So last year, for (more than) 100 Days in a row, I have invented a German word a day trying to express feelings that felt important, quirky or invisible. This is what I wrote before starting the project while the following are thoughts I’ve collected along the way, which I felt deserved to be explored.
You know that weird sense of suspension felt when you can’t find the right word for something? That feeling is what defined/haunted my first year in Germany and what – I suspect – defines/haunts the life of anyone who moves to a country without speaking the language.
Just to be clear: It is not terms like “demagogic”, “astonishing” or “pretentious” that you’re temporarily missing. Instead, you have the urge to say “chair” or “bus ticket” or “I’m sorry”, only to find that those words are nowhere in your brain yet.
It is isolating.
When I read about the 100 Days challenge launched by the Great Discontent, an idea hit me right away. What if among all the feelings and concepts I was struggling to express in my expat life, there were some which never got their entry in the dictionary?
The first weeks of project were exhausting. In order to come up with enough words I’d have to monitor my surrounding, my thoughts and most importantly my feelings every second of every day in search of something outstanding and yet unspoken.
Conventional activities like grocery shopping or going to the post office were now exciting playgrounds for the discovery of microscopic details, overlooked feelings that had waited years in the most unassuming places for someone to notice them.
I wanted to help them. To rescue those tiny emotions and offer them the ultimate proof of existence: a name.
How do you fabricate a new word?
Once you know what you want to express and have a clear definition in mind, the next thing you need is a language. Since I had no intention of creating one from scratch (it seemed like a lot of work), my very limited choice had to be between English, Italian and German (full disclosure: I’ve studied French too, but we all know that in French you only need one word to express anything).
Even if I suck at it, German seemed like a good pick. Its harsh-sounding words, in fact, are often the combination of smaller terms that a very meticulous Doctor Frankestein sewed together to create new meaning. I used to look at those humongous, siamese-twin words during my German class, thinking “I could do that!”.
So I did.
Once a new word came out of the oven, the next step was sharing it with the World (aka Twitter and Instagram). Every time I’d hit the “send” button on any social media, the project went from an intimate exercise in self-expression to something much riskier.
Feeling something that doesn’t have a name and sharing that feeling is a process loaded with insecurity and self-doubt, a process that was either going to make people tick or make me look like a lunatic.
As people started reading, two things became clear:
1) The hashtag I picked for the project (#100DaysofGermanWords) was horribly misleading (lots and lots of people still think my made-up vocabulary is legit and broadly used in Germany…oops)
2) My words were hitting a spot.
Not only was I given personal validation at every like, share or comment the project received, but people started sending me their quirky, private feelings for me to understand, name and eventually share. The project went from being a monologue to being a dialogue spoken with words that nobody had heard before and yet everybody seemed weirdly familiar with.
One thing that annoyed me, greatly and inexplicably, was when people felt the urge to point out that my words didn’t exist or – even worse – that they were not real. That four letter word – R E A L – had the power to punch in the face all of my creations and push them back in the dark corner where I’d found them.
If those words felt so real to me, why wasn’t that enough?
You see, you can write a sucky science fiction novel that not even your mom wants to read, and nobody will tell you that your novel isn’t REAL. In the same way, you can paint a landscape that doesn’t exist in real life and nobody will dare to say that the painting itself doesn’t EXIST. But the cruel thing about my project was that lining up letters and giving them a meaning was not enough to make them breathe and live.
Language is something so strictly tied with culture, society and identity, that a word is only allowed to EXIST if a whole community accepts it, which is the most beautiful and irritating thing at once.
So, in the end I knew. Every time somebody pointed out aggressively that “Dude, that’s not a real word” or pedantically corrected it to make the grammar work, I knew that they were trying to defend a very deep, very precious part of themselves, and that made me smile.
After receiving a warm reception on social media, things escalated quickly. The Berlin blog IHeartBerlin covered the project and turned my creations into something beautiful to see, while Franziska Felber of the Tagespiegel wrote a piece about the project and ended up contributing many new words herself. Also, FLUX.FM invited me over for a chat and some word-reading on their English radio program Off the record and the project was mentioned on several German publications such as the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
In the midst of this drunkness from media attention, I remember the most recurring question I received was: “Are your friends using your words now? And do you hope the German dictionary will officially pick them up?”.
After answering it, over and over, something occurred to me.
If nobody has ever come up with these words before, then they’re probably not meant to be used. Nobody – not even me – is supposed to use their vocal chords and spit them out in the real world. No child will ever spell them in spelling competitions and no mother will ever explain them to her kids. Joanna Newsom will not use them in her songs and they’ll never be part of motivational speeches given by tech geniuses in front of excited graduates.
Because they don’t belong outside of us, but inside. Hidden in a corner, like secrets, ready to come out as a silent (literally) reminder of how insanely, ridiculously, heartbreaking-ly similar we all are.
In case you ever forget that.