Do German imports make English rich?

Here we’re collecting some of the German words now used in English. Languages often import words when they need or want an exact word which they lack, or they just like a foreign word better.


Double Woman's Head

Does everyone know what Doppelgänger means? The article under the heading “True Stories of Doppelgangers” (note the lack of ä umlaut) was spotted by HE Translations Marketing Consultant Chris Mawer.  The umlaut means gänger is properly pronounced  to sound like the E in the word “length.”

A  Doppelgänger  may be an unseen shadow or an actual entity, an example of being in two places at once, which is termed Bilocation.  The word is sometimes jokingly used to refer to a person so similar in appearance they could be taken as a copy of another, and in fiction this can be a dark and threatening figure.

German Meaning: A Double. Doppel means double and Gänger means one who walks.

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figure-ground faces and vase illusion

This simple word meaning shape or form was imported into twentieth century English to provide a  more specialised term in psychology and design.  Due to the way the human mind processes information, people generally more readily perceive an overall image rather than the component parts, which is often illustrated with figure-ground image illusions such as the vase and figures one here. In everyday English Gestalt can now be used to describe the overall quality or character of something, where that is far more than the sum of the individual parts.

For a fascinating illustrated discussion of the use of Gestalt in design terminology and its translation into plain English, you’ll enjoy the extensive article at Smashing Design or the German etymology.

German Meaning: Shape. The form, outline, or silhouette, often of a figure

Example: The flow of fake news helps the mind build a gestalt of a fictional reality.

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sneezing woman

Gesundheit is the German word for health, and is now widely used in the English language as an exclamation or interjection after another person sneezes.  This wishes the sneezer better health or the avoidance of further illness, and is equivalent to the traditional phrase “Bless you” which invokes divine protection of the sneezer if used by a believer, and is a standard social formality if used by a non-believer.

The word  may have passed into wider English usage after being imported to the USA by the many German-speaking immigrants in the late nineteenth century, with many usage examples cited in print.  It later seems to have lost its usage there as a toasting salutation, similar to “To  your good health” or “Prost” or “Skol”, suggesting that the health risks of alcohol are not to be sneezed at.

German Meaning: Health. From the adjective "gesund" meaning healthy, plus the suffix -heit which forms an abstract noun.

Example: "Gesundheit," she said, as the cat sneezed in the cold air.

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Handheld Glockenspiel

Came across “Glockenspiel” in an interesting BBC interview with Cathal Smyth (formerly Chas Smash of Madness), in which he refers to “Life Part 3” and a previous “Civic Duty” period. I dare say the Glockenspiel he referred to was the ‘other type’, but in any case, I’m not sure how exactly the term entered the English language – any offers? Anyway, thanks to Chris for drawing my attention to the interview.

German Meaning: Bell play, playing of bells. Glocke means bell and Spiel means play.

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country road

Quote from the Deveron Arts “The Town Is The Venue” web page:
“Huntly, our town, is based in the North East of Scotland. Its people, history and environment provide us with the context for our work. Our town is about 4,500 people-strong and serves a rural hinterland with a similar amount of people”.
Usually refers to remote areas of a place, well away from the coast or the main rivers and probably also major towns.

German Meaning: Land behind or beyond, back-country. Hinter means behind, Land means country.

Example: "The BBC series Hinterland places a London detective in isolated rural Wales."

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kindergarten drawing

An introductory school for pre-literate children before they start formal school, usually involving creative activity and group play in short sessions.

German Meaning: Literally means a children's garden.

Example: "Princess Diana sent her children to a kindergarten in Kensington."

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poltergeist poster

A Poltergeist is an unseen ghost which moves things and makes noises, and may make things hover in the air.  These physical disturbances are typically tied to a person rather than a place, and in extreme cases may go beyond telekinesis and levitation to actual malicious physical contact with the victim, such as tripping or biting them.

In Northern England such a noisy ghost could be described as a boggart, and in a Cornish mine it would be a knocker, but the imported German word has spread in English as it uniquely describes a precise phenomenon with no other known name or translation in English.  Whether there are more or noisier ghosts in German-speaking lands is a topic for paranormal investigators; perhaps Germans just listened more to ghosts.

German Meaning: Geist means ghost or spirit, and the verb poltern means to make noise or rumble.

Example: Mysterious knocking noises in the cupboards made them wonder if there was a Poltergeist at work.

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Angela Merkel

Realpolitik describes politics, diplomacy, or foreign policy which is practical and responds to the actual powers and conditions in the current situation, rather than to other ideological, moral, religious, or ethical concerns.  This usually means aiming for practical results, and can mean being pragmatic, or being cynical and ruthless and ignoring limits others would respect.

The term Realpolitik was coined by German writer and politician Ludwig von Rochau in the mid nineteenth century to characterise his idea of how to make progress, but later became associated with the successful efforts of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to unify the  patchwork German states into a single nation.

German Meaning: Politik in German means both policy and politics, and real comes from Latin via French and means what it does in English: real, actual.

Example: Richard Nixon's Realpolitik meant he and Henry Kissinger could talk to communists.

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Man with backpack in mountains

A Rucksack is a backpack, literally a bag worn or carried on one’s back. Usually this has two straps over the shoulder and possibly one around the waist, and sometimes an internal frame for rigidity. Alternative English words include knapsack, backpack, haversack, and just plain pack, and alternative carrying devices have emerged in recent years with names such as manbags, bumbags, waistpacks, shoulder bags, bodypacks, and courier bags.

The term Rucksack seems to have expanded in UK English from the middle of the twentieth century, possibly due to the wider popularity of mountaineering and mountaineers in German-speaking countries, or due to standardisations and translations across nations participating in NATO.  Or possibly younger people just liked the term better, but as a noun for a person traveling with a pack on their back,  the predominant English term remains Backpacker.

German Meaning: Rücken means "the back" and in combinations appears as Ruck, and Sack means sack or bag. A Sackgasse is a cul-de-sac.

Example: He filled his rucksack with botanical samples from his alpine excursions.

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Cat's eyes staring

Pleasure, satisfaction or enjoyment in observing or hearing of the losses, suffering, setbacks or misfortunes of others. A unique and untranslatable mix of “I told you so”, “Serves them right”, and “Got what was coming”. Usually a secret guilty pleasure akin to “Glad to hear it though I can’t say so”. Do cats enjoy the misfortunes of mice?

German Meaning: Joy in damages or losses. Schaden means damages, Freude means joy.

Example: "We felt a certain Schadenfreude at hearing they lost the election after ignoring our advice."

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English has also been enriched by Romans, Greeks, Celts, Arabs, Persians, Russians, Indians, Italians, Vikings, Spaniards, Normans and more recently Twitter, and the process continues.