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LEARNING GERMAN

Eight German words used in English – but with different meanings

German and English have 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: How to remember the gender of German words

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.”

Protesters take part in the demonstration ‘Freedom instead of anxiety’ for civil rights and data protection in Berlin, Germany, on September 7, 2013. (Photo by RAINER JENSEN / DPA / AFP)

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: German word of the day: Der/Das Schlamassel

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 Austria, 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. 

Lightning strikes in front of the Rathaus square (Photo by SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP)

(Photo by SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP)

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: ‘Brutal’: What it’s really like to learn German in Austria

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 Austria, you’ll probably have to be more specific about what type, since many common Austrian and 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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GERMAN WORD OF THE DAY

Austrian word of the day: Beisl

This is a spot you might visit at the end of the working day - or Feierabend - particularly in Austria, as Germany has a different word for these establishments. Here's what this Austrian-German word means and how to use it.

Austrian word of the day: Beisl

Why do I need to know Beisl?

Because you may be invited to one or need to find one on the map.

What does it mean?

Das Beisl, which sounds like this, is the name for a pub or inn in Austrian German where people gather to drink beverages. In Germany, it is usually called a Kneipe.

This isn’t a fancy cocktail bar – it’s a neighbourhood watering hole and forms part of the make-up of towns and cities across Austria. It’s usually unpretentious, often small and used to be very smoky before Austria banned smoking indoors.

The term comes from the Czech “pajzl”, which means pub or dive. It’s a diminutive short form of the noun “hampejz” – with meaning such as “dog house” and even “brothel”.

Other possibilities for its origins include the Yiddish bajiss (house) , and the Austrian dialectal diminutive of the word Beiz – which was a low-class pub until the word got a better reputation.

Nowadays, the Beisl are usually friendly and charming and give an insight into life in Austria. So perhaps ask your Austria friends for a tip on a cool Beisl to visit. Just don’t expect the staff to speak English at all – or take credit cards.

If you’re hungry, keep in mind that Beisl usually doesn’t serve food or at least no hot dishes.

How to use it:
Treffen wir uns am Freitag nach Feierabend im Beisl.
Let’s meet in the pub on Friday after work finishes.
Ich gehe mit den Jungs ins Beisl.
I’m going to the pub with the lads.

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