An Introduction to German "Loan Words"

You already know German!

Volkswagen combi van on Waikiki boulevard.
Volkswagens are German!. Merten Snijders / Getty Images

If you are an English-speaker, you already know more German than you may realize. English and German belong to the same “family” of languages. They are both Germanic, even though each has borrowed heavily from Latin, French, and Greek. Some German words and expressions are used constantly in English. Angst, kindergarten, gesundheit, kaputt, sauerkraut, and Volkswagen are just some of the most common.

English-speaking children often attend a Kindergarten (children's garden). Gesundheit doesn't really mean “bless you,” it means “health”—the good variety being implied. Psychiatrists speak of Angst (fear) and Gestalt (form) psychology, and when something is broken, it's kaputt (kaput). Although not every American knows that Fahrvergnügen is “driving pleasure,” most do know that Volkswagen means “people's car.” Musical works can have a Leitmotiv. Our cultural view of the world is called a Weltanschauung by historians or philosophers. Zeitgeist for “spirit of the times” was first used in English in 1848. Something in poor taste is kitsch or kitschy, a word that looks and means the same as its German cousin kitschig. (More about such words in How Do You Say “Porsche”?)

By the way, if you were unfamiliar with some of these words, that's a side benefit of learning German: increasing your English vocabulary! It's part of what the famous German poet Goethe meant when he said, “He who doesn't know foreign languages, doesn't know his own.” (Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß auch nichts von seiner eigenen.)

Here are a few more English words borrowed from German (many have to do with food or drink): blitz, blitzkrieg, bratwurst, cobalt, dachshund, delicatessen, ersatz, frankfurter and wiener (named for Frankfurt and Vienna, respectively), glockenspiel, hinterland, infobahn (for “information highway”), kaffeeklatsch, pilsner (glass, beer), pretzel, quartz, rucksack, schnaps (any hard liquor), schuss (skiing), spritzer, (apple) strudel, verboten, waltz, and wanderlust. And from Low German: brake, dote, tackle.

In some cases, the Germanic origins of English words are not so obvious. The word dollar comes from German Thaler — which in turn is short for Joachimsthaler, derived from a sixteenth-century silver mine in Joachimsthal, Germany. Of course, English is a Germanic language to begin with. Although many English words trace their roots back to Greek, Latin, French, or Italian, the core of English — the basic words in the language — are Germanic. That's why it doesn't take too much effort to see the resemblance between English and German words such as friend and Freund, sit and sitzen, son and Sohn, all and alle, flesh (meat) and Fleisch, water and Wasser, drink and trinken or house and Haus.

We get additional help from the fact that English and German share many French, Latin, and Greek loan words. It doesn't take a Raketenwissenchaftler (rocket scientist) to figure out these “German” words: aktiv, die Disziplin, das Examen, die Kamera, der Student, die Universität, or der Wein. 

Learning to use these family resemblances gives you an advantage when working on expanding your German vocabulary. After all, ein Wort is just a word.

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Flippo, Hyde. "An Introduction to German "Loan Words"." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Flippo, Hyde. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to German "Loan Words". Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "An Introduction to German "Loan Words"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).