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LEARNING GERMAN

Eight German words used in English – but with different meanings

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.

Eight German words used in English - but with different meanings
In German, 'Ersatz' simply means replacement, as this sign for a train taken in Bielefeld in 2017 shows. Photo: picture alliance / Friso Gentsch/dpa

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

Ersatz 

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.” 

Angst

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

Spiel

“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.” 

Mensch

“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.

Kindergartener 

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.”

Diktat

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.”

Blitz

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

Lager

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).

Member comments

  1. What about “Gift” (aka Poison auf Deutsch) as in “Brexit, the Gift that keeps on giving”

  2. 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”.

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LEARNING GERMAN

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.

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