Words and worth

The „Unwort“ of the year was just announced. What is an Unwort you ask? The prefix »un« can be used as eine Verneinung or a “negation” of the noun that follows it. This suggests that the meaning of the word Unwort, which comprises un + Wort (word), is “non-word.” However things are slightly more subtle than that.

For example, take the word das Unkraut which means “weed.” The word das Kraut means “herb,” “foliage” and “cabbage.”  Thus weeds are “herbs that are not herbs.” For me, with this combination comes the notion that they are of no use to us, unlike herbs or cabbage, or perhaps that they even disrupt the growth of plants that are.

Or consider the word der Unrat. The primary meaning of der Rat is “advice.” Nevertheless der Unrat means “filth” or “muck” and in polite or old-fashioned speech “refuse” (used as a noun meaning “garbage”). I’ve come across Unrat in the historical novels I’ve been reading; and on the red refuse bins here in Hamburg. In this later case, Unrat has been substituted as a play on the expression »Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat« – “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” (dict.cc) or “things have a way of sorting themselves out” (pons.eu). Finally, compare das Heil – “salvation” or “health of the soul” or “well-being” and das Unheil – “mischief.”

Let’s return then to das Unwort which 24 contributors to dict.cc translated as “misnomer” with an added remark categorizing it is an untrue or misleading term. “Ghastly neologism,” “taboo word,” “faux-pas word” and “non-word” also appear. In addition, there is an entry for the full phrase Unwort des Jahres for which the contributor offers “ugliest word of the year.” Consulting Duden online reinforces this impression, stating that an Unwort is an inappropriate word, a negative word and also one whose form is somehow erroneous or fallacious, perhaps leading the hearer or reader astray, just as un + Kraut, un + Rat and un + Heil all do.

Indeed das Unwort des Jahres 2015, „Gutmensch“ fits this pattern given it takes the positive word gut and the neutral word Mensch* and combines them into a word used to describe the people providing help and support for refugees. To say Gutmensch when referring to such people is to say that they are stupid, naive and deluded for helping, nay, even for tolerating, refugees.

Maybe this is a step to far, but I have wonder, are certain users of this word also intending to imply that the refugees (those being helped by the so-called Gutmenschen) don’t quality for the term Mensch? That is,  in direct contradiction to the German constitution, which is founded on the idea that the dignity of man is inviolable, is the intention to suggest that refugees are less than human? If so, there is something particularly invidious about using a word like „Gutmensch“ to defame or denigrate as the insult or threat it holds may be somewhat obscured  for the uncritical listener by the positive connotations of gut.


*Interestingly, the word mensch has come into English from Yiddish to mean “someone worthy of respect, who has integrity,” making the gut almost superfluous.

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One thought on “Words and worth

  1. Rob Rothschild says:

    Someone asked my Mom: “How can you tell if someone is a mensch?” She said: “You watch, you listen, you feel, you know.”

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