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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.

10 surprising uses of English in former East Germany
'Surfen' and 'camping' out on the beach by the Baltic Sea in modern-day Warnemünde, Germany. Photo: DPA


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goods and services by direct debit and much like many other countries, payment via cheque seems slightly strange and outdated.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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For members


Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?

Unlike in EU countries such as Portugal or Spain, Germany does not have a visa specifically for pensioners. Yet applying to live in the Bundesrepublik post-retirement is not difficult if you follow these steps.

Reader question: Can I get a retirement visa for Germany?
Two pensioners enjoying a quiet moment in Dresden in August 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

Due to its quality of life, financial security and health care, Germany snagged the number 10 spot in the 2020 Global Retirement Index. So just how easy is it to plant roots in Deutschland after your retirement?

Applying for a residency permit

As with any non-EU or European Economic Area (EEA) national looking to stay in Germany for longer than a 90-day period, retirees will need to apply for a general resident’s permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) under which it will be possible to select retirement as a category. 

READ ALSO: How does Germany’s pension system measure up worldwide?

This is the same permit for those looking to work and study in Germany – but if you would like to do either after receiving a residency permit, you will need to explicitly change the category of the visa.

Applicants from certain third countries (such as the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Canada, and New Zealand) can first come to Germany on a normal tourist visa, and then apply for a residency permit when in the country. 

However, for anyone looking to spend their later years in Germany, it’s still advisable to apply at their home country’s consulate at least three months in advance to avoid any problems while in Germany.

Retirement visas still aren’t as common as employment visas, for example, so there could be a longer processing time. 

What do you need to retire in Germany?

To apply for a retirement visa, you’ll need proof of sufficient savings (through pensions, savings and investments) as well as a valid German health insurance. 

If you have previously worked in Germany for at least five years, you could qualify for Pensioner’s Health Insurance. Otherwise you’ll need to apply for one of the country’s many private health insurance plans. 

Take note, though, that not all are automatically accepted by the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office), so this is something you’ll need to inquire about before purchasing a plan. 

READ ALSO: The perks of private health insurance for expats in Germany

The decision is still at the discretion of German authorities, and your case could be made stronger for various reasons, such as if you’re joining a family member or are married to a German. Initially retirement visas are usually given out for a year, with the possibility of renewal. 

Once you’ve lived in Germany for at least five full years, you can apply for a permanent residency permit, or a Niederlassungserlaubnis. To receive this, you will have to show at least a basic knowledge of the German language and culture.

READ ALSO: How to secure permanent residency in Germany

Taxation as a pensioner

In the Bundesrepublik, pensions are still listed as taxable income, meaning that you could be paying a hefty amount on the pension from your home country. But this is likely to less in the coming years.

Tax is owed when a pensioner’s total income exceeds the basic tax-free allowance of €9,186 per year, or €764 per month. From 2020 the annual taxable income for pensioners will increase by one percent until 2040 when a full 100 percent of pensions will be taxable.

American retirees in Germany will also still have to file US income taxes, even if they don’t owe any taxes back in the States. 

In the last few years there has been a push around Germany to raise the pension age to 69, up from 65-67, in light of rising lifespans.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could people in Germany still be working until the age of 68?