Curious German Words: Kommilitone Posted by on May 21, 2021 in Vocabulary

Like any other language, German has some odd words. But also beautiful ones. In Curious German Words, we take a look at some odd words and their origins. Today, let’s take a look at a German word that might remind you of your time in school or college, a memory to your fellow students – your Kommilitonen. Your what?!


students kommilitone

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Der Kommilitone (male classmate, fellow student) or die Kommilitonin (female classmate, fellow student) is an odd German word. Many German words are quite descriptive, reading them often tells you immediately what the word means or does. But not so with Kommilitone. My entire school life was across the border, in the Netherlands, so I never even came across the word until I was in my late teens. And I was taken aback. How can such a fancy word be used regularly by people to refer to… a fellow student?

You see, the university system often involves words that are derived from Latin. Centuries ago, Latin was die Verkehrssprache (common language), the lingua franca1Latin does it again! of universities. If you didn’t speak Latin, you couldn’t really take part in university education. Thankfully, we don’t do that anymore these days. However, if you still have an interest in learning about Latin, we have an awesome Latin sister blog too!

Anyway, with all its Latin words, universities also had their word for fellow students: commilito, from commiles, which meant “brother in arms”, “fellow” or “fellow soldier”. This is derived from com/cum, meaning “with”/”fellow” and miles/militis which means “warrior”. So a commilito is like a brother in arms in the fight for knowledge. How poetic!

Even in ancient R0man and Greek times, the meaning of miles was already wider than simply “warrior”. This meaning also expanded to the German der/die MitstreiterIn (ally, fellow campaigner), which literally means “the co-militant”.

What makes this word more curious is that it is only used in a university context – at high school and before, you are der/die SchülerIn (a “schooler”), with MitschülerInnen (“co-schoolers”). In university, you are der/die StudentIn (student). And while you can say der/die MitstudentIn (“co-student”) or Studiengenosse/Studiengenossin (“study companion”), der/die KommilitonIn is somehow very common!

Due to how common it is, some DozentInnen (lecturers) simply call their students Kommilitonen, even though they’re not really co-students!

Have you heard this word before? What do you think? Is it nice or overly complicated? Does your language have its own odd word for fellow students or something similar? Let me know in the comments below!


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    Latin does it again!
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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.

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