Beware of Nazi Words

New 800-page dictionary highlights phrases Germans would do best to avoid.


Passau, GERMANY Feb. 1, 2008— -- Dozens of German words have for decades been taboo for native speakers because of the way those words were used by the Nazis.

Now, an 800-page dictionary has been published to serve as a guide to avoiding linguistic traps into which Germans can easily fall.

Terms such as "endloesung" (final solution) or "selektion" (selection) can quickly get the user into trouble, because the words acquired specific meanings and associations during the Third Reich.

"Endloesung" was the word used by the Nazi regime for its plan to exterminate the Jewish race, and it will forever be associated with Adolf Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution to the Jewish Question."

"Selektion" is a term to avoid because of its use by the Nazis to refer to the death camp practice of "selecting" those to be executed.

"Lager" (camp) refers to the concentration camps in which millions died and is especially hurtful to survivors of the Nazi past.

The "Woerterbuch der Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" (Dictionary of Coming to Terms With the Past) examines around 1,000 words and phrases – everything from "Anschluss," used to refer to the "annexation" of Austria in 1938, to "Wehrmacht," the name of the Nazi-era armed forces. The guide aims to look at the meaning and usage of the terms as they have evolved from before World War II through the present.

"We don't mean to wipe out those words from the German language for good," explains Thorsten Eitz, a co-author of the dictionary, in an interview with "But we want to make people more sensitive to the power of those words and phrases and their associations to the Nazis. We're taking a close look at what roles such terms play in today's Germany."

Eitz, a German linguist at Duesseldorf's Heinrich Heine University, and his co-author, German studies professor Georg Stötzel, have been working on the dictionary for about four years. The authors put the book together with the goal of "filling a gap on the market," says Eitz.

"We've been kicking around the idea for some time, especially since we've witnessed a kind of inflationary use of words and terms associated with the Nazis in the early 80's and again in recent years," Eitz says. "You can be pretty sure to make headlines and thus we assume that often those terms are used deliberately for that reason only. Most of the time, though, the use of those taboo words in public discourse backfires and causes tremendous controversy."

The Cardinal of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, well-known for provoking controversy, caused a storm of criticism and faced resignation calls not too long ago for using the word "entartet" (degenerate) in a speech claiming modern art was at risk of "degenerating."

The word "entartet" has strong connotations with the persecution of artists accused by Nazis of producing "degenerated art," and the Cardinal's remarks caused a real uproar among Germans sensitive about the country's Nazi past.

The controversial Cardinal also was the target of strong criticism when he compared an abortion pill to Zyklon B, a poison gas used by the Nazis in the gas chambers.

His colleague, the late Archbishop Johannes Dyba of Fulda, coined the term "babycaust" during his anti-abortion campaign. The analogy to "Holocaust" stirred a heated debate across the country.

Similarly, the late head of the German Central Council of Jews, Paul Spiegel, came under fire in 2005 when he criticized the German policy by which Jews were allowed to move from the former Soviet Union, saying that Russian Jews were being "selected" to live in Germany.

"The use of taboo words seems attractive to all kinds of groups," says Eitz. "To name but a few, even animal rights activists got front-page coverage recently with an anti-factory farming campaign titled 'Holocaust on Your Plate.' Now, that's a no-no and they have been sharply criticized for using the term Holocaust, a term which should be exclusively used to describe the Nazi regime's brutal murder of millions of people during the Third Reich."

There's no specific target group for this dictionary, according to the author. He says it was written for average Germans or German speakers who are interested in the language.

"Having said that," Eitz explains, "it was also written for the younger generation, people in their twenties, who have no idea of Third Reich connotations in the German language. Young people often don't know that certain terms were used by the Nazis and that therefore using those terms can be found upsetting."

Wolfram John, a retired cameraman, tells that people should keep in mind that language is all about how words are used. "It is still far more important to teach the youth of Germany intensively about all the facts of the Third Reich. The 'Dictionary of Coming to Terms With the Past' might be helpful in this context. But there shouldn't be rigid rules: every train in Germany has an 'Anschluss' – a 'connection' to another train. As always in life, the tone (and the intention) makes the music."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events