German word of the day: Der Wellenbrecher

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
German word of the day: Der Wellenbrecher
Wellenbrecher is the word of the year in Germany. Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Originally used in coastal protection, the term has taken on a powerful new meaning over the course of the pandemic - so much so that it's just become the German Language Society's Word of the Year for 2021.


Since the first cases were discovered in Germany in March 2020, the Covid pandemic has shaken our lives, bringing with it a whole new way of being. Limiting time with friends, working from home, coat pockets stuffed with spare medical masks - all of these things have become part of the 'new normal'.

As we attempt to describe our experience of the post-pandemic world, a fantastically colourful range of words has entered the German language, describing everything from the ongoing anxiety to the idiosyncratic mask-wearer who prefers to leave their nose peeping out for some fresh air (often called a Maskenmuffel) 

READ ALSO: The new German words that perfectly describe the coronavirus pandemic

So it's no wonder that, of more than 1,200 new words that have entered the language since the pandemic began, yet another Covid neologism was chosen by the German Language Society as this year's Word of the Year.


Wellenbrecher, which translates into 'wave breaker' or 'breakwater' in English, refers to a form of sea-barrier designed to protect the coastline from erosion and minimise the force of aggressive waves hitting the shore. 

Of course, in the time of Covid-19, the word 'wave' is more likely to conjure up swelling infection numbers than a trip to the seaside. And as politicians and health experts struggle to limit the impact of the fourth wave, the word 'Wellenbrecher' has come to describe exactly what they are looking for.

Carefully tiptoeing around the (now politically toxic) word 'lockdown', Michael Kretschmer, Saxony's state premier, used the word 'wave breaker' when calling for a shutdown of public life a few weeks ago. 

And, according to Bild, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel begged the incoming government to implement an immediate 'wave breaker' lockdown to tame the fourth wave at the end of November - but her request was allegedly denied. 

Waves hit the sea wall
Waves strike the harbour walls in Folkestone, England. A breakwater (or, literally 'wave breaker') is a measure such as a lockdown that is designed to dampen the impact of a Covid wave. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PA Wire | Gareth Fuller

People who follow British politics may recognise parallels in the use of the word 'circuit breaker' to describe short, sharp lockdowns intended to reverse a wave of infections. But, as we've discovered in Germany in recent months, 'wave breaker' measures aren't always lockdowns.

In fact, with German leaders' new rules including '2G' (vaccinated and recovered only) for non-essential shops and other parts of public life, contact restrictions on the unvaccinated, and the possibility of regional lockdowns, the new government is hoping it has found a powerful 'Wellenbrecher' to slow the spread of the fourth wave.

Only time will tell if the new measures will live up their name. 


Was hältst du von dem Wellenbrecher in Sachsen? Hat er eigentlich was gebracht?  

What do you think of the wave breaker in Saxony? Has it actually achieved anything? 

Die Corona Lage ist schon sehr Ernsthaft. Wir brauchen jetzt einen radikalen Wellenbrecher. 

The Covid situation is already very serious. We need a radical circuit breaker now. 


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