German words expats should know: Ampel

German words expats should know: Ampel

Today’s word is one you’re likely to encounter in two different contexts: out and about driving in Germany, and in the newspaper if you’re reading about current affairs. We take a look at the meaning of Ampel in all its forms. 

Ampel meaning

The plainest meaning of Ampel is “traffic light” or “traffic signal” - you might see the word on road signs in Germany ahead of junctions, to warn drivers that there is a traffic light ahead. 

The word comes from the Old High German ampula, which means “vessel” and itself comes from the Latin ampulla (two-handed vessel). The jump makes more sense if you consider that the word Ampel was previously used in German to describe a container that hangs from the ceiling - which could hold something like a plant, or a light source - although this use of the word is now considered rather outdated. 

Ampelkoalition: Ampel in politics

The eternal flux of languages is illustrated nicely in the case of Ampel by the fact that the word now means something else in modern German usage, following the result of the 2021 federal election, which saw the SPD party form a coalition with the FDP and the Greens. 

Referring to the colours associated with these political parties - red, yellow and green - the German media began to use the word “Ampelkoalition” (traffic-light-coalition), “Ampelregierung” (traffic-light-government) or simply “Ampel” to refer to the new German government. 

The Ampelmann

The word Ampel might actually be one of the first tourists and new arrivals in Germany learn - even without enrolling in a German course - thanks to the cult status of the East German Ampelmann (often known by its diminutive name Ampelmännchen). 

When Germany was divided, East and West had different symbols on pedestrian crossing signals: while West Germany went for a pretty standard generic human figure, in 1961 East Germany adopted a distinctive, “cheerful” man wearing a hat. The symbol proved so popular it was adopted as part of a road safety education campaign for children and eventually attracted international attention. 

Following German Reunification, the federal government moved to standardise traffic signals and remove all of the East German Ampelmännchen, but they were met with a fierce kickback. Eventually the campaign to save the Ampelmann was successful, and many of them were allowed to remain on pedestrian crossings.

While German now officially has three different Ampelmann variations - the old East German version, the West German version, and the modern, pan-German version - and each German state has the right to choose which version is used, it is the East German Ampelmännchen who is winning the popularity contest.

The Ampel symbol across Germany

Some western districts of Berlin now even display the Ampelmännchen on their own pedestrian crossings, and other German cities in the west, including Saarbrücken and Heidelberg, have adopted him on some intersections. 

Cottoning on to its earnings potential, entrepreneurs have applied the symbol to all manner of souvenir products - from T-shirts and tea towels to bottles of beer and mugs - while the traffic light man’s design has been altered to draw attention to all kinds of campaigns - from gay rights to workers’ rights. 

In 2017, the Ampelmännchen got his very own Google Doodle, and in 2004 he even got a partner, the Ampelfrau, who was installed on some traffic lights in Zwickau, Dresden and Fürstenwalde. 

Thumb image credit: Davidcarreton /



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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