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Angela Merkel says shitstorm, and Twitter goes into a tailspin

The German Chancellor used the term at a technology conference

By New York Times News Service in Berlin

  • Published 7.12.18, 3:50 AM
  • Updated 7.12.18, 9:47 AM
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during the German Ukrainian Economy Forum in Berlin, Germany on November 29.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during the German Ukrainian Economy Forum in Berlin, Germany on November 29. AP

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, 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. That, as you might imagine, stirred yet another online reaction, at least among many English speakers in Britain and the US.

“I can die happy now that Merkel has used the word,” Anne McElvoy, a senior editor with The Economist, wrote on Twitter. The writer David Simon wondered why the Germans had not devised their own term. “These guys have a word for everything,” he said on Twitter.

Merkel is in the twilight of her political career, with her successor as leader of the German conservatives expected to be named on Friday. It would be tempting to interpret her word choice as a devil-may-care gesture from a politician suddenly unconcerned with appearances.

But, no. Merkel has actually used the word a number of other times in public. As do many other Germans.

It was adopted into the country’s standard dictionary, Duden, in 2013. The listing defining the word, which is capitalised in the German, noted that it originated from the English. But its meaning in German is a little more specific: It denotes a “storm of outrage” on the Internet, such as blowback generated over social media.

Merkel is cited as having first used the word in 2012 in a town-hall meeting in Heidelberg, and some credit that for contributing to its acceptance among German speakers. Most Germans remain unaware that in English, the word is considered a vulgarity, and its use is not limited to Internet outrage.

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