Monday, January 19, 2015

German Words in English

My second blog post was about a German word used in English: Wanderlust. In English it has the connotation of longing for far places while in German it means desire for hiking (although rather outdated).

Doing my writing over the past months I came across several other German words who made their way into English. Some of them for the good, some of them for the bad. Following several sites that focus on this, there is one main reason for including a foreign word into a language; a word fits into a gap. It then is a matter of time until people adopt the word so it is not seen as a foreign word anymore. My guess - it takes a generation or two to forget. In this process, the meaning of the words can diverge. 

Food related
A lot of words are related to food, actually to beer and beer garden. Starting the late 19th century, probably with the German immigrants, some words made it into the vocabulary. Lager, Stein, Dirndl and Schnitzel are only some of them. Sauerkraut and Gasthaus had a peak in the 40ies and Muesli came up in the 60ies. Google's Ngram viewer is an awesome tool to track the usage of a word.

War related
A less pleasant angle are war related words - most of them came over during world war II.

  • Blitzkrieg 
  • Reich
  • Ubermensch
  • Fuehrer
  • Götterdämmerung - although it came up earlier due to Wagner's opera it peaked very much in the 1940ies.

Special words
There are a lots of other words, of which some are already seen as English words, like Kindergarden.

However, I want to pick some pearls:

  • Angst in German means simply fear. In English it leans more towards panic and extreme fear.
  • Schadenfreude and gloating are very similar. So why did it make it into English at all? I think to gloat is more an action whereas schadenfreude expresses the malice behind the action.
  • Gemütlichkeit is a very sensual world and the best translation would be coziness, but coziness is missing some aspects. Coziness is more focused on how one feels in a nice and warm environment. Gemütlichkeit has also a social angle similar to amity and it also means going with a slow pace.
  • Waldsterben - it literally means dying forests and had its origins in the environmental discussions in Germany in the 1970ies. So why is there no corresponding word in English. I have no evidence, but I remember how fierce the discussion was in Germany and I assume the discussion was not as strong in the US.
  • Zeitgeist - as per Merriam-Webster it refers to the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era. However, in german this word has a positive connotation.
  • Kitsch is a funny word. In English it has has the stamp of being lowbrow or tacky. In German it has also a negative angle, almost as being too much. But there is always an underlying hope or respect for the better cause or value underneath. I remember standing at the beach on some island watching the sunset and a friend said, "It's almost kitschy". Or there is this joke about a conversation between friends on the background of the German saying "rain makes you beautiful":
    "Why do you have an umbrella. Rain makes beautiful."
    "Yeah I know. I just don't want to get kitschy."
    The second speaker emphasizes the point that too much beauty makes you kitschy.

Interestingly, I haven't found such an extreme discrepancy as with wanderlust. Still, I'm always surprised when I come across one of these kind of inherited words.

In that sense, happy writing
Gilbert de David