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Eight German words used in English - but with different meanings

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Marian Bothner - [email protected]
Eight German words used in English - but with different meanings
A sign for 'Ersatzverkehr' in Bielefeld. Photo: picture alliance / Friso Gentsch/dpa | Friso Gentsch

German and English share many words in common - but they don't always mean the same thing when spoken in the other language. Here are eight of the best examples.


It is no secret that English often borrows words from the German language, with terms like Zeitgeist, Bildungsroman, and Schadenfreude all having been incorporated into the English dictionary.

But what some English speakers might not realise is that many German words that are used in English mean something slightly different in the German-speaking context. 

Here are the top eight German words which are used in English, but have subtly different meanings when spoken auf Deutsch.

READ ALSO: 10 English words with a very different meaning in German



In German, the noun “der Ersatz” refers to a person or thing which replaces something else. It is synonymous with “substitute” and is a staple in most German speakers’ vocabulary. 

English speakers, however, might attach a further connotation to the word ersatz, as it is used in the anglophone world. In English, the adjective “ersatz” describes a substitute which is usually inferior or lesser than the original. The German version, by contrast, does not suggest anything about the quality of the replacement.  

With this difference in mind, English speakers should be careful not to take offense if they ever find themselves described as “ein Ersatz.” 


In English, the German-transplant “angst” often refers to a deep, self-conscious anxiety about one’s situation. Teenage angst and existential angst are some of the most common uses of the word in English.

Although the German noun “die Angst” can encompass these feelings, it is a much broader term in its original language, representing the general feeling of fear or anxiety. Saying “Ich habe Angst” simply means “I’m afraid” in German.

For English speakers trying to convey a special type of soul-wrenching anxiety, it will be important to specify, using words like “Existenzangst.”

         Archive photo shows workers scared of losing their jobs protesting in Erfurt. Photo: Michael Reichel/DPA


“Das Spiel” is yet another example of a basic German vocabulary word which has taken on new meaning in the English language. The German word “das Spiel” derives from the verb “spielen,” which means “to play,” and it can refer to a game or performance. 

Meanwhile, in English, the noun “spiel” refers to an extravagant and long-winded speech which is meant to persuade, like a pitch. The English spiel also carries a more negative connotation: “I could only listen to Peter’s spiel about his unfinished novel for so long,” as an example.

If English speakers want to convey the same idea in German, they might be better off using the more colloquial verb “quatschen.” 


“Der Mensch” is a centuries-old German word which made its way into English through the Yiddish “mentsch.” In English, a mensch refers to a particularly upstanding, moral person: “She’s a real mensch,” for example. 

READ ALSO: How Yiddish survives in Europe - through German

In German, “der Mensch” merely means “a person” or “human being,” without any judgement about that person’s integrity. 

If you’re trying to capture the same sympathetic characteristics, you can opt for the German word “Menschlichkeit,” which means humanity or benevolence.


In English, a child around the age of six who attends Kindergarten is often called a “Kindergartener.” 

As many readers will already know, “Kindergarten” is a German-language word, which literally means “child garden.” It follows that “der Kindergartener” can be translated as the “child gardener” — which is why, in German, “der Kindergartener” is technically not the child who attends school, but instead refers to the teacher who looks after the children. 

In Germany, referring to a teacher as “ein Kindergartener” is uncommon, but you’re bound to cause more confusion by applying the term to the students. If you need a word for your Kindergarten-age child, consider using “das Kindergartenkind.”



In English, the German-borrowed “diktat” can be defined as a harsh decree or penalty, often imposed upon a defeated state. Originally from the Latin dictare (“to dictate or assert”), diktat made its way into English through the German noun, “das Diktat.”

While “das Diktat” often captures the same meaning as its English counterpart, it also can simply refer to dictation. For example, teachers will often read aloud a text for their students to transcribe — an assignment which is also called “ein Diktat.” 

While these assignments might seem like punishment to students, they’re not quite what English speakers have in mind when they hear “Diktat.”



In German, “der Blitz” can refer to a strike of lightning or burst of light. For example, “der Blitz” could refer to the flash of a camera. 

          A 'Blitz' in Indonesia on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/XinHua | Sarianto Sembiring

Blitz entered into the English language through the German term “Blitzkrieg.” Der Blitzkrieg, which can be literally translated as “lightning war,” refers to the sort of swift and offensive military tactics  employed by the German armed forces during World War II. 

English speakers will be familiar with using “blitz” in the military context, since the English “blitz” can be defined as an aggressive campaign. Notably, in English, blitz can also describe non-military campaigns, like an advertising blitz.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Blitzsauber


When English speakers hear “lager,” they’re likely to immediately think of beer — specifically the kind of beer which is brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast and stored in cool areas before drinking. Lager has etymology in the German “das Lagerbier,” which is a combination of the German words for storage (Lager) and beer. In German, the word “das Lager” can also refer to “inventory” or “warehouse.”

If you want to order a beer in Germany, you’ll probably have to be more specific about what type, since many common German beers are technically lagers. For example, you could ask for “ein Helles Bier” or just “ein Helles” (a pale lager).


Comments (4)

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Nancy E. Landrum 2024/02/09 14:46
"Schmuck" is another word with a quite different meaning between German and English.
Anonymous 2021/12/21 19:06
Chef, in German is a boss whereas in English it is someone who prepares a meal in a restaurant
Anonymous 2021/05/18 10:24
Just to add to 'Blitz'. In American English most people will know this for a completely different reason than a military one. In American Football 'Blitz' is a term meaning for the defense 'to rush' or 'put pressure' on the offense's quarterback. A common phrase would be to say "The defense needs to blitz the quarterback so that he will make a mistake".
Anonymous 2021/05/18 08:37
What about "Gift" (aka Poison auf Deutsch) as in "Brexit, the Gift that keeps on giving"
  • Anonymous 2021/05/18 08:56
    That's a good one!

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