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LEARNING GERMAN

Eight German words used in English – but with different meanings

German and English share 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: 10 English words with a very different meaning in German

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.”

         Archive photo shows workers scared of losing their jobs protesting in Erfurt. Photo: Michael Reichel/DPA

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: How Yiddish survives in Europe – through German

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 Germany, 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. 

          A ‘Blitz’ in Indonesia on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/XinHua | Sarianto Sembiring

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: German word of the day: Blitzsauber

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 Germany, you’ll probably have to be more specific about what type, since many common 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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LEARNING GERMAN

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

Once you've learned the basics of German, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for German learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your German

STARTING OUT

Coffee Break German

Coffee Break German aims to take you through the basics of German in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where German native Thomas teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break German Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes

German Pod 101

German Pod 101 aims to teach you all about the German language, from the basics in conversations and comprehension to the intricacies of German culture. German Pod 101 offers various levels for your German learning and starts with Absolute Beginner.

The hosts are made up of one German native and one American expat living in Germany, in order to provide you with true authentic language, but also explanations about the comparisons and contrasts with English. This podcast will, hopefully, get you speaking German from day one.

Their website offers more information and the option to create an account to access more learning materials.

Learn German by Podcast

This is a great podcast if you don’t have any previous knowledge of German. The hosts guide you through a series of scenarios in each episode and introduce you to new vocabulary based on the role-plays. Within just a few episodes, you will learn how to talk about your family, order something in a restaurant and discuss evening plans. Each phrase is uttered clearly and repeated several times, along with translations.

READ ALSO:

Learn German by Podcast provides the podcasts for free but any accompanying lesson guides must be purchased from their website. These guides include episode transcripts and some grammar tips. 

DEVELOPING YOUR GERMAN

Easy German

This podcast takes the form of a casual conversation between hosts Manuel and Cari, who chat in a fairly free-form manner about aspects of their daily lives. Sometimes they invite guests onto the podcast, and they often talk about issues particularly interesting to expats, such as: “How do Germans see themselves?”. Targeted at young adults, the podcasters bring out a new episode very three or four days.

News in Slow German

This is a fantastic podcast to improve your German listening skills. What’s more, it helps you stay informed about the news in several different levels of fluency.

The speakers are extremely clear and aim to make the podcast enjoyable to listen to. For the first part of each episode the hosts talk about a current big news story, then the second part usually features a socially relevant topic. 

A new episode comes out once a week and subscriptions are available which unlock new learning tools.

SBS German

This podcast is somewhat interesting as it is run by an Australian broadcaster for the German-speaking community down under. Perhaps because ethnic Germans in Australia have become somewhat rusty in their mother tongue, the language is relatively simple but still has a completely natural feel.

There is a lot of news here, with regular pieces on German current affairs but also quite a bit of content looking at what ties Germany and Australia together. This lies somewhere between intermediate and advanced.

A woman puts on headphones in Gadebusch, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Photo: dpa | Jens Büttner

PERFECTING YOUR GERMAN

Auf Deutsche gesagt

This is another great podcast for people who have a high level of German. The host, Robin Meinert, talks in a completely natural way but still manages to keep it clear and comprehensible.

This podcast also explores a whole range of topics that are interesting to internationals in Germany, such as a recent episode on whether the band Rammstein are xenophobic. In other words, the podcast doesn’t just help you learn the language, it also gives you really good insights into what Germans think about a wide range of topics.

Sozusagen

Bayern 2 present their podcast Sozusagen! for all those who are interested in the German language. This isn’t specifically directed at language learners and is likely to be just as interesting to Germans and foreigners because it talks about changes in the language like the debate over gender-sensitive nouns. Each episode explores a different linguistic question, from a discussion on German dialects to an analysis of political linguistics in Germany.

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