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10 surprising uses of English in former East Germany

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected]
10 surprising uses of English in former East Germany

Behind the Berlin Wall, it was impossible to gain access to many goods and services from the west. But that did not stop certain Anglicisms from making their way into the German language - even before they were popularized or known in West Germany.



Photo: Wikimedia Commons/KyleJeanMichelle

Not only could people from East Germany purchase Western products at these little stores, but often for cheaper prices than those in West Germany could.

Founded in 1962 as a publicly-owned company to increase the flow of a stable hard currency into the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - be it US dollars or British pounds - the first Intershop was situated in Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station.

Initially offering only cigarettes, its inventory grew to include alcohol and other products such as clothes, toys and music recordings.

READ ALSO: Here's a little-known East German vehicle that's actually amazing


Since it was forbidden for citizens in the GDR to possess foreign currency, they were only really able to shop at Intershops when this ban was lifted in 1974. 

That's where Exquisit-Laden (exquisite shops), also called Ex-Laden (ex-shops) or just Ex for short, came in handy. Established in 1962, here shoppers could makes purchases using their currency at the time, the East German mark.

At these stores, a shopper could find a bit more luxurious and higher priced clothing, shoes and cosmetics from western Europe.


A Scheck from the GDR period. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays it's not uncommon for Germans to pay for goods and services by direct debit and much like many other countries, payment via cheque seems slightly strange and outdated. 

Yet in the times of the GDR, it was the normal procedure to pay with a piece of paper directing a bank to pay money as instructed - otherwise known as a Scheck.

Use of the word Scheck in the German language has however declined in recent years, reflecting the payment method's increasing obsoleteness.


A sign photographed in 1996. Photo: DPA

Broiler was one of the most commonly used English words in East Germany. But this did not refer to a heating device. Rather, it referred to a grilled or roasted chicken.

One theory behind the term suggests that the Eastern Bloc attempted to breed chicken for consumption but failed, and in turn began to import chicken from the US.

While this Western-influenced name was widely used in the East, only 21 percent of West Germans knew its meaning by the time the wall came down - not surprisingly, as the quite different Brathähnchen was used in the rest of the country.

SEE ALSO: 10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany

Limitgrenze (and other redundancies)

When the original meaning of a word isn't known, certain compound words and phrases aren't immediately recognized. For instance, in many places these days, it’s possible to buy a “chai tea” without realizing we are buying a “tea tea.”

In the GDR, there were a number of redundant words and phrases which were introduced - combining an English word with a word of the exact same meaning in German - including Limitgrenze, Servicedienst, Testversuch and Containerbehälter (perhaps the creator thought they could store more in a container-container).


Many Germans living in the suburbs today will speak of going into “die City” when they enter one, rather than “die Stadt” - as Stadt is the original German word for 'city'.

Saying city instead of Stadt was popularized in German in the GDR after the word worked its way into several songs, such as one from Rostock rock group “De Plaatfööt” when singing in the Plattdeutsch dialect of the region: Ich mach jetzt een uf cool/und versuch det mal in Suhl/so is de Gitti/de Gitti ut de City.


A tent and camping equipment from the GDR period at a museum in Saxony in 2015. Photo: DPA

Residents in the former East Germany might not have had a lot of money, but that did not stop them from packing up a tent in their Trabis and heading for the Ostsee (Baltic Sea), Lake Balaton in Hungary or the forests of Bulgaria.

While Germans today interchange Zelten (literally tenting) with the word 'camping', the English word was commonly used throughout the GDR.

SEE ALSO: 'The opposite of our modern technical world' - The Trabi turns 60


In the former Soviet Union, the word and concept of Dispatcher already existed as a sort of loan word from Russian. The English word is defined in the German dictionary Duden as a person during the GDR in charge of overseeing the workflow at a production centre and ensuring a company’s plans are carried into fruition.

Manager is another English word which crept its way into GDR lingo before it made its way into modern German offices and eventually replaced the German word Leiter.


It might have not been possible to purchase a surfboard in eastern parts of the country pre-1990, but it was possible to make one from scratch.

After the GDR sports magazine “Jugend und Sport” published an article about “Windsurfen,” the trend caught on, with youth and adults alike hitting the Baltic Sea for a surfing championship long before California-dreaming youngsters were replacing the traditional German word “Brettsegeln” with “surfen.”

Computer Knowhow

Both technological knowledge and English skills were highly coveted in the GDR.

Various ads in local newspapers and magazines would even offer higher paid positions for technicians with "Computer Knowhow" - or specialists with in-depth knowledge of computers as well as superb English skills.

READ ALSO: 10 beauty spots that'll make you want to visit east Germany right now


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