You may have noticed that the German language often gets a bad rap.
Especially among English speakers.
People often say it sounds “guttural” or “rough,” or that German speakers are “always shouting.”
That perception is doubtless due in no small part to countless World War II movies where the Germans are the bad guys constantly shouting things like Schnell! Schnell! (“Quickly! Quickly!”) and Heil Hitler! (literally “Hail Hitler!” but figuratively “I’m this movie’s terrible Nazi villain!”).
Even today, one of the most recent prominent examples of “German” in English is Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Scheiße,” a surprisingly catchy tune in which she claims that although she doesn’t speak German, she will nevertheless do so if we’d like, and then proceeds to sing several verses of German-sounding gibberish.
If you noticed that I’m trying to use a four-year-old song whose title literally means “s**t” as a relatively positive example, then you can see how the German language is perceived by many people who speak other languages.
So maybe English speakers can be excused if they think that English and German are on completely separate paths that don’t overlap. However, the truth is actually quite different.
If you speak English, then there are likely many German words in your daily speech that you may not have even known came from German.
Both languages have borrowed liberally from each other to form their own vocabulary, and today we’ll talk about some of the most common, interesting, useful and odd German words in use in English.
But first, let’s take a moment to think about why we even have these words in the first place.
Why Are There German Words in English?
That’s a good question—forgive me if I go off on a bit of a spiel here.
First of all, languages constantly change, and English is no exception. It has had notable influence from all over the globe, but especially from Greek, Latin, French and German. That influence may have even been stronger in the US and Canada than in the UK, mainly due to the waves of German immigrants arriving to the “new country” and bringing their language with them. This was likely also enhanced by the presence of immigrants who spoke Yiddish, as well as other Germanic languages.
Generally speaking, most of these immigrants assimilated over a few generations, but the German that they often spoke at home, in school, at church or in the community had an effect that’s still audible to this day. In fact, based on various tallies, Germans are actually the largest single ancestry group in the US. However, the German language is not as widely spoken in the country these days.
At this point, it’s probably also worth mentioning in a quick aside that the legend about German nearly becoming the official language of the US, only to lose by one vote, is untrue. It’s a charming story and a good one to convince people of the power of voting, but it’s unfortunately just a myth. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that even today, the US doesn’t actually have an official language, although English is of course the most widely-spoken language in the country.
Isn’t English a Germanic Language? Does That Mean It Evolved from German?
English is indeed what’s called a Germanic language, which means that it’s grouped in the same family as some other languages that sprang from a common language in the past. Modern-day languages in the family include English and German, of course, but also Dutch, Afrikaans and the Scandinavian languages. The result of all that is that there are a lot of cognates or near-cognates—words that are the same or very similar—between the vocabulary in those languages.
For example, in English we say “house,” and in German the word is Haus. It’s pronounced the same, but spelled slightly differently—and many cognates have similarly minor differences in spelling. Other similar cases are Mann (man), Arm (arm) and Gras (grass). These are cognates, and since many of them describe very common things like body parts, people and places, they generally make up some of the most frequently-used words in both languages.
If you don’t believe me, check out this post with 150+ basic German phrases for beginners. To take one example, consider Komm gut nach Hause! (“Get home safe!”). The figurative translation may look different, but when translated literally, the German person is saying “come,” “good,” “to” and “house.” In that phrase, 75% of the words are pretty close to English, with nach (to) being a notable difference (but preposition differences tend to be tricky in many languages, anyhow). Sure, many of the phrases on the list are significantly different from English, but it’s certainly not as different as it would be between English and Chinese, Xhosa or some other non-Germanic or non-Indo-European language.
However numerous or interesting these words may be, though, they are not what we’ll focus on today. Instead of words like these that developed simultaneously in their respective languages, we’ll look at words that were originally in German, and which were later adapted directly into English. These are often called “loanwords,” although despite their name, there’s nothing temporary about them.
Like “machete,” “buffet” or “assassin,” these words are here to stay. After all, if you say any of the words in the last sentence, no one will say to you, “Hey, speak English, not Spanish/French/Arabic!” In the same way, most native speakers of English will not have any problem understanding any of the words on this list. And when you’re done with this list, be sure to check out this post about some great German words that aren’t loanwords in English yet—but sure should be!
So, let’s finally get to the Fleisch and Kartoffeln of this post! (OK, it looks like those two words didn’t make the crossover to English, so we’ll have to use the good old-fashioned English words for “meat” and “potatoes” after all.)
Achtung, Baby! Learn These 33 German Words Used in English
The list below is divided into different vocabulary areas. Generally, the words are spelled identically or almost identically in both languages, but if there are any changes, the list will use the English spelling.
Also, as you probably know, all nouns in German are capitalized, but generally they’ll be in lowercase here, since English doesn’t do that. And you’ll find that this is mercifully free of any mention of der, die or das (or gender in general). That’s all very important, of course, but since English doesn’t have gendered nouns, you can read this one without worrying about any of that!
Finally, the whole point of this list is that these are German words that are used in English, so for the most part, they have the same or at least very similar meanings in both languages. Most of the explanations are therefore more related to where the word comes from, when or how it’s used, or other interesting trivia tidbits. But if there are indeed differences between usage in both languages, we’ll also get into that a bit. So, let’s do this!
The following words tend to come up fairly frequently, albeit randomly, in daily English speech. Even though they don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories, most English speakers will recognize them without any confusion.
Ah, what a great, Sturm und Drang-y word to start off with! Unless you’re into poetry or literary history, though, you may not recognize the phrase Sturm und Drang (literally “storm and urge”), but you may recognize its effects when you see them. The Sturm und Drang movement was all about literature and music that displayed overwhelming emotions, and angst was surely one of those emotions.
The original German word Angst, however, is generally understood to mean “fear.” For example, Ich habe Angst vor Schlangen means “I’m afraid of snakes.” In English, the word is usually used to express a dissatisfaction or disenchantment with life in general; people also talk about “teenage angst” or “existential angst.”
Although this may seem like a simple chemical or scientific name, this is more than just a mere cognate. Diesel fuel is named after Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine. He may have been nearly broke when he died under mysterious (and interesting) circumstances, but his name lives on to this day in English, as well as in many other languages.
This word, a synonym for “replacement,” “substitute” or “artificial,” may not be as common as some of the other words in this section, but it makes up for that by generally sounding cool.
For example, you could say “Mrs. Baker is out sick today, so I guess I’ll just have to be the ersatz boss” or “The Germans are coming over for coffee and cake—don’t you dare serve them that ersatz coffee or ersatz creamer, or they’ll find some ersatz friends to replace us!”
While this word may have a few variations in German (as an adjective it can mean “firm” or “set”), as an English noun, “fest” means one thing: It’s party time!
Especially well-known from the word “Oktoberfest” (which we’ll get to in a few sections—don’t get angsty), “fest” combines the ideas of a festival and a feast into one neat little package. I guess you could even call this article a kind of wordfest!
Interestingly enough, in German, there has been a strong trend toward adapting English words into their language, especially when it comes to talking about technology or new ideas. While Fest is certainly still very common in German, your German friends are probably just as likely to invite you to eine Party.
When someone near you sneezes, most languages have a phrase or word that you say to respond to that sneeze. Spanish’s salud and German’s Gesundheit both mean “health,” as do the responses in many other languages. I suppose that the idea is that you’re wishing the person who sneezed better health in the future, although, come to think of it, it would actually be pretty funny if you just responded to someone sneezing by descriptively saying “sneeze.”
It’s been my experience that about half the people in the US respond to a sneeze with “Bless you” or “God bless you,” and the other half will likely say “Gesundheit,” if anything. But, as I tell my students, since I’m not a priest, I don’t feel like I have the authority to bless them, so instead I’ll just say “Gesundheit!” and wish them good health.
This is another great one! This word, which means “broken” or “busted,” has one less “t” than the German kaputt, but it hasn’t lost any of the annoyance or humor that the use of the word connotes. It’s usually used to describe machines or vehicles that no longer work.
When I was an exchange student in Germany, my parents visited me and we went to a friend’s house. The mother of the household was apologizing that the heater was kaputt, one of the toilets was kaputt…alles seemed to be kaputt. Even though those two words may have been the only ones that my parents understood that afternoon, they still managed to understand what was going on, and the conversation didn’t go kaput.
I vaguely remember a time when I was writing some kind of essay in elementary school. For some reason, I had to write the word “kindergarten,” but I initially wanted to spell it with a “d.” It looked wrong—and indeed was wrong—but I probably didn’t connect that feeling with the reason for a few more years.
The word literally means “children garden” in German, and it’s really a charming word, I must say. The word began with a man named Friedrich Froebel, a German who started the first kindergarten. He said, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” As you’re reading the “war” section below, just keep that lovely sentiment in mind when things get too heavy.
Much like when a Supreme Court Justice said that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it, kitsch is hard to describe yet immediately recognizable.
Kitsch and things that are kitschy (kitschig in German) can describe many kinds of objects that are either over-sentimental, cheap, poorly produced or that appeal to mass tastes. Your velvet Elvis painting? Kitsch. Your neon Virgin of Guadalupe statue that plays the song from “Titanic”? Kitsch. Your ashtray depicting a Disney character rip-off saying “Put your butts here”? Kitsch. Your poster of dogs playing poker? Kitsch (but also pretty cool).
If you could say something is cheesy or lame in English, then it’s likely kitschy, at least to some people. But if it’s just purely over-sentimental, it may be schmaltzy instead. By the way, that word is also from German, partially via Yiddish, and it means “fatty” or, more literally, “lardy.”
9. uber or über
With the rise of a ride hire app of the same name, “uber” has been in the limelight lately. It can be a preposition or a prefix in German, and it generally means something like “above,” “higher” or “greater.” In English we tend to use it similarly, possibly calling people things like an “uber-chef,” an “uber-planner” or an “uber-[expletive].”
The other context in which you sometimes hear it is when people—usually in movies or TV shows—make reference to the old German national anthem, which started off with the verse Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (“Germany, Germany over all”). Even though the first two verses of the anthem were no longer used after the Nazi era, that phrase managed to stick around somehow.
You’ll likely notice that this section and the food section are both fairly extensive, which unfortunately won’t do much to counter many stereotypes about German culture. Due to German history, the most common context for these words is in World War II movies or history books. But in the interest of keeping the tone of this list upbeat, let’s make a blitzkrieg out of this category.
Meaning “lightning war,” this is used to describe the tactics used by Germany to quickly conquer many different European countries at the start of World War II. The word was then later appropriated by the Ramones and used in their song “Blitzkrieg Bop” to conquer the hearts and minds of punk rock fans.
11. fuhrer or führer
This means “leader” or “driver” in German, and was used to refer to the big H. Even today, mentioning the words “Hitler” or Führer in Germany can get the attention of a room full of people—but note that it won’t be the good type of attention, and they probably won’t be impressed with your command of these two German words.
In fact, this distaste for Hitler and his nickname was so strong that the German word for “driver’s license,” Führerschein, was changed in the GDR (East Germany) to Fahrerlaubnis, which means something more like “driving permission.” This is generally understood to have been a way to avoid using the word Führer, even in unrelated contexts.
Back to the lightning list! This word is an abbreviation for Geheime Staatspolizei, (Secret State Police), and you can find it being used in contexts such as the movie “The Matrix,” when Neo tells Agent Smith that he’s not scared by the Agent’s “gestapo crap.” Unfortunately, though, as far as I can tell, neither the Ramones nor any other punk rock group has recorded a song called “Gestapo Crap”—yet!
This refers to a German or Austrian emperor (the word that in turn came long ago from the Latin word Caesar), and in English it’s mainly used in contexts that refer to the time before and during World War I. By the time that war ended in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II had been exiled to the Netherlands.
As a fun bonus, if you get a sandwich on a “kaiser roll,” that word also seems to have originated from the same word, only a different kaiser. In this case, it likely referred to an Austrian emperor.
Another depressing abbreviation, this time for Nationalsozialist. These days, it’s used in English to describe National Socialists from the World War II era, but also used surprisingly commonly to describe people who hold different ideologies than one’s own—or even just people who are disagreeable in general, such as the “Soup Nazi” on the TV show “Seinfeld.”
Let’s cleanse our palates of the taste of war, shall we? When most people think of German food, they think of sausages and beer consumed to the sounds of an oompah band.
In other words, it’s known for being substantial, a bit unrefined and heavy on the beer, potatoes and pork products. For more info, this great post about German food idioms is pretty illustrative while being funny and spot-on; it’s also full of idiomatic expressions related to sausages, which is a linguistic characteristic that’s probably attributable only to German.
To be sure, many of the words in this section do fall along the beer-potato-pork axis, but that’s mainly because they are words for common, hearty, central-European foods that immigrants tended to bring with them to the new country—and which tourists still enjoy when visiting German-speaking countries today.
This is also often written as “beer garden,” which makes it more English-y and which gives away its meaning in German. In English, it can be used to describe almost any place that serves beer, especially German beer.
German Biergärten, on the other hand, are literally gardens, in the form of outdoor areas that serve beer and food and have seating for up to hundreds—or even thousands—of people. Most common in southern Germany, these venues are surprisingly family-friendly. Many are incorporated into larger parks or other relaxing natural areas, and some even have deer! You can also generally bring your own food and use the tables to make a picnic, as long as you purchase any drinks from the establishment.
Here’s a quick “sausage sidebar.” Wurst is the German word for “sausage,” so any time you see it, you’re likely to get meat in tube form. “Brat” comes from braten, meaning “to grill,” and knockwurst (also written as “knackwurst” in English—the German version is also written with the “a”) probably comes from knacken, which is the popping or cracking sound that the sausage makes when bitten into.
The other two, “frankfurter” and “wiener,” refer to their respective cities of origin, Frankfurt and Vienna (Wien in German—see “schnitzel” below).
While the origin of the food called a hamburger may be in doubt, the word itself clearly refers to a person or object originating from the city of Hamburg. How this food then became a staple of stereotypical “American food,” an idea that even many Germans believe, remains a subject for a different post.
Let’s have a “boozy beside” to accompany the “sausage sidebar” above.
As mentioned in the first section, Oktoberfests are common in English-speaking countries, including the US, where people are happy to have a good excuse to party and drink German beer.
They may be fun, but none of them hold a candle to the real deal in Munich, which starts in mid-September. And yes, they probably noticed that fall weather in Munich can get surprisingly chilly surprisingly quickly, and that the weather was more agreeable in September. So it now starts in September and most of the fest takes place in September, but the name has stuck.
While at the Oktoberfest, you’re likely to see more than a few obscenely large glasses of beer being hoisted, but they probably won’t be holding lager, since the brewers make special Oktoberfest beer every year. The word lagern is a verb that means “to store” or “to wait,” and in fact that’s what happens with lager beer: It’s stored for a period of up to six months to age before consuming.
At last year’s Oktoberfest in Munich, 6.3 million people drank 6.5 million liters of beer. You might get a slight buzz even if you’re just watching people drink that much, so you should probably have something in your stomach.
If you do end up drinking too much, many people swear by fermented foods as a hangover cure. If you’re one of them, help yourself to a heaping plate of sauerkraut, which means “sour cabbage” in German. Throw in a few sausages from the sidebar above, and you’ll be as good as new in no time.
Just be sure to not eat that sauerkraut with a schnitzel! A schnitzel is basically a meat cutlet (not a sausage, contrary to what a popular hot dog chain might have you believe), and a Wiener Schnitzel is a schnitzel from Vienna (Wien). They’re usually served with lemon and maybe a side of potatoes, but not sauerkraut.
Next time you’re out drinking, consider ending with a spritzer, which comes from the German word spritzen (to spray). That’s basically wine mixed with soda water, so your head and liver will thank you the next day if you drink spritzers instead of relentlessly pounding shot after shot of schnapps. That somewhat general word is used for the same thing in both languages: hard liquor.
Finally, if the Oktoberfest is winding down for the night and you feel like something sweet instead of something greasy and/or fermented, grab a slice of strudel. The German word Strudel is used to describe the delicious pastry dessert, but it also can mean a sort of whirlpool effect in rivers. Don’t worry, though; if you slur your words and mispronounce it when you order it at the restaurant, they won’t throw you into the river out of confusion.
Normal Words for Not-so-normal Circumstances
Now we have the stragglers, the words that just didn’t fit into any other category. These are less common for the most part, but still generally accepted as part of English (but not always, if my spell checker is any indication). We’ll do these ones in another lightning round.
This literally means “badger dog,” since apparently these dogs were used to hunt badgers? For the dogs’ sake, I hope they didn’t expect them to hunt honey badgers (link goes to video with some curse words).
Let’s also include honorary mentions here of our four-legged friends who are rottweilers, dobermans, schnauzers and poodles, all of which bear names originating in German.
30. doppelganger or doppelgänger
Translated literally as “double walker,” this word describes a person who is the spitting image of another person. It seems to have come back into fairly common use recently through the TV show “The Vampire Diaries,” of all things.
31. lederhose or lederhosen
“Leather pants.” Yes, this is the name of that strange-looking German costume that many men wear when hanging around Oktoberfest. The women often wear a dress called a dirndl, a word that hasn’t made it over to common usage in English yet, unfortunately.
Translated literally, this word means something like “damage pleasure,” but it’s usually understood to mean being happy that something bad happened to someone else. It’s often used when talking about hypocritical people who get their comeuppance.
Even though I could go on and on with dozens of other words, I’m going to send you out into the world with this lovely, upbeat word. It means basically the same thing in both languages, namely, a restlessness that causes a desire to travel and see the world.
I hope that this list has perhaps sparked a feeling of wanderlust in you, and that you’ll succumb to that desire.
As you go out and see the world, be sure to stop by some German-speaking countries.
When you do, keep your ears open, and you’ll likely find yourself thinking now and then, “Hey, we use that word in English, too!”
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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