German word of the day: Kaputt

German word of the day: Kaputt
Photo: Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
This is how a misunderstanding in French led to the common German word ‘kaputt’.

The word ‘kaputt’ started being used in England during the First World War, and to this day maintains popularity as a slang word for ‘completely destroyed’. 

Why the English-speaking world adopted the word, despite already having their own words for “broken” and “destroyed”, is largely unclear. 

Some cite the cultural influence of the influx of Jewish immigrants – and refugees – of the latter half of the 19th century. They may have popularized usage through the German-Yiddish use of ‘kaput/kaputz’. 

READ ALSO: How Yiddish survives in Europe – through German

Others point to the satisfyingly onomatopoeic quality of the word: how could the English language resist? 

Either way, there is a humorous twist to this word’s etymology. Though it is heavily associated with German and German-Yiddish language – the original word is actually, well, French. 

‘Kaputt’ originates from the French word ‘capot’. But here’s the confusing part: capot actually means ‘bonnet’ or ‘covered’. So, how on earth did we get from bonnet to utterly destroyed? 

The mythologized version of this development traces it back to a misunderstanding over a game of cards. Piquet is one of the oldest trick games, first recorded in the 16th century, and still popular to this day. 

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If one player wins all 12 tricks of the game, they “faire capot” – make capot, whereas the loser “être capot” – is copot, perhaps in a similarly metaphorical sense to ‘having the wool pulled over one’s eyes’.

Legend has it that this usage caused a misunderstanding for a German card player, who assumed that ‘capot’ in this context must mean to ‘defeat/destroy’ one’s enemy and so created the new word/meaning combination: kaputt. 

READ ALSO: This is how French has influenced the German language

An alternative etymology points to the French provincial use of ‘cap virer’ for ‘capsize’, and ‘capot’ as a conjugated version meaning to overturn one’s enemy. This sounds much more likely, but is much less funny to imagine. 

No matter what, however, the German (Yiddish/French/English?) word kaputt is an excellent example of the blurred and changeable lines between languages, cultures and meanings. 

Examples:  

Der Fernseher ist kaputt.

The TV is broken. 

Der Typ, der mein kaputtes Handy repariert, ist sehr nett. 

The guy who is fixing my broken phone is very nice. 

Das Geld ist weg, wir sind kaputt!

The money is gone, we’re ruined!


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