A border guard patrolling the Greek border | Photo: Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo/picture-alliance
A border guard patrolling the Greek border | Photo: Giannis Papanikos/AP Photo/picture-alliance

The term borrowed from English describes forcing migrants and asylum seekers away from a state border. The "Non-Word of the Year" is awarded for infamous language.

It's an ignominious prize to win, but one that is widely reported on in Germany: the "Non-Word of the Year" (Unwort des Jahres), given to a word used in a derogatory or denigrating manner. 

On Tuesday, a jury made of linguistic experts announced that "pushback" earned the title for 2021.

The Anglicism refers to actions taken at a state border that prevent — often violently — migrants and refugees from crossing into a country or that push them back over the border, without considering individual circumstances and thereby denying the right to claim asylum. Pushbacks are violations of various international laws. 

The jury said they chose the word because it is used euphemistically to refer to an "inhumane process."

The runner-up "non-word" for 2021 was "language police" ("Sprachpolizei"), which is used to defame people who advocate for non-discriminatory use of language that furthers equality.

The worst examples of language use 

The "Non-Word of the Year" award is critical in its intent: It aims to highlight poor use of language in the public sphere and show how this can feed discrimination, clash with democratic principles or undermine human dignity. With the award, the jury hopes to increase awareness on the effects of language use.

Anyone may submit a word for consideration, and a jury consisting of independent and voluntary language experts and journalists makes the final decision. 

The "Non-Word of the Year" has been awarded since 1991.

Last year, two words shared the top slot: "Corona-Diktatur" (corona dictatorship), an expression that ridiculed coronavirus control measures by downplaying actual dictatorships, and "Rückführungspatenschaften" (return sponsorships), a "cynical and euphemistic" term for a political arrangement allowing EU member states to sponsor refugees returning home instead of letting them remain in the country. 

Author: Cristina Burack

First published: January 12, 2022

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