Non-word of the year

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An ‘Un-word of the Year’ has been annually selected in Germany since 1991. Our columnist looks at last year’s winner and speculates as to what could make the list of a Malaysian version.

GERMANY’S “Unwort des Jahres 2013” was unveiled earlier this month. Translated as “un-word”, perhaps it’s best described using Wikipedia’s definition: “words or wordings which infringe upon the principles of democracy or human dignity, or which are otherwise discriminating, euphemistic, concealing or misleading.”

These “un” or non-words are chosen annually in Germany by an independent jury of four linguists, a journalist and a rotating representative from the cultural and media sectors, and winners are announced every January of the following year.

Last year’s winner was Sozialtourismus or “social tourism”.

On the face of it, the term seems innocuous enough, despite bearing a rather broad definition.

After extensive Googling, perhaps the best gist that I could glean comes from a Swiss professor, Dr Walter Hunziker, who founded the Tourism Research Institute at the University of St Gallen: “Social tourism is a type of tourism practised by low income groups, and which is rendered possible and facilitated by entirely separate and therefore easily recognisable services.” He also views tourism as “adding value to society by fostering the understanding of other cultures, thereby reducing xenophobia and isolationism.” Like I said, broad definition.

However, it is the term’s usage in a discriminatory context that earned it its induction into what I would call the Faus Pax Hall of Fame.

Some politicians had used the term to refer to eastern European immigrants whom they believe come to Germany merely to cash in on the country’s social benefits. The media, as it is wont to do, pounced on it and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Social tourism” joins previous inductees that include the inaugural winner Auslaenderfrei (1991) and the much-ballyhooed Döner-Morde (2011) and Opfer-Abo (2012).

Auslaenderfrei – meaning “foreigner-free” – is a far right slogan alluding to having exclusively German communities, which came to the fore following xenophobic riots that occurred in the state of Saxony back in 1991.

Döner-Morde or Döner murders was used to describe several murders involving victims of Turkish and Greek origin. The döner refers to the scrumptious meat kebabs in pita bread that are typically sold here by people with Turkish or Greek roots. Police had initially assumed that these were gang-related murders. It later transpired that a neo-Nazi group, of which its sole living member is now on trial, carried out the murders. Thus Döner-Morde was chosen as 2011’s non-word for “trivialising the murders and discriminating against the victims.”

And finally, the repugnant Opfer-Abo was coined by Jörg Kachelmann, a celebrity weatherman, who had been tried and then acquitted of a rape charge brought against him by an ex-girlfriend. After nine months of intense media coverage of his trial, he stated in a 2012 interview that women have an Opfer-Abo or “victims’ subscription (to society’s sympathy)” over men, where they can cry rape and will always be believed, even when making false accusations. While I can empathise with the man’s frustrations at having his character and career destroyed by the media circus surrounding his trial, it was unfair of him to tar all rape victims with the same brush.

This got me wondering what words might enter a Malaysian “Un-word of the Year” list. We are just 27 days into 2014, and so far January has already proffered two contenders: spinach and Satan.

The month began in mirth with some of the wry reactions of regular Malaysians on social media to that now infamous statement regarding the economics behind the price of water spinach.

While some berated their fellow Malaysians’ lack of respect and obvious pandering to budaya barat, I feel they should at least be given credit for venting their frustrations this way and not by say, protesting on the streets. Sadly, however, all this wisecracking quickly degenerated, with the main issue – namely the rising cost of living – being overshadowed by effigies and flash mobs.

Dumb humour

I mean, there is dark humour and then there is dumb humour. Weren’t many of us just as opposed to that distasteful booty-shaking flash mob of some years ago?

Effigies and politically motivated flash mobs don’t exactly say, “Let’s talk” but rather, “Wanna fight?” Especially in the context of a society already unwittingly embroiled in other divisive, oftentimes incomprehensible, and sometimes internationally embarrassing debates.

And just when you thought things were simmering down, some people had to go describe their fellow Hindu countrymen as syaitan, and more recently mahkluk asing, on Facebook shortly after Thaipusam. Obviously, everyone’s now watching and waiting to see if they will get their comeuppance like other irresponsible Malaysian Facebook users before them.

Again the main issue, namely ignorance and intolerance stemming from the lack of proper awareness and education in our cultural diversity, is buried beneath a barrage of police reports. Don’t get me wrong. I can totally empathise with all those who were incensed by those posts.

But I say, let’s instead insist on reintroducing Tata Kebangsaan into school curricula. That’s how my batch learnt about religious pluralism in our country that left none of us confused.

At some point, though, we’ll have to channel the humour and the hurt productively towards ridding our society of instigators who resurrect resolved issues and exaggerate petty ones for political mileage or spread their skewered sentiment as a smokescreen for other shortcomings that really affect us all.

> Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. Her vote for “Non-word of the Ages” goes to the oft-abused and biasly interpreted “rule of law”.

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Non-word of the year


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