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Are Those Really German Words?

Sometimes German words simply get adopted into English without being translated.....

German words

This reflects the fascinating historical and linguistic influence of German on the English language. After all, English is a Germanic language, and both languages share common roots!

For ease of reference, I've grouped these words into 4 types:

  1. German loan words: These are German words for which no succinct English translation exists. Therefore the German is simply used in its original form. This process of adoption is one of the ways in which English is continually enriched and altered – a process going back over a thousand years!
  2. German - leave it! These words are understood by an English-speaking audience  in their original German form. Many of these words have particular cultural connotations which can only be glossed, not translated. Often they have a historical context -  stemming from a particular period and geographical location.
  3. German? Really?! "I didn't know that was German" German words, which we have simply adopted into English and where we are frequently unaware of their German origins. They do seem to involve a lot of food....
  4. False friends: These are German words which lull you into a false sense of security by automatically suggesting an English equivalent, but which actually (usually) have a different translation.

If you see I've missed a few - just let me know!

1. German Loan Words

German word
English meaning
Angst Fear, of an existential nature
Doppelgänger “Double-goer”, double, look-alike
Freizeitstress “Leisure-time stress". Refers to the stress caused by feeling impelled to fill up weekends with busy activity instead of relaxing!
Total work of art, universal artwork, synthesis of the arts:I always find it sounds awkward when translated, and better left in the original German.
Hinterland Means “the land behind”, originally rural areas outside towns. Also metaphorical, as someone's cultural/historical background.
Kindergarten “Children-garden”, i.e. nursery school
Realpolitik “Practical politics“, i.e. political realism
Schadenfreude “Damage-pleasure“, taking delight
in another’s misfortune
Sturm und Drang “Storm and Stress”, meaning state of disturbance and disorder. Refers to a German literary movement of the C18th
Sturmflut “Storm surge” or storm tide, meaning deluge - I saw this for the first time in the Economist magazine, in April 2009
Übermensch The term was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1883 and described the "higher state to which he thought man might aspire"
Ur Original, primary, primordial, used as prefix, e.g. ur-state
Weltanschauung “World view”
Weltpolitik “World politics” or global politics
Weltschmerz ”World pain”, world-weariness
Zeitgeist “Spirit of the times”, seen frequently, a really useful loan word!

Notice how many of these words have a philosophical background?!

TIP! When these German words crop up in a German text you're translating into English, write them in italics - it shows you're using the word deliberately and are aware that it doesn’t need an English equivalent!

2. German Words We Don't Bother To Translate

German word
English meaning
Autobahn “Motorway”. We know the Germans love fast cars and no speed limits! If we were translating a piece about German motorways into English, we would leave the word Autobahn (spelt with a capital A) untranslated.
Bauhaus Literally “building school”, this was a German stylistic period, dated 1919-1933, with its own style of arts, crafts and architecture.
Biedermeier A period in 19th Central Europe (1815-1848), corresponding historically with English Regency style and US Federal style.
Blitz “Lightening”, historically the German air bombardment of London in 1940, also to do something quickly and intensively e.g. cleaning a room, “do a blitz on something”
Blitzkreig Another WWII term, literally “lightening warfare”, a swift military offensive using ground and air forces
Dummkopf Blockhead, idiot, bonehead!
Ersatz “Substitute” or “replacement” – in English this implies that it is not quite as good as the thing it replaces (not so in German)
Fuehrer “Leader”, although Adolf Hitler automatically springs to mind for most English-speaking readers it remains a perfectly acceptable term in German. Unless your German translation refers to Adolf Hitler and the period around WWII, you would translate Fuehrer. E.g. Geschäftsführer – managing director.
Hausfrau Housewife/homemaker – using “Hausfrau” means the people in question has an exclusive interest in domestic matters
Jugendstil Style of art and architecture especially popular at the turn of the C19th . Literally “youthful style”, the German equivalent to Art Nouveau. It’s Austrian counterpart was the Vienna Secession.
Karst Geological term for dissolution landscapes. (Many geological terms derive from German, e.g. gneiss, quartz, schist)
Lebensraum “Living space”, the Nazi ideology of the German people requiring more geographical space. In German it also refers to ecological habitats, and is not a controversial term in itself.
Lieder Literally “songs”. Leave as Lieder when referring to European romantic music songs, especially songs composed to German poems, e.g. the Schubert Lieder.
Luftwaffe The German air force
Lumpenproletariat Literally “raggedy proletariat”, A definition coined by Karl Marx and used in its German form.
Mensch “Human being”, connotations of the person describing having integrity and honour.
Oktoberfest Famous Bavarian beer festival held in Munich each autumn
Putsch Coup d’état, overthrow of a government
Über "over" "extra" "excessive", often just spelt "uber" in English (no umlaut)
Umlaut Ä, Ö, Ü
A coming to terms with the past, especially for the German nation after WWII

3. The "I Didn't Know They Were German" Words

German word English meaning
Bratwurst Delicious type of German sausage!
Deli From Delikatessen - delicacy
Diesel From Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine
Frankfurter / Wiener Hotdog sausages (Austrians say “Frankfurter” = “from Frankfurt”, Germans “Wiener”= “Viennese”)
Gestalt therapy Form of psychotherapy, “Gestalt” = form/design, founded in the 1940’s and 1950’s
Kaput Broken
Karabiner Although spelt “carabiner” in English – a metal closed hook, climbing equipment
Kitsch German and Yiddish word meaning tasteless, sentimental art
Lager ”Storage” – the origins are from the cold storing of the beer - “lagering” before it is ready to be drunk
Leitmotiv (Spelt “Leitmotif” in English), a recurring theme in music or literature
Meistersinger Literally “master singer” – a German literary poet of the C14th to C16th
Muesli Needs no explanation!, a Swiss invention
Poltergeist From ”Poltern”+”Geist” – rumble and make noise+ghost.
Pretzel Of George W. Bush choking-fame, German spelling is actually “Brezel”
Pumpernickel Dark German rye bread
Rucksack Literally “back”+”pack”
Sauerkraut Fermented cabbage, often served with “Speck” – chunks of smoked bacon
Schuss Clear run on a ski slope
Spritzer Drink – white wine and soda, “spritzen”= to spray, squirt
Strudel With apple or “Topfen”, delicious!
Torte Flans, tarts, fancy cakes, often rich in eggs and with nuts or breadcrumbs, origins in Central Europe
Waltz Dance form, frequently to the music of Johann Strauss!
Wanderlust Desire to travel
Wunderkind ”Wonder”+”Child”, a child prodigy
Zeppelin An airship, e.g. the Hindenberg

4. False Friends

German word English translation
Fusion Fusion? Not unless you are talking about nuclear fusion. Otherwise amalgamation.
Eventuell Eventually? No - possibly, potentially.
Impuls Impetus, stimulus, boost, not impulse
Komfortabel Often moderate, rather than "comfortable"
Konsequent Consistent, not consequently
Kontrollieren This is usually NOT control (Control is normally "steuern") but rather supervise, check, examine, monitor
Klein- und Mittlere Unternehmen
Middle-Sized Businesses? No - Medium-sized enterprise, or SME
Chargen Ranks, not charges
Seriös Legitimate, reliable, not serious
Solide Respectable, not solid

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German to English Translation

Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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