Seven German words which stem from Arabic

From giraffes to coffee, we've created a list of common German words which find their roots in Arabic.

Seven German words which stem from Arabic
A woman in Hamburg displays coffee, which comes from the Arabic 'gahweh'. Photo: DPA

The relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds has long been significant. For millennia, they have traded and fought, and introduced new concepts and commodities to each other.

The humble apple strudel, for instance, was most likely brought to the Germanic world by the Ottomans. It's therefore not surprising that many European words, including those in German, can be traced back to Arabic. 

Der Alkohol

Alkohol, and its English cognate alcohol, come from the Arabic Al-kohl. Al is the Arabic definite particle, meaning ‘the’. Many other European words, such as alchemy and alkali, include this prefix.

Kohl was a type of fine powder, generally used as an eye-shadow. Kohl has its origin is kahala, which means ‘to stain, or paint’. The 16th century alchemist Paracelsus used the term Alkohol to refer to fine powder, but later also used alcohol vini to signify spirits of wine. It was in the 18th century that the term began to be widely used to denote a distilled spirit.

Die Giraffe

The animal’s name entered into European languages through the Arabic term zarafa. Around the 1600s, the term Giraffe overtook the now obsolete Kamelparder, or 'camel leopard' in English. Although now classified as die Giraffe, the word was masculine until the 18th century.


Kaffee, like coffee, derives from the Turkish kahveh, which itself comes from the Arabic qahwah. One theory suggests that the term qahwah originally referred to wine, which was also earthy and dark in colour. Qahwah comes from the root qhh, which denotes something dark in colour.

READ ALSO: Kaffee und Kuchen: The history behind a very German tradition

Das Magazin

Magazin shares both senses of the English magazine. Via French and Italian, the word came into English and German from the Arabic Makhazin, meaning 'storehouse'. It was used to describe a storehouse where ammunition was kept, and it is from there that it was applied to the magazine of a gun.

In the sense of a journal or periodical, the term magazine was first used in England in 1793 with the publication of The Gentleman’s Magazine

Die Matratze

The German term from mattress comes from the Arabic matrah via the Italian materasso. Matrah describes a place where things were thrown down. Sleeping on cushions or blankets was not common among Europeans, until the Crusades, when Europeans began to adopt the much more pleasurable experience of sleeping on soft surfaces from the Muslim world.

Der Talisman

The word Talisman comes from the Arabic tilasm, which conveys the notion of a magical image. Talismans often played a significant role in Arabic narratives, such as the magical sword of Zulfiqar which was frequently depicted on Ottoman flags.

The Arabic term itself is an alteration of the Ancient Greek télesma, meaning ‘payment’, via the Byzantine Greek term, which meant ‘religious rite’, or ‘completion’.

READ ALSO: 11 German words that come from the Greek language

Der Zucker

Meaning sugar, Zucker descends from the Arabic sukkar, which was brought to Europe by Arab traders. The term comes from the Sanskrit sharkara, which means 'grit, or gravel'.

Sugar cultivation started in Europe around the 9th century and was introduced by Arab rulers in Sicily and southern Spain; Zucker came into German via the Italian zucchero.

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Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.