (before said reform) or *damned* tower (by meaning…)

    IMO a tower of shit would be …ein Turm [aus] Scheisse

  31. deanishe said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

    @Michael and Tom Fox:

    It's not uncommon for borrowed words to undergo a (more or less) slight shift in meaning, that's not something that exclusively happens in German.

    That's true. However I'm not talking about a "slight shift". Often it really is a case of some German (usually in marketing it would seem) just grabbing an English word they think sounds cool and using it for something largely unrelated. A "beamer" is a projector, but most English speakers upon hearing it would think of a German car. A "bodybag" is a bumbag (I think Americans call them "fanny packs") or one of those larger bumbags you sling over your shoulder, not something to put corpses in. A "handy" is a mobile phone.

    It's often not a matter of a shift in meaning, like with "shitstorm", it's a matter of utter disregard for what the word means in English. They need a name for something, and English is cool, so they just grab any old word they like the sound of.

    There's no drift involved: they just grab a word and redefine it.

    As an English native speaker, I always feel compelled to ask what a German means when they throw in an English word, which many of them love doing, because there's a fair probability that it means something slightly (Trainee means "graduate trainee) or completely (see above) different to them.

    The tendency to replace German words with their English equivalent is one thing (someone once asked me what the English word for "meeting" is), but grabbing words that "sound cool" and using them for very different things is another matter.

  32. JR said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    @Tom S. Fox: I mentioned 2 German dictionaries, so why do you mock me? You go to Grimm for attested usages with examples in order to find, say, the first attested usage. That's how it is like the OED.

  33. A S said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 9:54 am


    This is hardly unique to German. In Japanese, a "mansion" is a condominium, a "viking" is a buffet restaurant and someone exhibiting especially energetic behavior is referred to as being "high tension". I'm sure there are similar examples in many other languages as well.

    English has been the king of "cool" languages since at least the middle of the last century, and American (and to a lesser extent, British) media and pop culture is consumed around the world. It really shouldn't come as a surprise when speakers of other languages are adopting English words – used correctly or not – simply because it's considered fashionable.

    Expect native English speakers to do the same thing should their language ever fall out of fashion.

  34. Azimuth said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    Reading Erica Jong's riff on the reek of nonsplashing German toilets reminded me of Coleridge's super-snarky piece of travel writing, "Cologne":


    STC doesn't specify the source of the reek, but given the era, we can make guesses.

  35. Dan said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    Ah, changing meaning when borrowing foreign words. When I lived in Nepal this used to drive me nuts. Not because the word changed meaning per se, but because the Nepalese people didn't seem to know that it had. So they would be speaking English and throw an English word in right at the correct spot but they meant something entirely different than what anyone else in the English-speaking world would mean.

    For example, one day I was playing cards with a bunch of Nepalese people, all of whom spoke English very well. They explained the rules to me in English, including that the player always had to put down a card of the same color. But when I went to put a heart on a diamond, I got yelled at. Because apparently when they said "color" they meant "suit." Gah!

  36. Patrick said,

    July 6, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

    Regarding the status of Duden: When people of German-speaking countries mention "the Duden", they usually mean the classic yellow, one-volume "Die deutsche Rechtschreibung", which is also the work in question here. It isn't the "German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary", as it is more a simple work of reference for everyday use that tells you the spelling and a short definition, but not much more. It is, however, indeed a dictionary of special status, being authoritative for the spelling in official context in Germany from 1955 to 1996, and still certainly the most widely used German dictionary. And I'd say that JR is right in saying that the Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch is more akin to the OED (in its concept), though indeed "hopelessly out of date", as Tom S. Fox also correctly notes. – Also, the Duden publishing house has a line of lesser used "Duden" dictionaries in addition to "Die deutsche Rechtschreibung", e.g. "Das Herkunftswörterbuch" (an etymological dictionary), "Das Fremdwörterbuch" and so on. All of them are geared towards a wide audience, not scholarly works like the Grimm's.

  37. John Walden said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 2:17 am

    That "utter disregard" that these foreigners have for our noble and unsullied language. It's so easy to think of when English has committed the same heinous speakcrime that I'd venture that it's one of the main features of interlarding language with foreignisms that it should often be got ever-so-slightly wrong, at the very least.

    From French alone we have slightly mangled, or invented dozens: cul-de-sac, affaire, a la mode, deja vu and many more. They have mistreated smoking, parking, camping, footing, super, les Rolling, and so on.

  38. zythophile said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 5:09 am

    "A la mode" … not mangled in British English. I doubt there is one Briton in a thousand that could tell you Americans use this expression to mean "with ice-cream".

  39. John Walden said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 5:44 am

    I always knew I was special.

  40. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    I also thought German-style toilets were a bit scary … until I went to the USA and encountered some whose normal state of operation involved water practically lapping ones rear end even before one caused any ripples in it.

    I suggest that perhaps German speakers are not reluctant to use sexual metaphors but maybe a) just more inhibited about putting them in writing and (not entirely unconnectedly) b) that the juiciest ones belong to the dialects and c) one should correct a bit for the fact that a universal swearword in English just happens to be "fuck-" whereas a similar niche in German just happens to have been filled with "Scheiß-" … most of the uses of these have nothing to do with their original meaning and therefore they don't really indicate a predilection for thinking about their subject matter.

  41. Ellen K. said,

    July 7, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    Deanishe, you talk as if Germans simply grab a random word, and yet your examples show something very different.

    Bodybag for bumbag (fanny pack). Seems to me they didn't borrow a word from English, they borrowed two words from English and put them together. A rather sensible compound that happens to not match what this compound word means in English.

    Handy for phone you hold in your hand. And again, not likely a borrowing of the word handy, but of hand and -y.

    Likewise with beamer… not likely a borrowing of an existing word, but again, borrowing two separate morphemes.

  42. CuConnacht said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    Dan, the French also use color/couleur for suit. I don't know what they do in games where color (not suit) matters, but presumably they have some way of dealing with it.

  43. Sister_Ray said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    German uses Farbe, colour for suit, too.

    As to Germans making up their own English words: I am among the people who thinks it just makes learning English more interesting and it is perfectly natural that it happens. Beamer of course is a gadget that beams pictures on a wall, hence Beamer – certainly inspired by Raumschiff Enterprise.
    It's sometimes frustrating for this English teacher when pupils keep using Handy for mobile phone, but for me these Denglish words are just a special case of false friends. Shitstorm takes some getting used to, especially when encountered in headlines, but in German Shit used in informal speech is less taboo than Scheiße, hence people use Shitstorm without batting an eyelid.

  44. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 8, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

    Not, perhaps, strictly on point, and possibly too late but …

    How does the name of the character LT (subsequently GEN) Scheisskopf appear in the German translation of Catch-22?

  45. Philip Lawton said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    How does the name of the character LT (subsequently GEN) Scheisskopf appear in the German translation of Catch-22?

    He's called the same thing: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch-22

  46. Patrick said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    @Sister_Ray: Coming from the German-speaking part of Switzerland and being a native Swiss German speaker, I can't vouch for the exact grade of "taboo-ness" of "Scheiße" (or "Scheisse", as we spell it in Switzerland) in Germany, but I think at least here in Switzerland there isn't a big difference between "Scheisse" and "shit" – both exclamations are, I'd say, "slightly taboo" – i.e. you would be rather heavily frowned upon if you said "Scheisse" or "shit" in a more formal context, e.g. in a meeting, but only mildly or not at all by passers-by if you utter it in the street, having lost a coin in the sewer or the like.

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    July 11, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

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  48. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 2:33 am

    I'd be surprised if the reference to German scatological linguistic tendencies is really that recent. Pavel Eisner, the Czech linguist, observed something similar for Czech in the 1940s. I can't remember now if he mentioned German in the context but he may well have.

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