The Romney campaign debacle and the evolution of a ‘shitstorm’

© Ben Chams - Fotolia.comYou’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the secret video showing Mitt Romney wailing about how 47% of the country will never vote for him. Poor Mitt. The video made me think a lot of things about America, but in particular, it reminded me about a very special word in the English language.

Earlier this year, linguists in Germany voted the word ‘shitstorm’ one of English’s greatest gifts to the German language. As German newspaper The Local reported, “Shitstorm fills a gap in the German vocabulary that has become apparent through changes in the culture of public debate… Established German words, such as Kritik (criticism), were simply not descriptive enough.”

Apparently scheisse, German for ‘excrement,’ just didn’t have the same “oomph” when it came to talking about the European financial crisis. But as Michael Lewis noted in his 2011 Vanity Fair piece on Germany, “the German word for ‘shit’ performs a vast number of bizarre linguistic duties—for instance, a common German term of endearment was once ‘my little shit bag.'” It’s no surprise, then, that they were so taken by the word ‘shitstorm.’

So what is a shitstorm? Well, putting the literal definition aside, the jury of German linguists defined it as “a public outcry, primarily on the Internet, in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction.” This adds a new spin to the older Oxford Dictionaries definition, which is simply “a situation marked by violent controversy.”

Indeed, regardless of your politics, the current brouhaha surrounding the Romney campaign fits both definitions of shitstorm. It is undoubtedly a situation marked by fury and controversy (that is, Romney verbally spewing a big pile of scheisse about 47% of the electorate that even many Republicans have to disagree with). It’s also a shitstorm in the German sense, in that the Internet played a major roll in causing public outcry to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction from Romney.

Still, despite the German adoption and evolving of ‘shitstorm,’ in my mind, it’s still very much a word unique to the English language. One of my favorite aspects of American (er, and British) culture is the flexibility of the language that allows us to create compound words to describe new phenomena with ease — like cybercast, brainstorm, or hellcat. This gives us the ability to make up words with nuanced cadences and connotations that say just what we mean. For example, a shitshow (a display of incompetence) is not the same thing as a shitstorm (widespread outcry and controversy that’s difficult to control).

We’re constantly making up compound words like this in our daily lives, even if they don’t have formal definitions. For example, we’ll add “-fest” to the end of anything to indicate “a gathering or celebration” — nerd-fest, food-fest, tech-fest, etc. It’s no wonder, then, that our compounds make their way into other languages, where they express concepts for which there are no single words. The Germans also took a liking to “stresstest,” and France’s L’Académie Française tried unsuccessfully to strike “le week-end” from daily usage (it just flows off the tongue better than le fin de semaine). Of course, we have a big debt to German, French, and a host of other languages for some pretty choice words, too.

So while critics might say that Romney lacks foreign policy experience, at least now he can say that thanks to his ‘shitstorm,’ he’s participated in a German-American cross-cultural exchange.

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