German Misnomers, Myths, and Mistakes: What's True and What's Not?

Falling for convincingly presented misinformation is easy to do as the origin and essential truth of a legend may be difficult to pin down. Sometimes, we simply want to believe a story because it's so logical or enjoyable.

One story that I fell for myself (until a better-informed reader corrected me) is good example of a plausible explanation that fails to be supported by the facts: that the word “nasty” comes from the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast. Well, it sounds good, but it's too good to be true. (However, Nast DID help create the American image of Santa Claus!)

Other German myths are more serious—even insidious. A good example of a myth that really needs to be debunked is the classic snub that Hitler delivered to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. In fact, the real story is far more surprising and disturbing.

The Real Stories Behind These German Tall Tales

You can learn more about the myths above, by clicking through below. Each myth, misnomer or mistake comes with a detailed true explanation that is often much more interesting than the false version. 

1
German Lost Out to English as the Official Language of the U.S. by Just One Vote

"The Man in the High Castle" imagines an alternative ending to WWII and a German-speaking U.S. Getty Images / Controversial Fascist Subway Car Ads Cause Uproar In New York City Credit: Spencer Platt / Staff

Often we believe tall tales and myths simply because they are plausible and we WANT to believe them. A good example is the hard-to-kill-off “fact” that German lost out to English as the official language of the U.S. by just one vote. People (especially Germans) enjoy the story and find it plausible. 

2
Frau Blucher and the Whinnying Horses

Help! I don't want to go to the glue factory. Getty Images / Credit: Arctic-Images

Some German falsehoods fall into the category of harmless and often funny trivia, but they're still wrong, and therefore shouldn't be perpetuated. My favorite example of this kind of German myth is infamous Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. This one is also an example of a tale that's too good to be true. I don't know how or where it got started, but the explanation of why the mere mention of Frau Blucher's name starts horses whinnying in scene after scene of that great movie is pure horse manure.

3
Hitler Snubs Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics

Hitler and Jesse Owens. Getty Images/Ed Vebell / Contributor

Everyone knows that Hitler refused to shake U.S. gold medal winner Jesse Owens' hand at the Berlin Olympics, right? Actually, the truth is more insidious, and more awful than that.

4
The Grand Tradition of the German Christmas Pickle

Christmas Tree
Traditional last ornament on the Christmas tree and hidden among the branches. The first to find it on Christmas Day receives an extra gift!. Getty Images / DustyPixel Creative

All German children wake up on Christmas morning and search eagerly for a glass pickle hanging on the tree! Um, what?

5
Did Goethe Really Say This?

Ilm River with hiking paths, Goethe's Garden House at back, Ilm Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, Europe
Ilm River with hiking paths, Goethe's Garden House at back, Ilm Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, Europe. Getty Images

We defy you to find the German version of this famous 'Goethe' quote:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

6
What Are Santa's Reindeer Really Called?

"Rudolph? Never heard of him.". Getty Images / Credit: Eva Mårtensson

 Their original names sound more like something from "The Office" than from "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

7
The Pennsylvania Dutch, Aren't

A farm in Pennsylvania "German" Country. Getty Images/Credit: Roger Holden

And they've got nothing to do with Holland, the Netherlands, or the Dutch language. So, how'd they get that name?