Schadenfreude And 10 Other German Words So Good English Just Had to Borrow Them

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Both English and German are Germanic languages. Maybe that explains why we find the German language to be so wunderbar! English has borrowed quite a few words from the choice land of Deutschland, and there is a good reason for it. In German, a speaker can put two unrelated words next to each other and create a novel compound word, so you don’t have to be the Bard or a poet to create new compounds. As a result, some German words have arisen for very specific ideas, words that English simply couldn’t pass up. 

We hope you enjoy this list of some of our most useful German imports. Guten tag! 


German can be fantastically specific when describing feelings, though those feelings may not always be happy ones. Weltschmerz literally means “world-pain,” from the German roots welt meaning “world” and schmerz meaning “pain.” But this melancholy word conveys something beyond its portmanteau parts; the concept, coined by Jean Paul Richter, refers to the “sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life,” describing a state in which a person feels that their physical reality will never be as beautiful or blissful as the world they can imagine in their head.


Schadenfreude has been used in English since at least the 1890s, and its use rose throughout the 20th century. It comes from the German words schaden, meaning “harm,” and freude, meaning “joy.” It refers to the joy a person feels from other people’s misfortune. Schadenfreude, both the word and the feeling it refers to, is particularly popular in modern times. The internet, especially social media, has made it easy for us to both discover other people’s misery and express just how good it makes us feel. 


Weltanschauung, or “worldview,” was introduced into German by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1790 piece Critique of Judgment, though the term did not migrate to English until the 1800s. Combining welt meaning “world” and anschauung meaning “perception,” the word denotes a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and humanity’s relation to it. Weltanschauung is not to be confused with the philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s term weltansicht, referring to a worldview within a linguistic system. Specific enough? We’re just getting started.


When one art form just isn’t enough, it’s time for a little Gesamtkunstwerk! Fusing gesamt, meaning “total,” with kunstwerk, “work of art,” this word refers to an art piece that combines multiple mediums. The term was introduced to German by philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff in an 1827 essay, though it gained traction through the work of opera composer Richard Wagner in the late 1840s when he spoke of uniting all artistic media under the banner of theater. That means a combination of music, visual art, dramatic performance, dance, poetry, and maybe even basket weaving.


Sometimes, genius and talent emerge at a young age. In such cases, we can use the word wunderkind to refer to these child prodigies. Wunderkind has been used in English since at least the 1890s and is formed from wunder, meaning “wonder,” and kind, meaning “child.” The term wunderkind is often used to specifically refer to musical prodigies, but it’s a good word to praise a youth who is amazingly talented at just about anything. 

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You’d be forgiven for thinking this one must be an English invention. But the word wanderlust comes from a combination of the German wander(n), meaning “to hike, to wander” and lust, meaning “desire” or “lust.” English speakers borrowed this term from German and have been using it since at least the 1850s. As you probably already know, wanderlust refers to a need to travel or move around. 


What do Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte all have in common? Other than the fact that they’re all spectacular works of literature, each novel is an example of a Bildungsroman. From the German bildung, meaning “formation,” and roman meaning “novel,” a Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story, dealing with the development of a young protagonist. The term entered English around 1905, though this type of story was told in our language for centuries before it had a name.


Every era has a spirit—be it the pervasive “cool” that stemmed from jazz and beat poetry in the 1940s, the revolutionary character of the 1960s with the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, or even the technological boom of the 21st century. Thanks to the German language, we have the perfect word for these emblematic “spirits of the times”: Zeitgeist. Literally translated as “time spirit” or “time ghost,” zeitgeist refers to the “general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.”


For many children, kindergarten is the first time they go to school. The concept of kindergarten, literally “children’s garden,” was developed by German educator Friedrich Froebel in 1837. Froebel named his creation kindergarten, which is a combination of kinder, meaning “children,” and garten, meaning “garden.” In America, the first German-speaking kindergarten was created in the 1850s by German immigrant Margarethe Schurz, who was a follower of Froebel. The first English-speaking kindergarten opened its doors in 1860 thanks to Elizabeth Peabody, who also studied Froebel’s work.  


Are you seeing double? The word doppelgänger, which literally means “double walker,” is formed from doppel, meaning “double,” and ganger, meaning “walker.” In German folklore, a doppelgänger is a ghost or spirit that is an exact copy of a living person. According to legend, a person who meets their doppelgänger is going to die very soon. In English, the word doppelgänger is often used less hauntingly to refer to a person who looks identical to another person. Doppelgänger has been used in English since at least the 1850s, but folk stories of ghostly impostors can be found much earlier than that. 


It’s time for a power play. The term realpolitik refers to politics and political ideas that are based on practical concerns or realism rather than belief, ethics, or morals. As you might expect, realpolitik is often used to describe politics involving self-interest and forceful diplomacy. For example, realpolitik is often used to describe the aggressive diplomacy that was used by the famous German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Realpolitik is formed from the German words real, meaning “real” or “actual,” and politik, meaning “politics” or “policy.” The term realpolitik was coined in 1853 by German journalist Ludwig von Rochau in his book Grundsätze der Realpolitik.

Germany isn't alone in influencing English. Check out some "K" words from Korean culture.

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