6 German Words So Good English Just Had to Borrow Them


Every language has constraints that help make it comprehensible. If this sentence were in a different order, might you trouble have it understanding (you might have trouble understanding it). But in German, any speaker can put two unrelated words next to each other and create a novel compound word, so you don’t have to be Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll 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.


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 more than its simple portmanteau roots; 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 was first used in English in the 1850s and its use rose throughout the 20th century. The 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q brought the word into common usage with a song called “Schadenfreude,” in which the word is defined as, “making me feel glad that I’m not you,” and “people taking pleasure in your pain.” It comes from the German words schaden meaning “harm” and freude meaning “joy.”


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.


What do Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling 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 twenty-first century. Thanks to German 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.”

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Word of the Day

Aug. 7, 2022

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Word of the day

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