English has many words that are exactly the same in German.
For example: warm, blond, finger, etc.
And there are German words that sound like English and are, in fact, cognates.
For example: Bett (bed), Fisch (fish), leicht (light), etc.
German is easy, right?
Though trying to find the shared root between German and English words is a perfectly good strategy for learning vocabulary, watch out!
In some cases this tactic might not only fail you, it might have you chuckling inappropriately or, worse, put you in a sticky situation!
10 Common German Vocabulary Words that Don’t Mean Quite What You’d Think
The following is a list of common German words that don’t mean quite what you might have expected…
To hear many of these words used in context, by native German speakers, tune into FluentU.
With meticulous, interactive captions, you’ll see every word that’s spoken in a video—and you can just hover over anything unfamiliar to get instant definitions, pronunciations and extra usage examples.
A huge library of videos on all sorts of topics mean that you can always find something interesting to watch. And, since videos are organized by learning level, you can get challenge without frustration.
Fun, adaptive exercises let you practice what you’re learning, ensuring that you truly understand all your new vocabulary and grammar.
FluentU tracks your progress and will let you know when it’s time to review, using multimedia flashcards that keep learning dynamic—so you never forget what you’ve learned.
Check it out with the free trial. You’ll get much better acquainted with the tricky German words below, as well as a lot of other essential German vocab.
And now, without further ado, let’s unveil the real meanings of these wily words.
1. Rat (m.)
Perhaps one day one of your German friends will be in a pickle and he or she will ask you for a Rat. Do not chuckle! This friend, who may be having a work- or relationship-related problem, is not asking you for a vermin of the rodent variety! Rat, or “advice,” is one of the most common words in the German language in the context of friendship. Since it can also mean “counsel” or “council,” it is also useful when talking about government agencies; hence, Europäischer Rat (European Council).
Maria sucht Rat bei ihren Freunden.
(Maria is seeking advice from her friends.)
Der Bundesrat ist ein Verfassungsorgan Deutschlands.
(The Federal Council is a constitutional body of Germany.)
2. Fahrt (f.)
Inevitably, when an English speaker travels to a German-speaking country, this word is a source of much amusement. Found on signs near driveways, highways, and train stations, this common German word has nothing to do with what happens after you eat too much Mexican food! Fahrt, meaning “trip,” “drive,” “journey,” or “ride,” is a useful word when you’re trying to find out information about the train you need to take! Don’t stop to laugh or take a picture of the sign with you smartphone like most tourists! You may miss your train!
(Have a good trip!)
Die Fahrt dauert drei Tage.
(The journey takes three days.)
3. bald (adv.)
You are meeting a potential employer for lunch and he is running late. He texts you, “I’ll be there bald.” No, he did not leave his toupée at home! Bald, or “soon,” is another very common word in German, as well as another potential source of giggles for English speakers. Due to the nature of this adverb, it can also take on many related meanings like “shortly,” “before long,” and “in a hurry.” Learn this important word as bald as possible!
(See you soon!)
Antworte mir so bald wie möglich!
(Answer me as soon as possible!)
For the sake of keeping this blog post PG-rated, let’s assume that this word is funny because it is a common English nickname for “Richard.” Dick, or “fat,” is hopefully not a word you will be calling people very often, especially if you’re trying to make new German friends! Nevertheless, it is useful for describing many everyday things. Depending on the context in which it is used, it can also mean “thick,” “plump,” “heavy,” and “chubby.”
Ich mache Sport um nicht dick zu werden.
(I exercise in order to not get fat.)
Ich kann nichts hören, weil die Wand zu dick ist.
(I can’t hear anything because the wall is too thick.)
5. hell (adj.)
If you’re not familiar with this word, it might make you think of Dante’s Inferno or, if you’re like me, just a really, really bad day. In fact, this word has quite the opposite meaning in German. Hell, meaning “bright,” “light,” “fair,” or “clear,” is a versatile adjective that can be used to describe many things: the weather, the amount light in a room, someone’s face, a color, etc. Don’t be surprised when a German speaker describes the sky as hell!
Es wird langsam hell.
(Day is dawning. Literally: It is slowly getting light.)
Der Künstlers Gemälde ist hellblau.
(The artist’s painting is light blue.)
6. womit (adv.)
This common German adverb has an unfortunate English false cognate. Nope, your German teacher is not talking about puke! Womit means “whereby,” “wherewith,” “with which,” or “with what.” Though using this word in spoken language can sound a bit formal, it is very common to see it in written texts. You can be sure that Goethe or Schiller are not referring to anybody hurling!
Das Messer, womit ich schneide ist scharf.
(The knife with which I am cutting is sharp.)
Womit verdient er sein Brot?
(What does he do for a living? Literally: With what does he earn his bread?)
7. Schmuck (m.)
If you grew up in New York City like yours truly, or anywhere near a large Jewish community, you have probably called somebody a schmuck or have yourself been called one. A schmuck in American English is a pejorative of Yiddish origin meaning someone who is stupid or foolish. If you call someone a Schmuck in German, however, you will probably not get the reaction you were expecting. Schmuck in German can mean either “jewelry” or “jewel,” probably the last thing you want to call someone that you actually want to insult!
Der Schmuck der Königin ist unbezahlbar.
(The queen’s jewelry is priceless.)
Der gesamte Schmuck fiel ihren Erben zu.
(All the jewelry went to her heirs.)
8. Wiener (adj.)
Like Fahrt, Wiener is another classic German word that tends to make English speakers chortle with elementary school glee. Wiener, or “Viennese,” is the demonym for the people of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Vienna (Wien)! It may also be describe anything that comes from Vienna such as Wiener Schnitzel. If I were you, I wouldn’t point out what wiener is in English to your new Austrian friend. I’m sure they’ve heard it a thousand times!
Franz Schubert war Wiener.
(Franz Schubert was Viennese.)
Das Wiener Klima ist schön.
(The Viennese climate is beautiful.)
9.damit (adv. or conj.)
This is yet another German adverb with a humorous false cognate. Nope, your German friend is not angry with you or expressing any sort of displeasure. Damit more often than not means “with it”, “with this,” or “thereby,” but may also mean “for this reason” or “with that said. ” It is fairly common to encounter this adverb so start trying to forget what it sounds like in English! Damn it, why doesn’t the German language throw us a bone?!
Hör auf damit!
(Cut it out! Literally: Stop with it!)
Ich habe nichts damit zu tun!
(I have nothing to do with it!)
10. Fuchs (m.)
Surprisingly, this German word comes up often in a place like Berlin where these cute little animals are common to see. Fuchs, or “fox,” is a good word to add to your zoological vocabulary. If you want to use it, please remember that the German vowel “u” is pronounced “oo.” German speakers are generally familiar with English swear words and if you pronounce it wrong, they may think think you’re saying something not so pleasant!
Der Fuchs ist süß aber gefährlich.
(The fox is cute but dangerous.)
Es gibt viele Rotfüchse in Europa.
(There are many red foxes in Europe.)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.