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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13 Responses to “25 German Loanwords”

  • D.A.W.

    “Blitzkrieg” is well-known in English, too.
    This kind of “lightning war” was put to use by the Wehrmacht in Poland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, the USSR, North Africa, Yugoslavia, Greece, and so forth.
    Then when 1943-45 came around, the American Army turned the tables on the Germans by “jacking up” the blitzkrieg to a higher level.
    The primary advocates of these new tactics in Sicily, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and southern/central Germany were Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., of the U.S. 3rd Army, his boss Gen. Omar Bradley, and his boss, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and the commander of the 9th Air Force in England/France, Lt. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg.
    Patton was supported in the field by the other talented commanders of the U.S. 1st Army on his left flank, and the U.S. 7th Army on his right flank.
    The Americans outdid the Wehrmacht at blitzkried by
    1. Having a faster-moving army with faster tanks and trucks.
    2. Having superior airpower in the fighter-bombers and the medium bombers of the 9th Air Force.
    3. Having artillery with superior mobility and superior telecommunications via better radios and field telephones.
    4. Having superior logistical support in moving and supplying armies all the way across France, Belgium, and Germany, and incidentally plunging east into Czechoslovakia and Austria before the German surrender.
    5. All of that superior logistical and transportation support was made possible by the U.S. & Canadian Navies and Merchant Marines in hauling all of that across the wide Atlantic, and having to defeat the Kriegsmarine’s large and deadly fleet of U-boats.
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    “Gestapo” is a well-known work in English, too.
    In German, it is a contraction of “Geheimstaatspolizei” = “the state’s secret police”, under the mad-dog Nazi regime.

  • D.A.W.

    Note: Angst (“anxiety”): a feeling of apprehension.
    In German, “Angst” is an everyday word that just means simple fear or apprehension, as in “Ich habe Angst uber der Autobahn,” = “I am afraid of the Autobahn.”
    On the other hand, in English, “angst” is an “order of magnitude higher”. Angst is what everybody had in Mel Brooks’s film “High Anxiety”!
    I was taught that the English/American kind of “angst” is better translated into German as “eine bedroliche Atmosphare”.
    Translated literally back into English, this is “a threatening atmosphere”! That is a state of “High Anxiety” as Mr. Brooks expressed!
    D.A.W.

  • 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?

  • Michael

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

  • 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’, 🙂

  • 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!

  • 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 :)).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Pit

    “Kindergarten” immediately comes to my mind.

  • 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

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