Don’t call her Mutti

The international press seem obsessed with Merkel's allegedly popular nickname - but it's not as flattering as it might seem.

Advertisers are making the most of Merkel's signature hand gesture and weird nickname while they still can.
Advertisers are making the most of Merkel's signature hand gesture and weird nickname while they still can.Paul Zinken/dpa

Berlin-It’s a truth universally acknowledged that English-speakers in Germany have frequent cause for bemusement thanks to the oddities of Denglisch. I still smirk every time I see a strait-laced publication write about a “Shitstorm”, because that word is used completely differently in English. But two can play at that game. Cue various English-language media publishing articles bidding farewell to Angela Merkel, or as they insist Germans call her, “Mutti” (mummy).

Yet “Mutti” is neither the common nor fond nickname it’s often portrayed as. It was allegedly coined by Michael Glos, Merkel’s minister for Economic Affairs from 2005 to 2009, because of the dynamic he felt between them. His use of “Mutti” wasn’t affectionate, but painted her as overbearing and emasculating. It was always intended to be diminutive, patronising, and yes, sexist. It’s since often turned up in similarly unflattering contexts, like on placards at far-right demos reading “Mutti muss weg” (Mutti has to go).

It’s not the first such nickname assigned to Merkel during her career either. As she climbed the political ladder in the 90s as a protégé of Helmut Kohl, he referred to her as his “Mädchen” (girl). It’s hard to imagine a male counterpart being referred to like this, and potential Chancellors Scholz and Laschet won’t end up being called “Papa”. I certainly hope not, in any case.

Merkel remains popular nonetheless: a recent German poll showed 80% think she’s doing a good job. Whilst I’ve never met a German who called her “Mutti”, I’ve met plenty who would never normally vote for the CDU but did so anyway because they saw her as a likeable, safe pair of hands. Her influence and popularity are another universally acknowledged truth – but the Anglophone sphere could pick their words more carefully when reporting it.

Dieser Text ist in der Wochenendausgabe der Berliner Zeitung erschienen – jeden Sonnabend am Kiosk oder hier im Abo.