Cool Words We Got From the Germans

The Germans. They got a word for everything. I know this because we use a lot of their words in our language. I know what you’re thinking and just stop it. You are going to ruin future posts on words we have thanks to languages like Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Nahuatl, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Turkish, Welsh (this list can just go on ad nauseam) Oh! and Latin.

Only slightly true.

I am starting with German because I have always admired the sesquipedalian nature of German compound words. As you probably know, most Germanic-stemming languages like English, German and Dutch have grammar that allows for the combination of multiple words to create a new term or concept. For example, in English we have the word soap, something you need to use more often, and the word box, where you keep your friend, Jack. Put these two simple words together and voilà, rather achtung, you have a term for the metaphoric platform off of which you want to dropkick anybody from the Westboro Baptist Church. (I would put a link but I don’t want to promote them. If you don’t know who they are, they think “God hates bundles of sticks”.)

As pointed out, we can combine words, too, and we do. However, leave it to the Germans to überfy the whole game. We have piddly compounds like “babysit” and “catnap” that pale by comparison to their German counterparts: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz* which means to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel while simultaneously eating a whole schnitzel, or Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesell-schaft** which means window…that happened to be broken by a round projectile thrown by the left-handed kid with a lisp who lives three houses down.

But this post is not intended to laud the length of German words. I want to highlight a few words of German origin that we can use to make us sound smarter and more attractive. Here are a few of my favorites with an acceptable layperson’s synonym or explanation:

  • Blitz – What the Niners couldn’t defend against last Thursday against the Ravens
  • Ersatz – ain’t the real thing, think Sweet’N Low to sugar, pleather to leather, green horseradish to wasabi
  • Diesel – European gas
  • Doppelgänger – look-alike
  • Dreck – garbage
  • Gemütlich – pleasant
  • Kaput – broken
  • Schadenfreude – laughing at someone who just stepped in dog poo
  • Verboten – totally not allowed
  • Wanderlust – wanting to travel real bad
  • Zeitgeist – how it was when it was
  • Additional entries [Thank you, Mark, Jonas and Leela!]
  • Gemeinschaft – social relations between individuals, based on close personal and family ties; community
  • Gesellschaft – social relations based on impersonal ties, as duty to a society or organization
  • Rucksack – literally, backbag
  • Angst – feeling of fear or anxiety
  • Kitsch – tacky, shag carpet-y
  • Noodle – please tell me you know what noodles are
  • Delicatessen – long form of deli
  • Lager – type of beer, usually the ubiquitous anonymous national type à la Budweiser in the U.S.
  • Fest – in English, this is typically a post-positive combining form denoting a party or large gathering; as in sausagefest -“Beta Rho Omicron is hosting a sausagefest this Friday night where they will be featuring the best of German wurst.”

This list is by no means exhaustive but if you are here that means you have the Internet, and with the Internet you can look up anything.

Any others you’d like to chip in? Any requests for languages that English robbed of words at exclamation point?

*Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz – “beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law”

**Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtenges-ellschaft – “association of subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”

[both from http://german.about.com/library/blwort_long.htm]

[image courtesy of Laugh it out of Facebook. Facepalm]

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18 comments

  1. Nicely put illustration of soapbox. I love German loanwords, especially for things we can’t really express in English like Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – admittedly words often used by people on soapboxes. 🙂

  2. Jonas

    Rucksack, angst, and kitsch are some of my favorites since we use them all the time, but don’t really think about where they came/come from.

    Oh, and any compound with *wurst 🙂

    • Jonas,

      You don’t really say rucksack do you? Well, maybe I’ll give this one to you since you are German, but c’mon. Backpack? 😛

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. delicatessen, lager, fest, noodle— german vocabulary is uber cool!

  4. “Diesel = European gas”: joke, right? Some people might not realize that 😉

    • Hi Jonathan,
      How astute you are, my clever boy 🙂 I, apparently, have more faith in my readership than you, perhaps to a fault. Though I am glad that this wink caught your attention 🙂

  5. Ed

    Great post, but what about the words we could have had but have somehow managed to find an alternative for. For instance (pleas excuse my phonetic German, I have very limited knowledge of the languages, but bizarrely within that some interesting examples):

    – fingerhood (or similar) meaining thimble
    or even
    -washbear meaning racoon.

    Disappointed not to have these as well

    • Hi Edward,
      Thanks for the comment and for reading, I will update this post after I research these new terms and add as appropriate!
      Best,
      Dustin

  6. Pingback: Cool Words We Got from the French « roughly translated

  7. Raist

    “Noodle – please tell me you know what noodles are”

    i think you you mean “Nudel” = pasta

    greets from germany

    • Hi Raist,

      Thanks for the comment. In fact I did mean “noodle” since that is the English word we have thanks to the German nudel. Of course we had to fiddle with the orthography as we are wont to do, but phonetically they are very similar, no? Because noodles are very common throughout the English-speaking world, as opposed to other words from German like zeitgeist, I did not clarify “noodle” since I assumed everybody would know what they are. Thanks again and cheers!

  8. Charlotte

    Thanks for helping with my History Homework! We had to find words of which English use today which decent from other languages. This helped alot!

    Again, my thanks,

    Charlie.

  9. hale

    so can you tell me the history of the word nudel?????

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