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German loanwords in the English language

Cockroach, lantern, algebra, sabbath – these are only a few of the loanwords that we use in the English language without them striking us as being particularly unusual. Appropriately, ‘loanword’ itself is a loan translation (a so-called calque) of the German Lehnwort (Lehn from leihen = ‘lend’ + Wort = ‘word’).

Throughout history, English has borrowed words from other languages, through strong cultural links or historical events like the Norman Conquest in 1066, manifested linguistically through the adoption of Norman French vocabulary. It is also often the case that some cultures are more dominant than others in particular fields, and this dominance means that they shape the language in this area beyond their geographical borders.

Pianoforte, synthesis, brainstorming, and email

One area where this is particularly apparent is in classical music, with many terms borrowed from Italian, where examples include pianoforte, allegro, and soprano. The word ‘pianoforte’ found its way into the English language in the middle of the 18th century and literally means ‘soft and loud’ (piano e forte). Allegro stems from the Italian for ‘lively, gay’, and soprano is derived from sopra, which is Italian for ‘above’, itself borrowed from the Latin supra.

Similarly, many words in the field of science, especially medicine, originate from Greek and Latin. Take for example pancreas, which entered the English language in the late 16th century via modern Latin, with pan meaning ‘all’ and kreas meaning ‘flesh’. Other examples are retina, from Medieval Latin rete = ‘net’, and synthesis, which derives from the Greek suntithenai = ‘place together’ and entered the English vocabulary via Latin in the early 17th century.

Naturally, this works the other way around as well. The increase of words being borrowed from English reflects the enormous importance of the English language in today’s globalized world. Accordingly, many English business terms are used in other languages. Thus, the French have meetings, and Germans will regularly have brainstorming sessions. Similarly, most languages have – officially or unofficially – adopted English terms like Internet, email, or login.

However, it is always advisable to be careful with some of these words, as they might not mean exactly the same as in the source language. An example of this is the German use of Handy for ‘mobile phone’, which makes it a common false friend for German learners of English. I am sure that everyone who has studied a foreign language has fallen into a trap like this, which can be both embarrassing and amusing at the same time.

Pretzel with noodles?

Let’s take a look at some of the words borrowed from German; you will see that some of them are more obvious than others. One of my personal favourites is muesli, which derives from the Swiss German Müsli. Other foodie words borrowed from German are pretzel and noodle. Everybody knows that ‘pretzel’ is originally German, but while any German will know what you mean when you ask for a ‘pretzel’, the German standard spelling is actually Brezel. In Bavaria and Austria however, you would call them Brezn, and to make it even more complicated, there are other regional variations like Brezl and Breze. I would claim that the origin of the word ‘noodle’ is less obviously German. It did however enter the English language in the late 18th century via the German Nudel. Unfortunately, the origin of the German word is unknown.

A more classic example would be wunderkind. It is a term that is fairly easy to translate: Wunder = ‘wonder’ + Kind = child. Still, for some reason we say ‘wunderkind’ and not ‘wonderchild’. Other frequently used words borrowed from German include the very useful schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune; weltschmerz, a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness; and zeitgeist, which is the defining spirit or mood of a period in history as reflected by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

Not to be ignored are more recent borrowings from the 20th century, reflecting the traumatizing experience of the Second World War, with German loanwords like führer, now more generally used to describe a tyrannical leader, or blitzkrieg (literally ‘lightning war’), which is an intense military campaign intended to bring about a swift (in other words, as fast as lightning) victory.

These are only a few examples and, of course, any language could be looked at in depth. Even if you think that a word is undoubtedly English, a closer look at the etymology may surprise you. Anyone studying a foreign language will have found themselves in a situation where they could think of a word in their mother tongue that exactly describes a situation or concept, but for which there just isn’t an appropriate translation. Therefore, let me end with three German words that are my top contenders for eventually forming part of the rich English vocabulary:

1. Fernweh – This is basically the same as ‘wanderlust’, but has a less old-fashioned ring to it.

2. Feierabend – literally ‘party evening’ – the time when you finish work (Feierabend machen) as well as the rest of the evening after you’ve left work. It’s also used colloquially to say I’ve had enough / enough of this: Jetzt ist aber Feierabend!

3. Fachidiot – A ‘subject idiot’ – someone who knows an awful lot about one subject, but doesn’t really have any capabilities outside of this particular area.