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The real meanings behind German words that are used in English

Even the most ardent admirer of the language of Goethe would have to admit that the language is somewhat clunky at times. Luckily Germans have found a way around this, and the results have even seeped into English.

The real meanings behind German words that are used in English
Adidas. Photo: DPA

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Image if every time you had to talk about your flat share in German, you had to splutter out the word Wohngemeinschaft. Or, if when looking for said Wohngemeinschaft, you had to equip yourself with a Schutzgemeinschaft für allgemeine Kreditsicherung.

Let’s just say that things could take a while. That’s why (thankfully) some smart German once decided that their language was totally impractical and decided to invent the first Abkürzung (or Abkü as we at The Local like to call it).

Abkürzungen are abbreviations which Germans often create in a rather novel way by leaving in the vowels, creating quite pleasing results.

Thus, people who need to present a credit rating hand in their Schufa, not a Schutzgemeinschaft für allgemeine Kreditsicherung. And if they are lucky they will be able to move into a WG, not a Wohngemeinschaft.

Some of these Abkürzungen have even made it into English, meaning we use them while having no knowledge of the real meaning.

Here are some of our favourites.

The Gestapo and SS

Even Anglophones with no knowledge of German whatsoever tend to have a smattering of Nazi and military German. Thus, if you were to say “Hände hoch” or “Achtung” on the streets of a English town, you would probably make yourself understood (even if those nearby might be somewhat confused).

The names of Nazi institutions are also common knowledge in the English-speaking world. We all know that the SS were Hitler’s crack troops and the SA were his street goons.

What fewer people know is that SS stands for Schutzstaffel, meaning protective squadron. Originally called the Saal-Schutz, they took on the new name in 1925 under the suggestion of Hermann Göring.

Another word that many people outside Germany probably don’t even realize is an acronym is Gestapo. The name of the Nazi secret police is an abbreviation of the words Geheime Staatspolizei (secret state police).

Even the word Nazi is itself an Abkürzung, being short for Nationalsozialismus.


Photo: DPA

The Nazis were not the only totalitarian German system that managed to imprint its vocabulary on the world’s consciousness. The communists who took power in East Germany at the end of the Second World War gave us the Stasi, a word synonymous with paranoia and potential betrayal by one's neighbours.

Stasi is itself an Abkürzung of Staatssicherheitsdienst, meaning the state security service.


Luckily, Germany hasn’t just given us the vocabulary of terror, it has also exported brands known for the high quality of their products.

The name Adidas has spread to every corner of the globe. What is less well known is that Adidas actually an Abkürzung for the name of the founder of the company Adolf Dassler. Adi is a common nickname for someone with the name Adolf – so the company became Adi-Das.

Haribo and other brands

Naming companies after oneself via a nifty Abkürzung was clearly all the rage back in the early twentieth century. The founder of the confectionary company Haribo, Johann “Hans” Riegel did the same when he started out in 1920. He added a little twist by name dropping his hometown, so it was HAns RIegel BOnn.

Photo: DPA

The detergent company Persil took a slightly more impersonal approach, naming themselves after their ingredients: PErborate and SILicate.

Aldi founders Theo and Karl Albrecht thought they would take the best of both worlds and combined their name with what they stood for. Thus Aldi is an Abkürzung for Albrecht Discount.


It is not just acronyms that have crept into our English lexicon from German, the real meanings of which we are blissfully unaware of. Gesundheit is commonly used in parts of the US as a polite thing to say when people sneeze. This is of course correct – Germans also use it in this way. But very few Americans know that the word actually means health.

Reading and eating

Book worms among us will also be familiar with the word bildungsroman, which is a type of novel dealing with a character’s coming of age. While many people are vaguely aware that it comes from German, few know that the word means development-novel.

And how many of us have used the word deli hundreds of time in our everyday lives and never realized it comes from German? Deli is short for the German word Delikatessen, a fine foods shop.


The word “dollar” is a fair bit older than than the American currency. It's an anglicized form of “thaler”, or the name of coins first minted in 1519 from local silver in Joachimsthal in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. The full name of the coins was Joachimsthaler, but they were abbreviated for simplicity's sake – a practice that, as we can see, goes back a long time. 

SEE ALSO: From cheering to sneezing: a chronology of Gesundheit in the U.S.

For members


The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German


Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.


Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 


Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner


Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.


Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.