German Loanwords cloud

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. For list of ‘recent finds’ see here.

Achtung
Achtung warning road sign

Achtung means attention in German, and is used in German announcements, signs and warnings. It is particularly familiar to English speakers from films in which they see the military usage, meaning officers calling soldiers to stand at attention. This has lead to half-joking usage of the term in informal English to get people to pay attention, and featured in the title of Irish pop group U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby, which was recorded in Berlin

German Meaning: Achtung is a noun meaning attention in German, and can be used alone with the meaning of "Your attention please", Watch out!", "Danger", "Caution!", or "be aware of...".

Example: "Achtung bro, you gonna set the house on fire like that," he said.

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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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Autobahn
Autobahn bridge and traffic

An Autobahn is a motorway in Germany as well as in Switzerland and Austria, meaning a large purpose-built,  limited-access road solely for motor vehicles making long-distance journeys at speed.  Construction of the German Autobahn network began in the 1930s, well in advance of mass car ownership,  and was the world’s first of its kind and an example to others.  Even today many sections of Autobahn in Germany have no speed limit, allowing unlimited speeds and fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions.

Autobahn is also the title of a 1974 album by influential German musical group Kraftwerk, who are shown on the cover travelling on an Autobahn.

German Meaning: Auto means automobile and Bahn means way, track, path or course.

Example: The German Autobahn is famous for having no speed limits, fast traffic, and no tolls to pay.

The Europa Bridge shown above was for a time the tallest bridge in Europe. Located on the A13 Autobahn in Austria, it was opened in 1963 by the Austrian Chancellor, who asked that it should join “the peoples of Europe in peace and freedom.”


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Bauhaus
Bauhaus school building in Dessau

The Bauhaus  was a short-lived but groundbreaking German school of art and design which existed from 1919 to 1933, launching new thinking and styles with huge influence even into the twenty-first century. The Bauhaus intended to respond to industrialisation by bringing together all art forms, and by changing design methods to shape the new era and its new materials.  Bauhaus in English today refers to both this historic school and its thinking, and also to a widespread modernist style of architecture and design, and even furniture, which originated there. In architecture this may be called the International style, or Modernist Architecture, and is characterised by clean, simple lines, an absence of ornamentation, and a focus on function. The new Bauhaus school building depicted here was designed by Walter Gropius and opened in Dessau in 1927  having been commissioned by the city itself, and typifies the Bauhaus movement’s style.

The Bauhaus school chose to shut down in 1933 under strong pressure from the Nazi party, who had taken power in Germany in that year and were highly critical of  what they claimed were Bauhaus values and influences.  In 1937 the Nazi party even arranged a now famous exhibition titled Degenerate Art showcasing works they despised, many by artists widely respected to this day. Many Bauhaus teachers and practitioners continued to spread Bauhaus ideas, often in exile and so reaching even wider audiences.  The global proliferation of sometimes homogeneous Bauhaus style prompted US author Tom Wolfe to publish a critical  essay in 1981 titled From Bauhaus to Our House, in particular lamenting the lack of ornamentation.

2019 is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bauhaus, with celebrations, commemorations and reflections taking place around the world.

German Meaning: Bau means build, or building, or construction, and Haus means house.

Example: The Bauhaus is thought to be the most influential design school ever.

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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 expected 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 the case of London 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 extensive use of stimulants such as amphetamines, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler. Nowadays, to blitz something is sometimes used in a culinary context, especially in the USA:  recipe directions may say “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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Dolchstoss
Dolchstoss German cartoon

A Dolchstoss, written in German as Dolchstoß, usually refers to an alleged political stab in the back, which a losing leader claims is entirely responsible for their defeat. This use of the word originates from the end of the First World War, when a change of government in Germany preceded the country’s decision to end the war and concede defeate, leading to the Armistice and then the Treaty of Versailles. Right-wing and militaristic elements in Germany then persistently claimed that they had not lost the war on the battlefield, but had been stabbed in the back and betrayed by weak-minded peace-loving politicians who robbed the nation of victory. These claims, also known as the Dolchstosslegende, or Stab In The Back Myth, were repeated up to, and throughout, the Nazi dictatorship under which Germany initiated the Second World War.

Germany had conclusively defeated Russia in 1917, freeing up military resources for the Western Front and bringing hopes of victory over France and Britain. Germany’s decision to resume unlimited U-boat warfare in 1917 was a gamble to speed the end of the war, which ran a high risk of drawing the United States into the war given the US policy reaction to earlier sinkings of their ships by German U-boats.  The United States then declared war on Germany in 1917, and in 1918 the new weight of American arms and men and the force of new technology in the form of the battle tank decisively pushed the Germans back from August 2018.

Historians believe, as did the German military high command at the time, that Germany had conclusively lost the First World War in  the autumn of 1918.  Later claims of being stabbed in the back, the famous Dolchstoss, were a propaganda myth, know in German as the Dolchstoßlegende, or Stab In The Back Myth.

German Meaning: Dolch means dagger and Stoß means a push, shove, blow, stroke, or thrust.

Example: US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton saw FBI Director Comey's late intervention in the 2016 US election campaign as a Dolchstoss.

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Doppelgänger
Double Woman's Head

doppelganger in English is an uncanny double of a person, either real or imagined.  The anglicised word rhymes with banger, but the in the original German word Dopplegänger the letter ä, called “a umlaut”,  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. Famous  literary doppelgangers are well described in the article “True Stories of Doppelgangers“.

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


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Energiewende
wind turbine and sun

The Energiewende is a transition to low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources. The German government have set a policy with a national target of obtaining all the country’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2050.  Germany spends significantly on energy research, and the project and planned transition are providing an example to other countries.  All German nuclear power stations are shutting down by 2022,  and coal burning will be phased out. Renewable energy sources will include wind, solar, and hydro, and in many cases this makes energy provision less centralised and more subject to  local democratic control. A remarkable transition to renewable energy is also under way in Britain and other countries, including also wider adoption of the Passivhaus.

The term Energiewende originated in the early 1980s, and with it the key recognition that economic activity can increase without growth in energy usage. The noun Wende can mean a turn, change, turning point, and even a U-turn.  The term Wende is also currently used in German to describe the change that occurred when the government of East Germany collapsed and then East and West Germany were reunited. The period after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall is said to be “nach der Wende,” meaning after the change.

German Meaning: Energie means energy and Wende means a turn or turning point.

Example: The Energiewende in Germany has increased demand for solar energy and the Passivhaus

Wind turbine image kindly supplied by renewables technology expert Volker Quaschning, author of Renewable Energy and Climate Change, translated from the German by HE Translations.


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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 simply 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 reports 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.  The English meaning is essentially a get-together to consume, celebrate, experience or discuss something specific, whether something physical 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 as a separate word 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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Flak
Anti-aircraft cannon

Flak in English today usually refers to strong criticism or opposition, often targeting a person,  proposal or action.  When someone is “getting flak” or “attracting flak”, they are being criticised or their idea is being shot down. Flak also describes the aerial shellbursts from anti-aircraft cannons, which attacking aircraft have to fly through, and the term was widely used in English in the Second World War.

Flak is the original German acronym for Flugabwehrkanone or Fliegerabwehrkanone, both meaning air defence cannon. Such cannons were first developed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to target French balloons.

German Meaning: Flak is the German acronym for anti-aircraft artillery

Example: The proposal to tarmac the village green started getting flak at once.

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Gestalt
figure-ground faces and vase illusion

The simple word gestalt 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, and this is often illustrated with figure-ground image illusions such as the vase and figures one shown 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, there is an extensive article at Smashing Design and also an informative 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

A glockenspiel is usually a small musical instrument similar to a xylophone but made entirely of metal, making it technically a percussive “metallophone” like the great gamelans of Bali. The glockenspiel is played in orchestras, and even in a solo effort by Cathal Smyth, former member of pop band Madness.  A well known and atypical glockenspiel in the actual form of bells can be seen in London’s Leicester Square, a legacy of the former Swiss Centre there.

 

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


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Hamburger
burger on a bun with lettuce tomato and onion

A hamburger is a cooked patty served on a round bun, and a burger today may be made from plant or animal matter. The term originated in the nineteenth century when the flesh of captive cattle in the Hamburg region of Germany was served raw in patties called a hamburger steak, and this dish was then spread to the USA by German immigrants. Early in the twentieth century in the USA these patties were cooked and served between slices of bread to provide convenience food and the practice became popular, and the word often became shortened to just burger.  Burgers have spread globally and new types are evolving in response to the high CO2 and methane emissions of animal agriculture and the damaging health effects of eating animals.

German Meaning: Hamburger means from the city of Hamburg in Germany.

Example: Fast food restaurants have served billions of hamburgers.

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Hinterland
country road

Hinterland in English usually denotes the remote geographical areas of a place, well away from the coast, the main rivers and major conurbations.  It is a fairly factual and neutral term, unlike backwater, boondocks, or “out in the sticks”. For example, the Deveron Arts “The Town Is The Venue” web page states: “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”.

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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Kafkaesque
Kafka monument bronze sculpture

Franz Kafka, born in 1883 Prague in what is now the Czech Republic, wrote atmospheric and influential German-language novels and short stories in the early twentieth century.  His works include Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle, and the famous short story The Metamorphosis where a man wakes in his bed to find himself transformed into a large and unwelcome insect. Kafka presents a surreal, fascinating and frustrating world filled with uncertainty and anxiety when dealing with a faceless and unfathomable state apparatus.

The adjective kafkaesque usually means something is suggestive of Franz Kafka’s writings, particularly having a bizarre, nightmarishly complicated, incomprehensibly threatening or illogical quality.  The term is often applied to inconvenient and incomprehensible administrative procedures and decisions.  Kafkaesque has become widely used in English, with a meaning now broad enough to cover inexplicable, threatening, mysterious, mystifying, absurd, paradoxical, surreal, labyrinthine, uncanny, nightmare-like, or whatever the speaker may regard as strikingly strange.

This word is written as kafkaesk in German but actually sounds the same as the English word.  The suffix -esque in English and the suffix -esk in German both derive from the French suffix -esque and likewise form adjectives meaning “in the style or manner of,” or “similar to, resembling.” Other examples include Chaplinesque, picturesque, and Rubenesque.

German Meaning: Like Franz Kafka or his stories.

Example: Joseph Heller's book Catch 22 describes a world of kafkaesque military bureaucracy.

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Kaputt
broken car that is kaput

Usually written kaput in English, this widely used word comes from the German kaputt, which in turn comes from the French capot. Kaput in English concisely describes something which is out of action, not working, broken, or exhausted, defeated, or finished, and may also refer to abstracts, such as capitalism or communism.

German Meaning: German took this word from the French capot, meaning out of action and losing in the card game piquet.

Example: The printer was kaput so they wrote the invitations by hand.

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Kindergarten
kindergarten drawing

A kindergarten is 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 kids to a kindergarten in Kensington.

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Kindertransport
Jewish refugees leaving ship in England

The Kindertransport was a historic event, a sponsored evacuation of children from Germany and nearby countries just before the second world war, bringing nearly 10,000 Jewish children to safety in the United Kingdom. In the face of dramatically increasing danger to Jews in Germany in 1938, the UK government had agreed to waive immigration requirements for these children up to the age of 17, as long as their stay was temporary and any costs were not covered by the state.  Thousands of the Kindertransport children remained in Britain after the war; many had lost their families.

From 1939 the danger of aerial bombardment also led to the evacuation of over a million children from cities in Britain to rural locations, leaving their parents behind.

German Meaning: Kinder means children and Transport means transport or transporting.

Example: Several contemporary artists left Germany forever as children in the Kindertransport of 1938-39.

Image provided by the Bundesarchiv under CC licence


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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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Lager
a glass of beer

Lager is a type of beer brewed with a cold conditioning period after the initial fermentation. Lagers mature in cold storage and usually use a certain yeast called “bottom-fermenting” which can ferment at low temperature. In German a lager is a storage place or storehouse, so lagerbier described this beer which was left in cold storage to develop before the advent of electrical refrigeration. Leafy chestnut trees planted over such underground storage to keep it cool may have given rise to the biergarten, or beer garden.

While lager may be light or dark in colour, in the UK lager usually refers just to pale beers of the lager type, and overdrinking holidaymakers are sometimes described as “lager louts”.   The word Lager also occurs in the compound word Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp, often referred to as just a Lager.

German Meaning: Lager means a storeroom, store, or camp.

Example: She ordered a pint of lager and a packet of crisps.

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Meister

The German word Meister means master, and in English is used as a suffix.  Adding this to the end of an English word describes someone who has expert knowledge or proficiency in that field, possibly dominating it with their outstanding skill. There is no established convention yet in English about treating the new word as a single compound word, or hyphenating it, or writing two separate words.

The German word Meister is possibly a bit broader in meaning than the English word master, comprising also accredited craftsmen (who are a key element in Germany’s Mittelstand), master artists, and also describing a winner or champion.  A Weltmeister is a world champion, and a Weltmeisterschaft is a world championship.

German Meaning: Meister means master in German

Example: Behind every succesful politician is a spinmeister.

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Mittelstand
Mittelstand company office building

The term Mittelstand is a broad collective term for the small and medium-sized firms in the economies of Germany and  the German-speaking countries.  The Mittelstand is much studied, admired and discussed, as it is thought to be  a  major factor in Germany’s current economic and technological success, and also because Mittelstand companies are generally quite different in composition, behaviour and strategy from the companies of corresponding size in the Anglosphere economies. Numerically the Mittelstand is typically defined as comprising firms having 50 to 500 employees, though some larger firms may be referred to as Mittelstand firms for qualitative reasons.  Mittelstand firms account for nearly 70% of Germany’s exports and employ the largest number of workers in the German economy.

The qualities seen as typical of successful Mittelstand firms are long-established family ownership and long-term strategies, social responsibility and investment in the workforce and technology, low staff turnover, and often strong regional roots and connections to other companies.  Such firms are often major exporters and market leaders in a niche or technology, and take a long term approach to investment and the development of new products, though there is now uncertainty about how they will deal with the challenges of Industry 4.0, also called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, or in German called Industrie 4.0.

The term Mittelstand may also be applied at times to what in other countries is called the SME or Small and Medium Enterprise sector, often in discussions of  the lesser  presence and significance of such firms in the corporate-dominated and short-term shareholder profit paying economies of the Anglosphere.

German Meaning: Mittel means middle and Stand means position, or station, in society.

Example: The German Mittelstand is admired for its long-term approach to investment and staffing.

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Noodle
uncooked noodles

Noodles originated in China over 4000 years ago, yet using the word noodle to refer to food  in the English language was actually adopted from the similarly pronounced German Nudel in 1779, almost a hundred years before the word pasta entered English from Italian and long after English had begun using noodle to mean “head”.  As pasta is essentially flour drawn out into long thin shapes, the German word Nudel is likely from the German word Knödel, which means dumpling, usually made from wheat or other starchy products. The plural Nudeln in German can refer to almost all forms of pasta, such as spaghetti, shells, spirals and so on.

In English a noodle today is a specific form of pasta: usually a long, thin, curly shape, and not a short or straight one, and is made from finer flour than other pasta, or from a gluten-free alternative to flour such as rice. Often these noodles are of the kind widely eaten in Asia such as ramen, and nowadays are available in portion-sized packets for quick preparation at home.

The English expression “Use your noodle” means “Think!” or “Think about it!” and may reflect a perceived similarity between a cooked bowl of curly noodles and the many curves of the human brain, or simply a much older English meaning: from the sixteenth century the word just referred to the human head, later coming to mean a foolish person, and in the present “noodling” can mean acting foolishly or wasting time.

German Meaning: Noodle or pasta, possibly from the word Knödel, which means dumpling

Example: Wagamamma run a chain of noodle bar restaurants.

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Passivhaus
passivhaus technical diagram

Passivhaus can refer to a technical standard or a philosophy for buildings that function with little or no external energy input. A Passivhaus may also be an actual building or house.  The Passivhaus, or Passive House, standard stipulates very low annual energy consumption for heating and cooling, and very low levels of air leakage from the building.  This standard arose from research projects in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, bringing the German word to a wider audience via projects, buildings and the Passiv Institut in Darmstadt.  The use of the term passiv may have originated from earlier use of passive solar heating, where solar heat is captured and stored in a heat sink to maintain the temperature of a house.

Passivhaus buildings involve a special design process, feature very high levels of insulation called superinsulation, and do not need a conventional full heating system. The relatively sealed nature of the building normally requires some mechanical form of air circulation, such as a heat exchanger. Different countries have been developing their own Passivhaus standards in response to their own climate circumstances, and to meet these standards a Passivhaus does not necessarily have to employ passive solar or even achieve net zero energy consumption.

German Meaning: Passiv means passive and Haus means house

Example: A new-build UK Passivhaus would use 77% less energy for space heating than a conventional build.

Image kindly supplied by the Passiv Institut at passiv.de under a Creative Commons licence.


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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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Pretzel
a pretzel

A pretzel is a baked pastry in the shape of a knot, and may be hard or soft, simple or ornate.  Pretzels originated in Germany in the pre-Christian era, where they are called Brezel.  The letter ‘z’ in German is pronounced like English ‘ts’,  so when English adopted this word the ‘t’ was added to match the original sound.

Basic pretzels are made with water, flour and salt and dipped in water and lye before baking, and so are vegan and suitable for the Christian religious period of Lent.   In the Middle Ages in Europe pretzels were symbols of  good fortune and prosperity, and the pretzel is often used as a symbol of the baking trade in Germany even today. Small, hard pretzels keep well and are often served as salty snacks with drinks such as beer, and there is also a pretzel emoji and a pretzel lovemaking position.

German Meaning: A Brezel is a German pastry in the shape of a knot.

Example: The salt on the pretzels made them drink even more beer.

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Putsch
Kapp Putsch Berlin

The German word Putsch has been adopted into English to describe the sudden overthrow of a government, usually planned by a small group, and involving force or the threat of force.  Putsch in English is a recent but popular alternative to the word coup, short for coup d’etat which English had imported from French, as English lacks a concise term to denote the decapitation of the state by power-seeking insiders. Putsch means a blow or shove in the original Swiss-German, and came into wider usage to describe popular uprisings in Switzerland in the 1830s and then later events in twentieth century Germany.

A coup d’etat, literally a blow against the state, is a forced overthrow of the current government by a minority, usually illegal and backed by military action or the threat of it, and typically leading to government by the military or persons appointed by the military or appointed by the violent insurrectionists.  A coup can be an ambiguous term in English without proper context – the French word means a blow, but coup in English can mean a “singular success” such as getting a scoop, as well as being short for coup d’etat.  A coup may also be bloodless, with the media commonly referring to a “palace coup” or “administrative coup” or “boardroom coup” to describe changes in power relationships. In those contexts the term putsch could work as well, but would sound a bit stronger to many.

In wider usage putsch in English has come to be an informal shorthand term for the surprise removal, or attempted removal, of a leader of any kind by an organised group or conspiracy, who may even be in the leader’s own political party or organisation.  The term has the additional attraction of sounding very like the English word push, so organising a putsch equates to “giving someone the push”,  meaning sacking them or removing them from their position.  Participants in a putsch can be called putschists, and a failed putsch can become famous in its own right, with perhaps the most famous being the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923.

German Meaning: Putsch means a push or shove in Swiss-German.

Example: The Kapp Putsch of 1920 saw troops on the streets of Berlin, but was ended by a General Strike which paralysed the country.

The image above used to illustrate this entry was kindly supplied by the German Federal Archive, the Bundesarchiv, under a Creative Commons licence.  The photo shows troops on the streets of Berlin during the Kapp Putsch of 1920, and the sign in the photo reads “Stop! Anyone passing this point will be shot.”


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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 Higgins made the girl seem salonfähig.

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Sauerkraut
jars of sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is finely chopped cabbage which has been stored with salt and fermented, which adds beneficial bacteria nowadays fashionably known as probiotics.  The fermentation conserves vitamins using a pickling method that was traditional before frozen food and rapid food transport became available. Preserved cabbage, such as also Korean kimchi, was in many places a staple winter food in the absence of fresh produce. Sauerkraut keeps without refrigeration, and although it may be served heated, heating actually destroys the beneficial bacteria.

English has no homegrown term for this food, which is widely eaten in Europe and thought to have arrived there from the far east, possibly with Genghis Khan. In German sauer means sour and Kraut means herb, or leaves and stem of a plant, but in compound words -kraut forms names for types of cabbage, with Rotkraut meaning red cabbage for example.

Sauerkraut also played a key role in the expansion of European empires and sea trade from the late eighteenth century because it helped end the crew deaths caused by scurvy, a disease that would previously kill half the crew on a long sea voyage due to them lacking vitamin C in their limited diet.

From 1918 Kraut is known as an anglophone derogatory name for Germans, with a rather more neutral usage emerging in the 1970s in the UK to describe experimental German rock music as Krautrock.

German Meaning: Sauer means sour and Kraut means cabbage

Example: Captain Cook's expedition showed sauerkraut saved sailors' lives.

Image kindly supplied Gandydancer under creative commons licence.


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Schadenfreude
Cat's eyes staring

Schadenfreude means 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

The Spitzenkandidat is the 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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Strudel
Strudel in a dish

A strudel is usually a sweet baked dessert of fruit wrapped in thin pastry in a swirl shape. The dish is generally served warm, and may be made with many types of  filling such cherries, plums or raisins and even vegetables, with apple strudel being best-known and most popular.  The word strudel means whirlpool or eddy in the German language, and so describes the shape of  the vortex of pastry that draws in the appreciative eater. The dish originated in Austria but was widely served throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the large central and eastern European multi-ethnic and multinational state which was dissolved at the end of the First World War in 1918 leaving Austria and other countries as small independent nations.

German Meaning: Strudel means whirlpool in German.

Example: They served hot apple strudel with the coffee.

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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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Verboten
Access prohibited sign with verboten text

Verboten is an adjective in German meaning forbidden, as it is the past participle form of the verb verbieten which means to forbid. It often appears on German signs indicating something is prohibited, banned, or otherwise not allowed.  The term is used in informal English, possibly with humorous emphasis, to say something is very forbidden or prohibited.

German Meaning: Verboten means forbidden, prohibited, banned, not allowed, not permitted.

Example: Letting the dog get on the bed is verboten in their household.

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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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Wanderlust
Painting of mountain walker by Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderlust is used in English to describe the desire to travel, usually to explore new and stimulating places.  German Romantic literature and art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century made much of journeys of discovery, perhaps causing this word to travel into English to fill a void where no word had gone before.  A 2018 exhibition in Berlin titled Wanderlust showcases many of these historic works from across the continent, including the above painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Interestingly contemporary German usage prefers the term Fernweh where English now uses Wanderlust, with Fernweh being the literal opposite of Heimweh, which means homesickness.  Fern means distant and Weh is an ache, so this is an aching for some remote destination.

The German noun Lust is a broad and positive term covering enjoyable desire of every kind, and so not really a direct equivalent of the narrow English term lust. The English word lust typically describes a desire that is dangerous or disapproved of such as sexual desire or desire for money.  In English lust is used in the Christian religion to denote sexual desire, when occurring outside of approved conditions, as being one of the seven deadly sins which can result in divine punishment.

This confusion about lust is reflected in the titling of a 2012 film Wanderlust, and a 2018 BBC series titled Wanderlust, both dealing with issues of  people’s desire wandering from a fixed partner. Traditionally saying a spouse has “a wandering eye” means they look lustfully at people other than their own spouse, often causing tensions and material for drama.

German Meaning: Desire to trek. The verb wandern means to trek, hike, walk, wander, roam, ramble, or migrate. The German noun Lust means desire or wish to do something.

Example: Stories of Atlantis filled them with wanderlust and they started looking for it on Google.

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Wirtschaftswunder
VW Beetle car

Wirtschaftswunder means economic miracle and originally described the exceptional growth and stability of the West German economy after 1948, leaving behind the widespread destruction of the Second World War.  Throughought the 1950s the West German economy grew at 8% per annum, with low inflation and increasing mass prosperity. The Volkswagen Beetle car which sold massively around the world is often seen as a symbol of this Wirtschaftswunder, and a country enjoying rapid economic growth is sometimes said to be experiencing a wirtschaftswunder.

The Wirtschaftswunder is credited to numerous factors, among them the survival of large German firms and their technological and scientific edge, availability of a large pool of skilled workers, and traditional German work ethic and industriousness, called Fleiß.  Some have even argued that the fact that Germany had been flattened meant starting over and doing it better in many industries,  eventually overtaking  industries in other undamaged countries less geared to investment and innovation.  Interestingly, before re-unification of the two Germanies, East Germany enjoyed a stronger economy than other East Block countries.

One contributing factor in starting the Wirtschaftswunder was the huge financial support given to German reconstruction, and to the UK and France, by the USA’s Marshall Plan, which was intended to create stability, as well as trading partners and markets for US goods, and avoid repeating the harsh conditions under which fascism arose in the 1930s, or under which communism might prosper in future. By contrast, the Versailles Treaty of 1919 formally ending the First World War had imposed punitive and harsh reparations payments on Germany, requiring payment of billions to other countries to compensate for their losses and damages.  In the economic hardship of the times the reparations had become a contentious financial and political burden and stopped in the 1930s.

Wirtschaft means economy, where Wirt means host and -schaft creates an abstract noun similar to “household management”, and Wunder means miracle. Other German words containing Wunder in English include Wunderkind and Wunderbar.

German Meaning: Wirtschaft means economy and Wunder means miracle.

Example: Ireland's wirtschaftswunder as the Celtic Tiger economy ended with the crash of 2007.

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Wunderbar
Graphic of the word wow

The German adjective wunderbar means wonderful and has crept into English language usage as a standalone exclamation of appreciation, admiration and even approval. The closeness to the English word ‘wonder’  has led to many puns and even product names, with the Cadbury sweets company selling a Wunderbar chocolate bar in Canada and Germany, though the same product is sold in many other countries as a Starbar.

2018-19 featured a year of transnational sweetness between the USA and Germany with the ongoing Wunderbar Together programme to celebrate and strengthen German-American friendship and partnership – funded by the Federal Foreign Office, implemented by Goethe Institute, supported by German industry body BDI and launched on 3 October, German Unity Day.  A large number of Germans emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, though some changed or Anglicised their surnames in the 1914-18 war.

German Meaning: The German noun Wunder means a wonder or a miracle, and the suffix -bar adds the meaning of -able. For example, trinkbar means drinkable.

Example: "Wunderbar," she said when she saw the freshly painted signs.

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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, can be called a wunderkind.  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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Yodel
Group of Swiss male yodelers

The English verb yodel comes from the German verb jodeln, which means to create or pronounce the sound yo, as the German letter “j” is pronounced like “y” in English. Yodeling is singing which alternates rapidly between falsetto voice, also called head voice, and chest voice.  Traditional alpine yodeling in Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany uses sounds and not words, and was used to communicate from mountain to mountain, or to call in herds of cows.  In the nineteenth century yodeling gained wider popularity as a group performance and entertainment, and in the first half of the twentieth century featured in popular entertainments in the USA.

In the USA a yodel is also a mass-produced mini-cake in the shape of a log, with chocolate icing around a dark cake interior with a spiral of cream in the centre, resembling the type of cake which is called a Swiss Roll. In the UK Yodel.co.uk are a widely used and low-waged delivery company for internet purchases, possibly having chosen that name as it could be shorthand for “Yo! Deliver!”, which might reflect the classic highwayman’s call of  “Stand and Deliver!”.

German Meaning: The German verb jodeln means to make the sound "yo".

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_yodelers.jpg


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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.

 

In the light of the climate emergency, the energy industry is under pressure to follow the zeitgeist and accelerate the energy transition based on decentralisation, decarbonisation, digitalisation and democratisation.

 

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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Zeppelin
Zeppelin rigid airship

A Zeppelin is a rigid, lighter-than-air airship, also technically known as a dirigible. Invented and built in Germany at the start of the twentieth century by the former military officer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, they were used to form the world’s first airline service, used for sightseeing, used for bombing British cities in the First World War, and to carry passengers across the Atlantic in as little as 44 hours. The very long thin cigar-like shape of  the zeppelins, which were twice the length of a Boeing 747 aircraft, means sometimes people refer to an object as being “zeppelin shaped”.

Unlike hot air balloons and blimps, zeppelins have a rigid internal structure and originally got their lift from the hydrogen gas which filled them, not the safer helium gas in use today.  Helium is inert but hydrogen burns easily, leading to the immensely famous Hindenburg disaster of 1937 when the prestigious transatlantic zeppelin The Hindenburg caught fire while docking in the USA.   While public fear, and the much greater speed offered by the emerging airplane services, finished off the zeppelin services of that era, CO2 concerns and other factors may lead to the re-introduction of zeppelins in the twenty-first century.

German Meaning: Zeppelin is the surname of the man who invented and pioneered these airships.

Example: In the 1930s zeppelins carried passengers across the Atlantic.

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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. The process continues and so we can expect to see more German phrases used in English as they suit the energiewende and the zeitgeist. Yes, wunderbar!