8 English words you didn't know were borrowed from German

8 English words you didn't know were borrowed from German

You don’t have to look far in the English language to find a word that we’ve clearly pinched from the Germans: doppelganger, kindergarten and angst have all made their way into common usage - but what about the sneaky German borrowings that are hiding in plain sight? 

German words used in English

Of course, etymology isn’t an exact science, since all languages are constantly in a state of flux - lending and borrowing left, right and centre - but we can be pretty confident that the following eight English words originally came from the German language. And these are just the ones that come with a bit of a story - there are hundreds, if not thousands, more! So without further ado, here are eight German words that are commonly used in English. 

1. Lager

Let’s start - in proper German style - with a beer. The word “lager” is a shortening of the German word “Lagerbier”, derived from the word for a storehouse: “Lager”. Both the beverage and the word have their origins in Bavaria in the 19th century, when brewers began experimenting with a different technique.

By brewing their beer at a cooler temperature, using a different strain of yeast, and then leaving it to ferment, mellow and clear in cold storage - a process known as “lagering” (lagern) - brewers in Germany were able to create a new, lighter type of alcoholic beverage. As the technique spread across Europe and the rest of the world in the 1850s, the word “Lager” was absorbed into English, used to describe any beer made using this new process. 

2. Glitch 

Okay, there might be a bit of a glitch in the etymology of this one - but you can’t look at the word glitch (think of the word “kitsch”) and not smell something distinctly German about it. First used in the 1940s as a piece of technical jargon among radio and television engineers, a glitch is a short-lived fault and supposedly comes from the German word “glitschen” (to slip) and the Yiddish word “gletshn” (to slide or skid). 

3. Hinterland

A wonderfully dreamy word that in English conjures up an image of the back of beyond - an ill-understood area, far away from civilisation - hinterland actually comes from the German words “hinter” (behind) and “Land”, which when put together mean something like “back country”. It’s obvious when you see it!

4. Muesli

Technically, this is a Swiss German borrowing, but that’s good enough for us. Muesli - everyone’s favourite high-fibre breakfast dish - is a 1926 invention credited to the Swiss physician and nutritional pioneer, Maximilian Bircher-Benner. The word was created by adding the diminutive suffix “-li” to the Old High German word “muos”, which means a “meal, mush-like food”. That just about says it, really.

5. Rucksack

Here’s another one that becomes obvious when you think about it. Rucksack (sometimes also known as a backpack) is a German borrowing that combines “Rücken” (back) and “Sack” (bag). Its usage in English can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when mountaineers still spelt it “rücksack”, but it wasn’t too long before the umlaut was dropped. If you’re wondering why “backbag” didn’t catch on, just try and say it! 

6. Noodle

You may associate noodles with Asian cuisine, but actually, the word is as German as Schnitzel and Bratwurst. In German, the generic term for pasta is “Nudel” - a word which appeared in German cookbooks as early as 1400 and is itself thought to be a variant of “Knödel”, a boiled dumpling that is ubiquitous in German cuisine. Interestingly enough, the word “noodle” was first used in English in 1779, 40 years before the first appearance of “pasta”! 

7. Nickel

The name of this whitish metal element was coined in 1754 by the Swedish mineralogist Axel von Cronstedt, a shortening of the Swedish word “kopparnickel”. But - the Swedish word was actually a half translation of the German term “Kupfernickel”, literally meaning “copper demon”.

The name came from miners, in reference to the fact that the tricksy ore looked like copper but yielded none - rather similar to the mineral pyrite, which is nicknamed “fool’s gold”. Nickel, derived from the name Nicholas, was a mythological spirit said to haunt houses, caves and mines. 

“Nickel” came to be used to refer to small coins in the US in the 1850s, when the government introduced one-cent coins made of nickel, to replace the old copper pennies. 

8. Delicatessen

Nowadays, your average delicatessen is probably not stocked with packets of Leberwurst and loaves of pumpernickel, but these fine food shops do actually have German origins. The first “Delikatesse” - a word derived from the Latin “delicatus” and the French “délicatesse” - were first opened in London and New York by German emigrants in the 19th century. Lingner’s Delicatessen, for example, opened in Soho in London in 1877. 

German words in English: They're everywhere!

So there you have it: eight German words that are regularly used in English. Can you think of any to add? Let us know in the comments below! 



Abi Carter

Managing Editor at IamExpat Media. Abi studied German and History at the University of Manchester and has since lived in Berlin, Hamburg and Utrecht, working since 2017 as a writer,...

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