An expat survival guide to Denglisch

An expat survival guide to Denglisch

German language is very important to the Germans - but that doesn’t stop them from borrowing heavily from other languages, most frequently English.

For somebody like myself — a native English speaker and a translator — this topic is particularly difficult to write about, as it invokes lots of painful memories which I can only describe in terms of a lifecycle, similar to the grief cycle that begins with shock and denial, moves through pain, anger and despair, and eventually transcends into numbness, indifference and acceptance. Having gone through the whole cycle when it comes to Denglisch, I can finally write this without experiencing painful emotions.

What is “Denglisch”?

The dictionary defines Denglisch as “a variety of German containing a high proportion of English words”. There are several different types of Denglisch. For example, there is the straightforward use of English slogans in advertising, such as the German airline Lufthansa’s tagline, “There is no better way to fly”. 

Another form of Denglisch is the dropping of random English words into German sentences. The third one is the gradual creeping of English spelling and grammar into the German syntax, e.g. “Karl’s Friseur”.

But perhaps the most annoying of all, particularly to native English speakers, is the coining of “English” words that either mean something completely different in the English language, or altogether do not exist. For example, der Dressman (male model), der Smoking (tuxedo) and der Moderator (talk show host). 

That last one I have a particular problem with, mainly due to the fact that I used to work in a theatre company, where I would constantly hear people say “the moderator” when they referred to the presenter on stage. At first I made a point of correcting everyone, but eventually I gave up, as it turned out to be impossible to beat the system. Nonetheless, hearing people say it every day and being powerless to stop them gave me a nervous tick. I still have it. 

Upgeloadet, downgeloadet, gecancelt

The other use of English which is very common in Germany is the attempt to incorporate English words into German grammar. For example, downloaden (to download), as in "Ich habe den File downgeloadet." Or canceln (to cancel), as in, “Das Meeting wurde gecancelt”, pronounced [gekenzelt]. 

This is not to say that the English language has never borrowed or coined words of its own. There has always been a certain amount of "cross-pollination" between the world's languages. Historically, both English and German borrowed heavily from Greek, Latin, French and other languages. English has German loan words such as angst, kindergarten, masochism and schadenfreude, but, in contrast to most Denglisch-isms, these are used because there is no true English equivalent. 

In total contrast, the majority of English terms used in the German language actually replace perfectly good German words; their sole purpose often seems to be to make sentences sound cooler. 

In all fairness, there is sometimes a very practical reason for using English words in place of their German equivalents — they are often shorter and have a much nicer ring to them. For example, let’s say one of your colleagues had a brainfart and did something really bad, like posting some dubious political views on the company’s Facebook page. There is a flurry of comments and the PR department is up in arms. You could use a German term to describe the action — Empörungswelle (a wave of anger), as in “Er hat eine Empörungswelle ausgelöst” (He caused a wave of anger), but the noun in question has no “bite” to it. 

The solution: use the English equivalent (“sh*tstorm”), and add a superlative before it. The result: “Er hat ein Mega Shitstorm ausgelöst!” (He caused a massive sh*tstorm!). Now that’s going to turn people’s heads, for sure.   

Denglisch can be a dangerous tool

On a humorous note, I have seen plenty of examples in German advertising where an attempt to combine both English and German together has gone horribly wrong. Some of the best ones I can remember: “Kamm inside” - an unnamed hairdresser’s failed attempt to craft a pun from the German word for a comb (Kamm), and the English “come in”. 

Another favourite of mine was an advertising slogan by a state-sponsored agency, which read, “Don’t drug and drive” — a frankly idiotic attempt at mimicking the “Don’t drink and drive” slogan. 

And if that’s not enough for you, how about going on a “C-Date”, a dating app that apparently promises to find attractive people in your vicinity. For the sake of writing about it, I actually went on the website to see what the “c” stands for, and turns out it’s “casual”. 

Personally, my brain was steering towards a quality thing, like the one you get at supermarkets. Do you want the expensive “Class A” oranges from sunny Spain – the ones that are a perfect size, firm, individually polished, grown without pesticides, and have an invigoratingly fresh citrus aroma? Or the “Class B” ones that didn’t quite fit the high standard of the top supermarkets? Or, if you can’t afford those either, you’d have to settle for the scabby ones, the ones you find in cheap supermarkets with flies hovering around them — the “Class C”. 

The F word

It is also quite common to hear Germans use the F word in a conversation, especially when they are conversing in English. This is used either as an exclamation like, “What the f**k”, or to add emphasis: “That is f**king disgusting.” 

To a native English speaker, such profanity generally has no place in public, except perhaps at a football stadium or a pub, but in Germany the fact that it’s a foreign word softens the meaning quite considerably. Thus, using it in a work context seems perfectly acceptable. I’ve even seen that exact expression displayed proudly on the wall of the Arts and Crafts corridor at a high school. I’ll let the reader consider that for a moment in silence.

Glossary of most annoying Denglisch words: 

And to round off, here’s a list of Denglisch words that really make my blood boil: 

  • das Meeting — the meeting
  • gecancelled — cancelled (verb, past tense)
  • What the f**k — self explanatory, often used as an exclamation, e.g., “Und ich dachte, what the f**k!”
  • brainstormen — to brainstorm 
  • der Sh*tstorm — a torrent of negative reaction resulting from a comment or action
  • managen — to manage 
  • downloaden — to download 
  • die Moderation — what presenters say on stage 

Have you got any to add? 

Want more of Fadi's observations, anecdotes and examinations? His satirical guide to Germany is out now as both a paperback and an e-book

fadi gaziri


fadi gaziri

Fadi moved to Germany in 2007 from the UK to live in Hamburg. He works as a music composer, musician, producer, educator and a translator. He has just published his...

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JohnTuttle2 12:14 | 13 May 2021

How about... - gegoogelt as in "Haben Sie es gegoogelt?" - "Hello Together" (as a greeting to more than 1 person in an Email) - "Ich bin zurzeit Oustide the Office" (classic one I received in an automated Email.) - And my all-time favorite Falscher Freund, "I have not become the file yet!" Great article, btw. Fun to read.