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German Language Blog

Family Ties Posted by on Feb 27, 2010 in Uncategorized

German and English are cousin languages; they both are Germanic. Many similarities exist among these two languages. However, there are certain words which are untranslatable. One example from a previous blog is Schwarzfahrer (fare dodger).

The German word Ohrwurm is another example of a word without an English equivalent. Ear worm is the literal translation of the word Ohrwurm, however, Ear worm is a serious slant away from the real meaning, which is ‘catchy tune.’ Even this still lacks hues of connotation. If I was to express the echt (real, true) meaning of Ohrwurm auf Englisch (catchy tune in English), I would describe it like this: I have a song that’s stuck in my head and I can’t get it out. Some would argue that I just described what a catchy tune is. But, I would contradict- ‘catchy tune’ is missing a further meaning, which my long winded sentence better articulates. Sure, a song stuck in your head is a catchy; however, ‘catchy tune’ implies having a melody and/or a fast dance rift. You don’t necessarily get stuck singing one of these kinds of songs. No, Ohrwurm bores into your mind until it gets stuck and stays for a long while.

Schadenfreude is yet another word which has no English equivalent. A quick Google search results in a few übersetzungen (translations): mischievous joy or spitefulness. However, this definition lacks substance and therefore does not fully explain the meaning of the word. Schadenfreude is a compound noun. This means that two words were put together to create a new word. Schaden alone means ‘harmful’ or ‘damage.’ Freude means ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment.’ In order for English to retain its full meaning of the word, it was integrated.

Imagine sitting on a park bench. You just bought a chocolate ice cream cone. As you eat, you take notice of the other people relaxing and eating cones. When, out of the corner of your eye, the man sitting next to you drops his ice cream on his lap. And suddenly, from somewhere, comes a subtle and meaningful laugh over what you just witnessed. That is Schadenfreude.

Other common examples of German words in English are: Zeitgeist (Spirit of the time), Gesundheit (health) Kindergarten, Blitz (lightening) and Ersatz (substitute). The latter, like Schadenfreude is not commonly used on the streets in America and is frequently found in writing.

Furthermore, there are many words in English and German that have the same spelling but slightly different meanings.

Handy is such an interesting word. In Germany, das Handy means cell phone. However, it has quite a different meaning in English. Handy is used to describe someone who has the gumption and the know-how to work with their hands. A handy man is someone who can fix just about anything put in front of him/her.

Spiel means game and comes from the German verb spielen (to play). But, spiel in English means to talk, and to give the low down, as in this sentence: What is your spiel. Here it does not mean what is your game. It means, what are you about, or what are your motives.

Über (about, above, over) is the most interesting of all the words which have made it into the English language. I didn’t start to recognize the use of it in English idiomatic expressions until a few years ago when a friend of mine said, “Texting and driving is über dangerous.” You see, unlike German when über is used as preposition, it has taken on a new meaning and a new part of speech in English. Über is now an intensifier. An intensifier does just that, intensifies the meaning of a word. Other intensifiers in English are ‘wicked’ which is used on the East Coast and ‘hella’ which is used on the West Coast. To say, that a movie you recently watched was wicked awesome, implies it was a good movie and you enjoyed it. The definition is reverse for ‘the movie was wicked bad.’ Über, though meaning about, over or above, works the same way. I suppose über has kept some of its meaning in English. For something to be above or over cool and likewise bad, über is definitely über appropriate to use.

Einschlafen is to fall asleep. A good friend of mine said, “there is no such word in German ‘to fall asleep.’” If we break down the word into its basic parts, my friend was correct in his utterance. Ein is equivalent to meaning ‘one’ or ‘in,’ and schlafen means to sleep. So, literally einschlafen would mean ‘into sleep.’ Einschlafen (to fall asleep) is a word the represents the logic of the German language. Why would anyone one fall asleep?

Perhaps, the most common example of English and German crossing vocabulary tracks is IT jargon. Here is an example of English in German:

Ich musste den Computer booten / rebooten, weil die Software gecrasht ist (I had to reboot the computer because the software crashed). I understand how language evolves and thus am not a language purist. However, when I see sentences like this, my stomach tightens and the wind gets knocked out of me—very much as if someone punched me in the gut. As a personal preference I will always use the correct German: Ich musste den Compurter hochfahren, weil die Software abgestürtzt ist

There are many other words which have the same quality and idiosyncrasies. Have you ever heard or read of any other words in English or German which do not have an easy translation or, are homonyms equally in both languages?

Der Schwarzfahrer-far dodger

Der Ohrwurm – ear worm, or catchy tune

Ohrwurm auf Englisch-Ohrwurm in English

Schadenfreude-pleasure from other people pain

Das Schaden – Damage, harm

Die Freud-Joy, pleasure

Die Übersetzungen-translation

Das Handy-Cell phone

Das Spiel-game

Spielen-to play

Über-about, above, over

Der Ersatz-Substitute

Die Zeitgeist –Spirit of the Time

Die Gesundheit-health, used in English for God bless you

Schlafen- to sleep

Einschlafen-to fall asleep


Abstürtzen-to crash


Müssen -to have to

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  1. Renu:

    Gerade habe ich diesen Artikel gelesen..das finde ich total schön…

  2. Renu:

    schreiben Sie auch auf Deutsch??

  3. Beverly:

    What an interesting post! Actually, I use the word schadenfreude. So do others I know. (Maybe we’re weird.)

    “Ohrwurm” I’ve used the term “ear worm”, to describe a tune one simply can’t get out of one’s head, forever. Who would have thought the Germans had it first?

    Keep up the good work on the blog. Thanks.

  4. KOmo ananda:

    @Renu–Ja, auf Deutsch kann ich schreiben. Aber gutes Deutsch kann ich nicht.

  5. Bob Hale:

    Just wondering what happened to the comment I left about the english equivalent of Schadenfreude – epicaricacy. Was this not approved or did it disappear?

  6. Bob Hale:

    Sorry, it’s appeared now. Ignore that last comment. 🙂

  7. Janhavi:

    I am a German translator and this article is really delightful. I come across several German words daily which are so specific to German culture and the fact that one can easily make compund words in German to express one whole sentence in English adds more to the pain in finding an appropriate English word. For e.g. also (in german), nachbestücken, mittelständische Unternehmen etc