8 German words that unlock amazing secrets in English

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8 German words that unlock amazing secrets in English
Chris Hemsworth in the 2013 film "Thor: The Dark World". Photo: Walt Disney Germany/DPA.
18:06 CET+01:00
Sometimes when you're learning German, you have that eureka moment - and realize something you never knew about your mother tongue.

The beauty of German is its "does what it says on the tin" structure. A vacuum cleaner is a Staubsauger  - literally dust sucker, because that's exactly what it does. In the same vein, an airplane is a Flugzeug (a flying thing) and a lighter is a Feuerzeug (fire thing).

This "call a spade a spade" style can unlock more than a few mysteries in English, a language more cryptic in its roots than the answer to a Times crossword clue.

1. Fernseher - television

The Fernsehturm in Berlin: the television tower, or the tower where you can see far. Photo: DPA

Take the English word "television". You probably use it every day, but did you ever think about what it means? Well, speaking German might help you. 

The German word for television is Fernseher, which literally means "far watcher". Strange at first, but it makes sense when you think that the invention of television made it possible to watch things happening very, very far away.

In fact, the English word means exactly the same thing. But unless you studied Latin and Greek, you might never have realized this. The word comes from the Greek “tele” (far) and the Latin “visio” (sight).

This is actually quite a rare kind of word in English (and exciting for etymology geeks) since it is not made up of just Latin words or just Greek words, but both.

2. Flusspferd - hippopotamus

Two hippopotamuses at Berlin Zoo. Photo: DPA

Hippopotamus may have been one of your favourite words as a child - it lends itself perfectly to rhymes and rythmn. But you likely never dwelled too long on its actual meaning.

The German word for the African animal is Flusspferd, which literally means “river-horse”, or Nilpferd, meaning "Nile horse". Silly, you might think. A hippopotamus’ physical similarities to a horse are fairly limited.

But the English is actually identical. Our word comes from the ancient Greek “hippos” (horse) and “potamus” (river), meaning we actually call it a river-horse too.

In fact, when you consider that we often just refer to them as “hippos”, you realize we're really just calling them horses.

3. Mutterkuchen - placenta

If you have ever come across the German word for placenta, you probably had to stifle a mixture of laughter and nausea. Why on earth would Germans name the organ we feed on in the womb a cake?

Translating it literally as “mothering-cake”, it definitely conjures up a pretty strange image.

Yet, once again, what seems an unflinchingly literal term reveals something pretty interesting about English. The full medical name for a placenta is “placenta uterina”, which translates from the Latin as “uterine cake”.

For the Romans a “placenta” was specifically a type of flat cake, and the organ was called a placenta due to its apparently similar shape.

4. Muttermund - cervix

By the same token, the full medical name for the cervix is the “cervix uteri”, which means the “neck of the uterus."

So calling the cervix a “mothering-mouth” in German is not really that different, it just uses a different part of eating metaphor to describe to describe the place where the sperm travels. And when we say "cervix", we are really just calling it a neck.

Referring to the cervix as a type of neck or mouth makes sense if you think back to your school-day biology diagrams and see that it is the gateway from the vagina to the uterus.

5. Donnerstag - Thursday

Chris Hemsworth in 2013 film "Thor: The Dark World". Photo: Walt Disney Germany/DPA.

Mulling over the German word for Thursday while sheltering yourself from a torrential storm one morning, this one may have hit you like a bolt out of the blue.

Why on earth would Germans name the fourth day of the week the day of thunder (Donners-tag means Thunder-day)? Then you probably thought about Thursday and had that wait-a-minute moment. Thur sounds a lot like Thor, the quick-tempered Norse god who liked playing with thunder. 

And you'd be right. The hammer wielding deity turned popular Marvel comic character is called "Donar" in German. So we both call it "Thor's Day".

But it's not just us. The French, Spanish and Italians, although taking their days of the week from Latin, also named Thursday after the equivalent Roman god, Jupiter also known as Jove. That's why it's "jeudi" in French, "jueves" in Spanish, and "giovedi" in Italian.

Look a little deeper and you'll see the god theme reappear throughout the days of the week.

6. Durchfall - diarrhoea 

The Germans don't leave much to the imagination with their word for diarrhoea, which literally translates as "through-fall". Yuck, you may well think. 

But, as you may have guessed by now, it's another word that proves we just don't know the origins of our language all that well.

Diarrhoea actually comes from the Greek "dia" meaning through and "rhein" meaning flow. It was allegedly coined by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is often referred to as the "father of modern medicine".

7. The Strand

The Strand in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You may be familiar with this one from the British Monopoly board. But you may not have had time to ponder why the famous London street is called the Strand while you were trying to bankrupt your sister and buy a train station off your mum.

It doesn't get much more British than The Strand, yet its roots are firmly Germanic.

The name of the street near the River Thames in London comes from the German word “Strand", which means beach in modern German, but also once refered to river banks.

That is also why if you are left on a desert island beach helpless and alone, you would be described as “stranded”.

8. Vernichtung - annihilation

This last example is a bit more complicated, but if you found the other ones interesting, bear with us.

In English we have often lost touch with the different parts of words because they are Latin or Greek. But in German, they are still clear to see.

Take “Vernichtung” and “annihilation”: they have the same word in the middle. “Nicht(s)” and “nihil” mean “nothing” in German and Latin respectively. But whereas “Nichts” is one of the first words you learn in German, not so many people know the Latin word “nihil”.

So, once we see the German word, the way our English word was formed becomes clearer.

Each of the words has a prefix and suffix: “Ver-nicht(s)-ung” and “an-nihil-ation”. The prefixes “ver-” and “an-” both here emphasize the action, and the “-ung” and “-ation” suffixes turn it into a noun.

The noun for "turning something into nothing" is therefore annihilation, or Vernichtung.

By Alexander Johnstone

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