Transcript S1E5: Germanisms in English

Here is the transcript for S1E5: Germanisms in English. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

This transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
RK = Robb Knapp


LG: English is full to the brim with words and phrases that come from other languages. It famously has the largest vocabulary of any known language in the world, and this is in no small part down to the sheer amount of influence from other languages. One of these languages is German, which has given us words like poodle, kitsch, diesel, and kaput. Some of these Germanisms are easier to recognise, some a little less so, and some you probably wouldn’t think come from German at all. So today we’re going to be having a look at some of these German words and expressions that have made their way into English, as well as what they mean, and why they now exist as part of the English language. So let’s crack on with the show.

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This is Yellow of the Egg, the uber-cool podcast all about German. I’m Luke Green and this is episode five, Germanisms in English.

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RK: Just think of hamburgers, Kaiser rolls, pumpernickel bread, sauerkraut, pretzels, lager beer that you drink from steins, schnapps, strudel, and of course all the different kinds of sausages, like frankfurters, wieners, bratwurst, knackwurst, and liverwurst. And you can get most of these in a delicatessen. Some dictionaries say delicatessen comes straight from French, but others say it comes from German more directly.

LG: Robb Knapp is the author of the self-published German English Words, which is based on his website of the same name. While he is a graduate of biology, Robb is an amateur linguist who began his German English Words project around twenty years ago, and has been collecting words and expressions that come from German and are used in English. These words are then listed on his website and can be found in his book in a dictionary format. By looking at his collection of words, you can see that German really is everywhere in English, in pretty much every aspect of life.

RK: And there's also different German breeds of dogs that occur in English of course, for example dachshunds and dobermans or rottweilers and schnauzers. And in music, we have waltzes, polkas, glockenspiels, flugelhorn, leitmotif, different areas of music. And other areas of life that have several Germanisms are literature, that gives us bildungsroman, for example. Sports and pastimes, abseil, and also rucksack. Other areas would be politics, economics, linguistics, medicine, and sciences such as psychology that gave us angst, philosophy which gave us zeitgeist, for example. I studied biology and noticed that all the journals were written in German, so I started studying German because of that. And physics also gave us a lot of Germanisms.

LG: We can refer to these words and expressions that come from German, in whichever form and whichever area of life they occur, as Germanisms.

RK: You can find different definitions for Germanisms, but I consider a word or a phrase to be a Germanism if it is borrowed from the German language and is used or was used in written or spoken English, no matter how commonly it occurs.

LG: While English and German are closely related and many words share the same roots across the two languages, a Germanism is understood to be a word or phrase in English that doesn’t just share common ancestry with a German word, but rather it was adopted from German into English. And there are different types of Germanism, too. There are those that we can recognise easily as being German, and there are those that are more integrated into the English language, sometimes to such an extent that we no longer perceive them as foreign at all. Here we make a distinction between foreign words and loanwords.

RK: Basically a loanword is a word that comes from a different language and is so anglicised that it is now considered to be integrated into English, for example kindergarten. Other German words like Waldsterben are not or not yet integrated enough into English so that they are still considered to be foreign words. Foreign words usually or often describe a particular technical term like the word I just mentioned, Waldsterben. When I was in school, I learned that foreign words are italicised in writing. Another difference between foreign words and loanwords is that foreign words usually keep the same spelling or orthography, for example Waldsterben that I mentioned is usually still capitalised besides being italicised because nouns in German are capitalised. But kindergarten is usually written with a small letter because it's already integrated into English.

LG: In addition to how the word looks on the page, or the way it’s pronounced, loanwords tend to be much more familiar to the average speaker, whereas foreign words are still seen as, well, foreign.

RK: So if most English speakers would be expected to know the meaning of the German word then it would probably be considered a loanword, but if not, it would be considered a foreign word.

LG: So words such as poodle or strudel may be considered loanwords since their spelling and pronunciation have been adapted to fit in with the English system. Whereas Waldsterben or Weltschmerz would be considered foreign words since they retain their capital letters, are often written in italics and keep a lot of their German pronunciation, like the [v] sound for the letter <w>. But there are Germanisms that are even harder to detect. Take for instance the words rainforest or flamethrower. They sound thoroughly English. But they both come from the German words Regenwald and Flammenwerfer respectively. Instead of them being integrated in terms of orthography and pronunciation, they were simply translated directly, literally, word-for-word into English, Regenwald to rainforest, and Flammenwerfer to flamethrower. This is a type of Germanism of its own.

RK: Another distinction besides loanword and foreign word would be a loan translation.

LG: Also known as a calque.

RK: For example, a word or phrase that's translated into English that was first used in German. For example the word loanword itself doesn't sound like a German word because it's not, but it was translated from the German word Lehnwort so loanword itself is also considered a Germanism because it's a loan translation, and the word loan translation itself is also a loan translation because it was translated directly from the German Lehnübersetzung.

LG: This makes it a lot trickier to identify Germanisms at first glance. You could guess that pretzel comes from German, maybe from the way it’s spelt, but you’re perhaps less likely to be able to guess that the words antibody, standpoint, worldview or even superman are in fact Germanisms to some extent. The more you look into it, the more English seems to be full of Germanisms in one form or another. How did this end up being the case?

RK: Well, there’s many ways that Germanisms can make their way into English. One example is immigration of German speaking people into English speaking countries. Another way that Germanisms make their way into English is important events that happened in Germany or due to the Germans themselves, for example the two World Wars. Another example of how Germanisms make their way into English is scientific studies that use the original terms for specific phenomena that were invented by German speakers, either they just discovered a certain phenomenon or invented something, and the German word just stuck as it was translated into English.

LG: And it seems to be the case that Germanisms are more prominent in American English than in other varieties such as British English.

RK: Well, being an American myself I hadn’t thought about that, I just took it for granted. But I guess mainly because of the immigration. There was a lot of immigration by Germans into the US. For example, the Pennsylvania Dutch, who weren't actually Dutch but they were Germans, that immigrated to the United States. Over 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, which makes them the largest claimed ethnic group in the US. In fact there is an urban legend that states that English only narrowly defeated German as the official language of the US. Well, it's not true. But it is true that up to a third of the US population has roots in German speaking countries, although many no longer identify themselves as such.

LG: A lot of Germanisms also found their way specifically into American English via Yiddish, which is a closely related language to German and carries a lot of Germanisms of its own. All of this together has led to there being many German loanwords in use in the US that are not common elsewhere. For instance, you might hear people say that something is verboten if it is prohibited, or something might be described as dreck if it’s trashy, or you might even hear the word hausfrau for housewife. And if you sneeze in the US, you might not always have someone say bless you.

RK: Well, for example, most Americans know that gesundheit is German, and we use it as a synonym for bless you. For example, when I was a child, I never said bless you, I always said gesundheit, and I always thought it was a synonym for bless you. Well, it is a synonym, but that's not what it means. It actually means ‘health’ in German, so you're actually wishing someone good health when they sneeze, rather than asking God to bless them.

LG: Another very well-known example of a decidedly US American Germanism that you don’t get so much in other English-speaking countries is kindergarten.

RK: Well, kindergarten is a good example. Kindergartens were introduced into the US by German immigrants for the children of the German immigrants, but kindergartens caught on in the US and spread all over the US, and soon they weren't just for German immigrants anymore.

LG: You might wonder why there is a need for this Germanism when there are English words that describe the same thing. In the UK we have the expression nursery school, for instance. But is that really the same thing?

RK: Kindergarten in the US is a compulsory grade before 1st grade in the United States, it's one year before 1st grade. I don’t know how nursery schools are defined in Great Britain but they're different from they are in the US. In the US, nursery schools are before kindergarten. Nursery schools are actually called pre-kindergarten. You can't compare nursery schools in the US and Britain. So you need a distinction between them. It's not quite grade school yet, or elementary school as we would say in the US, but it's not nursery school anymore so you need some sort of distinction. I guess you could call kindergarten ‘children's garden’ which would be the direct translation from German, but somehow kindergarten caught on. And even if you did translate it into children's garden for example, or something else, it would still be a Germanism because, ‘cause like we talked about already, a loan translation is just as much a Germanism as using the word itself in the German original.

LG: It seems that on the one hand, the Germanism remains because of how the concept was introduced. On the other hand, there appears to be a need for the term kindergarten since it expresses something slightly different from other terms such as nursery school or pre-school. The existence of the Germanism is justified since there is a nuance in meaning that distinguishes it from other English expressions. This can be seen with many other Germanisms, too.

RK: Another example of a German word used in English with a slightly different meaning between the two languages is ersatz. This is a term that came from World War One. Ersatz in German is simply a replacement or a spare part. For example, a spare tyre would be an Ersatz. But the term used in English is almost always an inferior substitute or any imitation of something and not just a replacement. For example, ersatz coffee is always an imitation or an inferior substitute for real coffee which due to its introduction during World War One came about because there was a shortage of coffee, of course. So Germanisms and borrowings from other languages can be considered necessary because they provide a way to make finer nuances in meaning.

LG: And sometimes, the foreign or loanword is simply more succinct and convenient to use than a potential English counterpart.

RK: Another example that is more modern than ersatz would be Schadenfreude. This is a word that can't or can't easily be expressed in English, you would need to express the concept in a more long-winded way, for example ‘the enjoyment one experiences when someone else is harmed’. It's a very long-winded way of saying the same thing. If you would translate it to ‘harm joy’, which is the literal translation, that just doesn't do it.

LG: There are lots of examples like this where a German word exists for which there is no sleek English equivalent. For a word like Wanderlust, or “wander lust” as it’s often pronounced in its integrated form, we could describe it and say “the strong desire to travel”, but that’s not as short and snappy. We could come up with some kind of translation and say “travel desire”, but that just sounds clunky. There’s a certain element of novelty that comes with using words from other languages.

RK: Well, my impression is that speakers of English enjoy using new, fun-sounding words. That's why the youth of every generation has their own slang terms. I used to say cool, my parents would have said groovy, I don't know what the young people today would say. But using Germanisms is one way to use a fun-sounding word, they are sometimes.

LG: Sometimes, however, we might adopt German words into English even though we do have a perfectly good equivalent. As we heard before, it might be because there are subtle differences in connotation, but sometimes we use the German expressions to refer specifically to something in a German setting.

RK: Well, another way that Germanisms come into English are words that are recognised by many English speakers as being German, but they are only used deliberately in a German context or to evoke a German context. An example would be Autobahn. An Autobahn is a motorway, you would call it a motorway in Britain, or in the US we’d call it a freeway or a limited access highway. And if you say Autobahn, you're not talking about freeways in England or the US, you're talking about the German Autobahn. And conversely, when you talk about the German Autobahn, you almost never say “the motorway” in Germany, you almost always say “the Autobahn”, although they’re completely comparable. So this is a word where you could probably do away with it, but you know if you're talking about the Autobahn, you mean the German Autobahn.

LG: Similar to when you refer to underground rail systems. If you say “the tube”, you probably mean the London underground. The metro would likely be France, and the u-bahn or U-Bahn would refer to Germany or Austria, for instance.

RK: Another example is U-Boot [pronounced “u-boat”] which is short for Unterseeboot, which means submarine. But if you're talking about German submarines, they are almost always U-Boots and not submarines.

LG: And a lot of Germanisms seem to be restricted to very specific contexts, and are often only used when talking about specific things or events. Take the two World Wars, for instance.

RK: Some examples are Nazi, SS, Wehrmacht, which are almost always used in contexts that have to do with the First or the Second World War.

LG: That’s not to say that we don’t then take these words and start creating our own meanings from them.

RK: Although Nazi seem to have a life of its own, too. People who are sticklers for grammar are called grammar Nazis, for example. I don't like that term because it evokes a picture of Nazis in my head all the time. But other words that come from World War Two, for example, another one is blitz or blitzkrieg that are used in contexts outside of the context of war. For example, in an American football a blitz is a lightning fast attack. Blitz is also used in chess, for example, a type of chess where you have a limited amount of time to move your chess piece between each move.

LG: As language users we’re incredibly creative with the linguistic material we have at our disposal. We often take existing words and extend their meaning far beyond what it was in its original language. We can even create new words using German words as prefixes or suffixes, or as parts of compounds. Take the German word über, which was adopted into English as uber, usually written without the umlaut. This is often used in English as quite a productive prefix to create new words.

RK: Uber is known by a lot of people now as a ride-sharing programme or app that you can call up on your phone. But uber is also a prefix. I've seen examples like uberhacker, uber-bully, uber-romantic. So it's funny because Germans would use super where we would use- might use uber.

LG: If we think of the word hamburger, we’ve taken this German word and chopped it up, so that we use burger independently and even attach it to other nouns to create compounds.

RK: It's also been extended to cheeseburger, chicken burger, fish burger, whatever, anything that you put on burger buns would be called a burger.

LG: In actual fact, the word hamburger comes from the German word Hamburger, which means “from the place ‘Hamburg’”, in a similar way that you have a Berliner as coming from Berlin. When Hamburger made its way into English, we recognised the ham- part and over time reanalysed the word as being made up of ham and burger. So we’ve basically taken a German word and deconstructed it, and given new life to burger. You can see a similar thing happen the other way round too, where English words have entered German and then been reconstructed and matched with other words to make compounds that don’t exist in English.

RK: The example I like is Pullunder. The Germans say Pullunder instead of Pullover. They think a sleeveless pullover is a “pullunder” and it comes from English. No, sorry, German people made it up!

LG: It’s very common for foreign words to be introduced and to then develop a life of their own in their new home language, so much so that they become increasingly more distanced from their original meanings and uses. As they become more integrated, they start to lose their status as foreign words, to the point where we might not even notice them as not being of English origin at all.

RK: An example of a word that is so integrated into English that most people don't know it's German is nickel, which is a metal of course that gave the American five-cent coin its name. Nickel, in German, is actually a diminutive of the name Nicholas or Nick, and it was used to designate the devil or a cobalt, so that the metal called nickel was shortened from German Kupfernickel, and it could be translated as ‘copper trickster’ because miners used to think that cobalts tricked them into mining nickel instead of the similar but more valuable-looking copper ore.

LG: There are so many more Germanisms that are lurking everywhere in the English we speak nowadays, and it’s worth looking into their origins as they often have interesting and sometimes surprising backstories. Words that we wouldn’t think twice about, such as lager, muesli or noodle, have a whole history in the German language before they even made it to English. Learning about and exploring these words gives us a whole new perspective on them and a new-found respect for the journeys they’ve made to arrive at our modern-day English language. We can also learn to appreciate that a good number of Germanisms that we use in English no longer mean the same thing, or are no longer even used in German in the same way. Robb exemplifies this by telling us about a couple more Germanisms.

RK: I don’t know if lager is used in Britain very much but it’s a type of beer. Lager actually means a store, as in a storeroom, or something being stored. So in the context of beer, it's a type of beer that is stored, I don't know for how long, probably several months, probably not years but at least several months, but it's a description of a type of beer that is stored before you drink it. I wouldn't know exactly because I'm not a beer connoisseur myself. But I did mention that you can drink beers out of steins. Well Stein is the German word for ‘stone’, which is what these types of mugs are made of. They're made of stoneware. And the funny thing here again is Germans don't think of these kinds of mugs as steins, they’re just beer mugs, I guess. They don't say “stein”. So it's funny, we use a lot of German words that the Germans themselves don't use for the same subject.

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LG: Thank you so much to Robb Knapp for joining me for this episode. Do take a look at his website,, and check out his book of the same name, German English Words. It’s a great project and it’s really interesting to see the sheer number of German expressions that have made their way into English. Of course, there are new words entering English all the time and such a collection can never be complete, but it’s a great resource to dip into. You can find the information on the podcast website,, on the page for this episode. As always, you can also find the transcript for this episode on the website. If you like what you’ve been hearing so far, you can subscribe to this podcast for free, wherever you get yours. I’d be very grateful for a positive review and a five-star rating as well, that helps a lot. And of course tell your friends and share this podcast around. It’s very much appreciated. And if you want to get in touch, you can find me on Instagram @YOTEPodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-Podcast, and by email, So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening, and until next time, machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

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