25 German Loanwords

By Mark Nichol

The German language has provided English with a huge inventory of words, many of them pertaining to music, science, and politics, thanks to the influence of German-speaking people on those areas of human endeavor. Here are some of the more useful German terms borrowed into English.

1. Achtung (“attention”): an imperative announcement used to obtain someone’s attention

2. Angst (“anxiety”): a feeling of apprehension

3. Blitz (“lightning”): used only literally in German, but in English refers to a sudden movement, such as a rush in a contact sport

4. Carabiner (“rifle”): an equivalent of the English word carbine, this truncation of karabinerhaken (“riflehook”) refers to a metal loop originally employed with ropes in mountaineering, rock climbing, and other sports and activities but now widely employed for more general uses

5. Delicatessen (“delicate eating”): a restaurant or food shop selling meats, cheeses, and delicacies

6. Doppelgänger (“double-goer”): in German, refers to a look-alike, but in English, the primary connotation is of a supernatural phenomenon — either a spirit or a duplicate person

7. Ersatz (“substitute”): refers to an artificial and/or inferior imitation or replacement

8. Flak (acronym): an abbreviation for “air-defense cannon” used figuratively to refer to criticism

9. Gestalt (“figure”): something more than the sum of its parts, or viewed or analyzed with other contributing phenomena

10. Götterdämmerung (“twilight of the gods”): a catastrophic event

11. Hinterland (“land behind”): originally a technical geographic term; later, in both German and English, came to connote undeveloped rural or wilderness areas, and in British English has a limited sense of “artistic or scholarly knowledge,” as in “Smith’s hinterland isn’t very impressive”

12. Kitsch: something of low taste and/or quality, or such a condition

13. Leitmotiv (“leading motive”): a recurring theme, originally applied to music and later literature and theater but now in general usage

14. Nazi (truncation of “National Socialist”): originally denoted a person, thing, or idea associated with the German political party of that name and later the national government it dominated; now, by association with Adolf Hitler and the tyranny of the party and the government, a pejorative term for a fanatical or tyrannical person

15. Poltergeist (“noisy ghost”): a mischievous and/or malicious apparition or spectral force thought responsible for otherwise inexplicable movement of objects

16. Putsch (“push”): overthrow, coup d’etat

17. Realpolitik (real politics): the reality of political affairs,
as opposed to perceptions or propaganda about political principles or values

18. Reich (“realm”): in German, usually a neutral term for “empire” or part of a name for a nationalized service, such as the postal service, but in English, because of the Nazi appellation “the Third Reich,” connotes tyranny

19. Schadenfreude (“harm joy”): enjoyment of others’ misfortune

20. Sturm und drang (“storm and stress”): turmoil, drama

21. Verboten (“forbidden”): prohibited

22. Weltanschauung (“worldview”): an all-encompassing conception or perception of existence

23. Weltschmerz (“world pain”): despair or world-weariness

24. Wunderkind (“wonder child”): a child prodigy

25. Zeitgeist (“time ghost”): the spirit of the time, or a prevailing attitude, mentality, or worldview

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10 Responses to “25 German Loanwords”

  • AnWulf

    abseil – rappel
    aufgabe – an assignment
    bremsstrahlung – radiation
    drachenfutter – “dragon food” … placating gift
    gelande – “terrain” … ski jumps
    gewiss – certain, certainly (cognate with OE gewiss)
    zeitgeber – “time giver” … those “time tokens” like the sun rising
    and many, many more!

    BTW, Angst has an OE cognate: anxsumnes, -ness, e; f. Anxiety, Somn. 87 : 133. v. angsumnes.
    Reich = English rike

  • Pit

    “Kindergarten” immediately comes to my mind.

  • Thomas Derry

    Wow. Some of these I’d come across before, but quite a few are new to me.
    What really blows my mind is that English is a Germanic language. Hardly seems like the two are related.

  • AnWulf

    @Thomas … Truly? … Out of the words in your post, only five are Latinates (not counting Germanic since it came from a Latinate rooted on a Germanic word … but even counting it would only raise the tale to six.

    Latinates in your post:
    across
    quite
    really
    language
    related

    The rest of words are Anglo/Germanic/Teutonic. Remember that Germanic inholds Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. Many French words hav a Frankish root. Forsooth, many Latin words hav a Germanic root as well.

  • Sally

    I’m interested to know where you found your ‘British’ usage of hinterland – I’d guess it to be fairly limited.

    Acquaintances at university sometimes used ‘hinterland’ to refer to what USans once called ‘the boondocks’ (itself a loan from Tagalog/Filipino ‘bunduk = mountain’). But we in Australia have so many more picturesque names for the geographical interior of our country that it would never have caught on.

  • Sally

    Thanks, AnWulf – people whose first language is English often forget that most of the words they use every day are of Germanic (as you point out, not necessarily confined to ‘German’) origin.

    OTOH, I’m not sure that some of yours have been fully ‘naturalized’ yet – given the German(ic) habit of combining roots and ideas, though, I’m sure some should be (‘Drachenfutter’ would appear to be particularly useful :)).

  • thebluebird11

    “Mittelschmerz” comes to mind for me, in the medical field. I’m sure there are tons more but I’m not going to wrack my brain at 2:30 AM!

  • venqax

    Sally: Not sure what your comment means. Hinterland, as undeveloped or remote rural area, boondocks, etc. is what the post said it means. So you’re saying it means that in British, too? Nothing stands out in your university acquaintances’ usage that is distinct from the American.

    As far as the geographical interior of your country, that isn’t what hinterland means in US English. It refers generally to a removed or remote area (literally or figuratively) not to a specific place like the Great Plains or Appalachia or the Outback, etc. Australia, for Americans, has lots of hinterlands, not just “the geographical interior.” In fact, some would probably go so far as to say Australia IS the hinterlands (or A hinterland of certain things). Just sayin’, 🙂

  • Michael

    What about one of the most common ones, “Gesundheit”? I’ve also heard the word “Spiel” used.

  • Jon

    The suggestion that ‘hinterland’ in British English has a limited sense of “artistic or scholarly knowledge” is a new one on me.

    I’ve never heard hinterland used like that in either British English or in Australian English. As a removed area, inland, yes – as in the “Sunshine Coast Hinterland” or the “Gold Coast Hinterland” but as an area of knowledge?

    And @AnWulf – how commonly used in English (of any ilk) are those words? Other than ‘abseil’, that is. Or are they suggestions of words that would be useful future loan words?

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