Do German imports make English rich?

Here we’re collecting, defining and explaining for you some of the many German words now used in English.  Some are surprising. Languages often import words when they need or want an exact word which they lack, or they just like a foreign word better.

 

Angst
Face of a troubled woman

Angst is used in English to describe general anxiety, which may have no specific cause, and may be about the general state of the world. It tends to suggest doom and gloom and unmanageable feelings of helplessness in the face of a cloud of problems.  The term is nowadays often used, possibly disparagingly, to refer to the worries and concerns adolescents face in growing up.  While fear and anxiety may be a response to a stimulus or environmental factor, Angst in English suggest more a fundamental condition of worry and unease that is part of the human condition – perhaps explaining the need to import a simple foreign word meaning fear to describe a more precise condition.

German Meaning: Fear

Example: Adolescent Angst sees young people worry a lot about how their peers perceive them

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Berg
snow covered mountain

Adding the German noun Berg, meaning mountain, to the end of an English noun can create a new English word meaning “a mountain of,” as in iceberg. More recently the problem of fat build-up and the resulting obstruction in urban drains and sewers has given rise to the term fatberg, which is itself being imported into German as it uniquely describes a new phenomenon. Alleged surpluses of subsidised EU agricultural goods could also lead to English terms such as the butterberg, and the German language does, in fact, already have the established term Butterberg.

In wartime 1917, the current British royal family actually chose to remove the German word berg from their family name, adopting Mountbatten instead of Battenberg. A battenberg remains a popular kind of multi-coloured sponge cake in the UK, featuring a sweet, cream-coloured marzipan outer layer.

The choice of image for this article will come as no surprise to Wolfgang Ambros fans.

German Meaning: Berg means mountain.

Example: A huge fatberg blocked part of London's sewer system.

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Blitz
urban lightning

Blitz has become a noun and a verb in English, used to refer to a rapid campaign or assault, usually one that totally takes care of a task. This can mean a sudden, overwhelming military attack, or more commonly, a fast and concerted campaign to achieve something or overcome something.   A media blitz or advertising blitz, for example, means a big, coordinated effort to flood the media with the desired message at the desired time.

Blitz means lightning in German, with all the connotations of speediness.  The compound word Blitzkrieg means  literally “lightning war”  or “lightning warfare” and referred to a second world war German tactic of extremely fast mechanised and aerial assault to take large amounts of  territory from an enemy. Consequently the English term “the Blitz” or “during the Blitz” is still widely used to refer to the period of sustained bombing raids on London during that war. Interestingly, in this case the word blitz refers to a lengthy campaign that did not result in loss of territory or surrender.  The term is also used in American football for a particular attack move by defensive players.

In informal speech getting blitzed can mean getting intoxicated with drink or drugs, as in the title of a well-researched  book about the Third Reich’s use of stimulants, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler. Nowadays, to blitz something is sometimes used in a culinary context (especially stateside/across the pond) when, for example, recipe directions say to “blitz all ingredients together in a blender to make a smoothie”.

German Meaning: Blitz means lightning

Example: The boss wanted a blitz on housekeeping before the conference, so the staff blitzed all the cobwebs and dust.

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Doppelgänger
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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Ersatz
Ersatzkaffee

In English an ersatz version of a product is an imitation version, usually inferior and used as a substitute when the original product is not available or not affordable. The English adjective ersatz is adopted from the German noun Ersatz, which denotes a substitute or replacement item. Twentieth century wartime shortages motivated the development of many widely used ersatz products, most famously Ersatzkaffee, or imitation coffee. Alternative words in English include imitation, substitute, synthetic, artificial, simulated, fake, and faux, itself imported from French.

The term in English can also apply to abstract nouns, meaning in effect simulated or faked, such as for example ersatz outrage. Ersatz might even be usefully applied to many contemporary stories by describing them as ersatz news.

German Meaning: The German noun Ersatz means a replacement or substitute, from the German verb ersetzen which means to replace.

Example: During wartime shortages, ersatz coffee was made from roasted grain.

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Fest
Oktoberfest collage

The German word Fest can be added to the end of an English  word to create a new compound word describing a festival, gathering or conference, such as a bookfest or filmfest.  Our local well-known author Patrick Gale is a staunch supporter of the North Cornwall Book Fest(ival). The English meaning is essentially a get-together to consume, celebrate, experience or discuss something specific, whether concrete such as food, or abstract, such as art.  Fest is also often used in internet domain names for public festivals or gatherings, achieving shortness and memorability with no need for translation.

The annual Oktoberfest in Munich is now famous worldwide for its tents full of beer drinking, singing, dancing and eating. It is technically the world’s largest folk festival, and many other places in the world now hold their own Oktoberfest, spreading and popularising the term far and wide.

Fest can be used informally and humorously in English to describe people getting together and sharing or focusing on one topic or activity, for example: “They had a bit of a tv fest that evening and didn’t do any work, so tomorrow will be a homework fest.”  A recent Observer article referred to “the cringefest that was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate,” implying those present would have been cringing in shame or embarrassment at the awkward proceedings.

 

German Meaning: Fest means festival, party, feast, or celebration.

Example: Many authors look forward to attending the annual Litfest to talk about books and literature.

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Gestalt
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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Gesundheit
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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Glockenspiel
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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Hinterland
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
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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Kitsch
Kitsch horses as lawn decoration

Kitsch is used in English, as both an adjective and a noun, to describe a decorative item that is seen as overly sentimental, or even cheap and vulgar. Its meaning is usually disparaging, implying the speaker does not find the item tasteful, original, or of artistic merit, and often describes widely reproduced and inexpensive, mass-produced objects. Similar words in English could be tack or tacky, cheesy, or even bling, or schlock.

Kitsch also applies to other art forms, for example kitsch literature or drama or architecture. Kitsch art may be a simple imitation of a well-known work or genre of work, often simplified for mass appeal and distribution.  More recently a loose group of artists began to re-use the term to describe their realist classical painting style as the Kitsch Movement, exhibiting together and espousing a new kitsch philosophy.

German Meaning: Kitsch means rubbish or trash.

Example: Disneyland features a fine collection of kitsch castles.

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Poltergeist
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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Realpolitik
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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Rucksack
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 shoulders and possibly one around the waist, and sometimes an internal frame for rigidity. Alternative English words include knapsack, backpack, haversack, and just plain pack. Other carrying devices have also 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 backpacker remains the predominant noun used in English to describe a person travelling with a pack on their back.

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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Salonfähig
grand salon room

A person who is salonfähig is suitable for presentation to, and participation in, polite society such as you would find in a formal reception or drawing room, or in eighteenth century French high society’s literary discussion groups.

The term is also conversely used in a disparaging way to say someone is “not salonfähig,” meaning not suitable for polite society, or not educated or mannered enough to be acceptable to the speaker.  The term could also describe improper, profane, or taboo language or someone who uses such speech, or even taboo ideas. A lengthy English language article in the New European on possible repairs to the reputation of  German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discusses whether Nietzsche’s actual ideas really were precursors of twentieth century fascism and racism, then asks whether Nietzsche can be made salonfähig again.

Salon as used in German is the formal reception room, sitting room or drawing room of a large house. Fähig means capable, and used as a suffix means capable of.  Someone or something that is salonfähig is suitable for a salon or able to function there. The term Salon was taken into German from the French usage of the term, taken in turn from Italian salone, a larger version of the Italian sala, or room, itself taken from the German Saal, or room. So Salon is in a sense a very capable word that has come full circle.

You may also at times find an accepted anglicised spelling of salonfähig as salonfaehig, largely due to QWERTY keyboard limitations.

 

German Meaning: Salon as used in German is the formal reception room, sitting room or drawing room of a large house. Fähig means capable, and used as a suffix means capable of.

Example: The elocution lessons from Professor Higgines made the girl seem salonfähig.

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Schadenfreude
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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Spitzenkandidat
Election Ballot Paper

Named politician leading a political party’s candidate list in an electoral system using proportional representation. See European Voice article of 14 February 2015 on the subject, and see also State of the European Union address analysis here.  The EU’s introduction of named leaders to European-wide elections required a precise word to describe the role, and German is the largest EU member and has  a proportional representation election process, so provides a term which is lacking in English, particularly given the UK’s crippling lack of proportional representation systems.

German Meaning: Top Candidate. Spitze means top or peak, as on a mountain, and Kandidat means candidate


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Über
man above clouds

In German the word über is a common preposition and prefix meaning over or above, as well as meaning at times across, through, during, about, and among. The dots above the letter U in the original are called an umlaut and indicate a different pronunciation of that letter in German, which can also be indicated by writing the word as ueber, but the English adoption of the term is simply written uber.

Used as a prefix in English, uber creates a new version of the word it is added to that refers to a superior version of the original.  Effectively this superior version is in a class of its own, standing above and apart from all other competing versions, as in the word overlord.  The uber prefix can also imply super, superlative, and in slang can mean excessive or extreme or impressive.

The word is now becoming a noun in English, as you hear people say “I’ll take an uber,” meaning they will use a taxi service summoned via the Uber.com app. Some Uber.com drivers have even been heard referring to their casual driving employment as “ubering.” The rapid and aggressive expansion of the Uber.com company has brought it into conflict with regulatory authorities and social norms in many countries and cities, as it runs ahead of, and sometimes around or outside of,  or even above, the law. Previously known as Ubercab.com, they acquired the domain name Uber.com for about $1m in 2010 precisely to avoid legal restrictions on them using the term cab without the required licence. Given the company’s interaction with large numbers of people and its ambition to replace human drivers with robots and deliver food and goods as well, ubering may become a sinister term or indeed be superseded by uberisation as human beings are progressively displaced and replaced.

The word has interesting and dark historical and political echoes in English and in German to this day. The nineteenth century German language philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discussed an Ubermensch as a destination of human progress. Mensch means simply human being,  and Ubermensch is sometimes approximately translated into English as a Superman despite the cartoon shading that brings, and even the established alternative translation, Overman, is probably not sufficiently gender-neutral for today. Ubermensch was later employed by the Nazis to refer to their concept of a master race with rights to genocidal power over other lesser humans, for whom they invented the term Untermensch, since unter means beneath or below. As uber becomes more and more widespread in English, in future we might even find  Ubermensch rendered into English as Uberman or Uberbeing, or Uberoid.

“Deutschland über alles” is a familiar refrain from the German national anthem introduced in 1922, which after the Nazi era was limited to the third stanza. That change cut out the telling second line of the first stanza, “Über alles in der Welt,” which worryingly translates as above or over everything in the world.  Deutschland über alles as a  fascist phrase was echoed in the 1979 song California Uber Alles by a group called the Dead Kennedys, with the words describing a future fascist state masked in gentle sounding leftist rhetoric.  The song is strangely prophetic of the rise to power of today’s Silicon Valley capitalist elite with their rhetoric of freedom easing in their vast monopolies, spying and thought control systems sheltered under the sweet-sounding  concept of  people just sharing information. As so often, art foretells the future: a transnational totalitarianism achieved through solidarity of the digital billionairiate and the suicidal mass submission of the digital unterfolk.

German Meaning: The German preposition über means over, or above.

Example: Bill Gates was an ubergeek.

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Vorsprung durch Technik
Audi car prototype

Vorsprung durch Technik is an advertising phrase used in English to sell Audi cars, and has even been recorded in the UK trademarks register.  The phrase suggests Audi advances, or gets a lead, through superior technology.

German Meaning: Vorsprung means advancement, progress, literally springing forwards, durch means through or by, and Technik means technology


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Wunderkind
Wunderkind child looking up

A child prodigy, typically one who is recognised for exceptional ability or talent at an early age, especially in the performing arts or mathematics.  The term is generally positive, and appreciative of the child’s talents.

German Meaning: Wonder Child. Wunder means miracle, and Kind means child, as in Kindergarten.

Example: Mozart was a wunderkind, composing music before the age of ten.

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Zeitgeist
Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist means spirit of the times, or more broadly the spirit of an age. Zeitgeist can denote the prevailing cultural climate in a particular era or epoch, including for example its mood, feelings, ideas, ideologies, and beliefs.  Zeit means time, and Geist means spirit, so literally this does mean the spirit of the time, but Geist can mean also mind, intellect, even imagination or ghost.

 

German Meaning: Zeit means time, and Geist means spirit.

Example: Salvador Dali's surrealist paintings of melting clocks reflect the zeitgeist of the inter-war years of the twentieth century, with their profound uncertainty and troubling confusion about what is really real..

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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.