Literature & Words

27 Interesting German Words That Made Their Way into English

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

It is surprising when you think about how much of the English language is peppered with German words. We talk, without realising half the time, that we are borrowing words from one of our closest European neighbours.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of these ‘loanwords’ are German words. English is a Germanic language, which means English and German share many similarities.

These two languages might sound very different, but their roots are incredibly similar.

To show you what I mean, take a look at the following German words and their English equivalents:

  • Freund – friend
  • Haus – house
  • Apfel – apple
  • Wasser – water
  • Bessen – better
  • Foto – photo
  • Krokodil – crocodile
  • Maus – mouse

Now that you know the reason why so many German words made their way into the English language, here are 27 of them.

27 Interesting German Words We Use in the English Language

  1. Abseil (abseilen)

This German word abseil is a contraction of ab (down) and seil (to rope).

  1. Beer garden (Biergarten)

We all love sitting outside our local pub in the summer months, but we did not call it a beer garden until the Germans did.

  1. Blitz (Blitzen)

In German, blitzen means to sparkle, flash, light up, or twinkle. In English, it describes a sudden attack or a method of chopping or pureeing using a processor.

  1. Dollar (thaler)

We associate dollars with America, but they originated from a small town in Bavaria (now Germany) in the 16-century. This town started producing standardised coins using the silver from a mine situated in a nearby valley.

The coins all weighed the same and were called thalers (thal means ‘valley’ in German). Countries in Europe liked this idea of a standard coin and followed suit. Despite the fact that the silver was sourced from different locations and produced in other countries, the name stuck. It became the dollar standard in Europe.

The US adopted the thaler after the American Revolution in 1792. Americans called their thaler the dollar.

  1. Diesel (Rudolf Diesel)

Diesel fuel is a type of petrol used to power vehicles and trains and derives from the German inventor Rudolf Diesel in 1892.

  1. Doppelganger

This word translates literally as a double walker and is used to describe a person who is the exact image of someone.

  1. Dummkopf

In German, this word means dumb head and is a derogatory term used to describe a stupid person.

  1. Fest

Any word with the suffix fest means party time in English. In English, we know this word primarily from the German festival of Oktoberfest, a traditional Bavarian festival.

  1. Flak (Flugabwehrkanone or Fliegerabwehrkanone)

Flak is a German acronym for the above words which are anti-aircraft artillery. Flak also describes the barrage of shells during aerial combat in WW11.

Today, flak is referring to taking criticism.

  1. Gestalt

Gestalt refers to the theory, developed in the late 1940s, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

  1. Glitch (glitschen)

A glitch describes a sudden fault or problem. It is a composite of the German word glitschen and the Yiddish word glitshen, both of which mean to slide or slip.

  1. Glitz/Glitzy (glitzern)

Something glitzy is showy and sparkly and twinkles in the light. This is another one of those German words, such as blitz, and in German means to glisten or glint.

  1. Gummibear (der Gummibär)

I thought this was another American word, but no, it comes from Germany. Manufactured in Germany in the 1920s, the translation for these sweets is rubber bear.

  1. Iceberg (Eisberg)

Did you know that we get the word iceberg from German? Iceberg means mountain of ice in German. Eis is ice and berg is a mountain.

  1. Kaput (kaputt)

Germans adopted the word capot to describe a loser but changed the spelling to kaputt. In the English language, this word means an item (usually machinery or equipment) that is not working anymore or broken.

  1. Lager (lagerbier)

Some German words have become such a part of our everyday language that we take them for granted. Take the word lager, for example. I would imagine that most people think this word means a light-coloured beer. However, the actual meaning is storage.

The word lager comes from the German word lagerbier, which means beer brewed to store. This type of beer is made with yeast and has to ferment for a time before imbibed.

  1. Leitmotif

Leitmotif is a dominant and recurring theme, usually in music, depicting a person, idea, or thing. Originating with the German composer Richard Wagner, it has now come to represent any repeated theme, whether this is in music, theatre, literature, or the arts.

  1. Masochism

You hear a lot about masochism in psychology. It means deriving sexual pleasure from one’s own pain or humiliation. In 1886, Austrian-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term Masochismus to describe this tendency. We now know it as masochism.

  1. Mensch

Do you know anyone who is a mensch? I sometimes hear this word on US TV programmes. A character will describe a person as a real mensch.

In German, it means a human being, but Jewish people use it to describe a decent person who has integrity. Mensch is a term of endearment or praise.

  1. Muesli (muos)

Is muesli a Swiss word? Well, according to my sources, it is half Swiss, half German. It derives from an old Germanic word muos meaning mushy food.

  1. Noodle

There are certain words, as with muesli and dollar, which we automatically associate with particular countries. The same is true of noodle.

When I think of noodles, I imagine China or the far East, but the word originates from the German word ‘nudel’ meaning a narrow dried strip of dough.

  1. Plunder (plündern)

To plunder is to take goods by force, to loot or steal, to pillage. But the word originates from the German verb plündern, which means to steal during military or social unrest.

  1. Realpolitik

This is one of those German words that has crept into the world’s consciousness without us realising it. However, I wonder if anyone knows its meaning? Realpolitik means practical politics. In other words, politics driven by practical means, as opposed to ideology-driven politics.

  1. Schadenfreude

Who hasn’t felt a smug warm feeling when a road hog gets pulled over for speeding? Schadenfreude translates as ‘harm-joy’ and is the feeling of pleasure from another person’s misfortune, but it is a complex emotion.

It is a sense that a wrongdoer is getting their comeuppance. Karma is restored. 

  1. Schlep (schleppen)

Schlepp comes from the German verb ‘schleppen’ which refers to the arduous task of dragging or carrying around a heavy object. In the English version, we use schlepp to describe a difficult or tedious journey.

  1. Spiel (Spielen)

Spielen is a German verb that means ‘to play’, but during its journey into the English-speaking world, it changed. Spiel is a rehearsed line of patter, a sales pitch, or glib talk, usually done to win over a person.

  1. Über

My final German word is more synonymous with streets in the US. Uber and taxis have been a thing for a few years now, but the origin of über derives from Nietzsche. He coined the phrase ‘der Übermensch’ to describe a superhuman.

Now we attach the prefix ‘uber’ to anything we deem to be superior.

Final Thoughts

German words slip over our tongue every day without barely a thought to their origins. I find it fascinating to learn about the history of our language. So I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I took pleasure in writing it.


Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)