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The Curiosity of the German Word “Geist” Posted by on Oct 25, 2019 in Culture, Current Events, Language, vocabulary

In Spuktober (Spooktober – we don’t actually say that in Germany, but I guess I’ll go with it anyway), you hear all kinds of Halloween-related words. Also in Germany! Yet there is one specific word in Germany that is kind of curious – let’s have a closer look at the word Geist.

Click here for previous entries in the series on curious words in German

What does it mean?

Image by Toa Heftiba at Unsplash.com

Geist means “ghost”. Quite simple. But have you heard of Poltergeist? Or Quälgeist? What about Zeitgeist?

Geist as an ending is quite common, and refers more to the spirit of something. So, Zeitgeist is something like “the spirit of time” and Poltergeist “noisy ghost/spirit”. But a word like Plagegeist (“plague ghost”) or Quälgeist (“pesky ghost”).

The Geist is also the mind. Die Geisteswisschenschaften are “the spirit sciences” – the humanities. “The body and the mind” is translated in German to der Körper und der Geist. The menschlicher Geist is also about human ingenuity and Verstand (reason).

Furthermore, a Geistlicher is a “clergyman” or “cleric”. Basically people in positions in religious organizations are Geistlicher. Geistlicher Vater (spiritual father) is sometimes used as a reference to God or to a priest or other spiritual messenger.

Finally, a Geist can also be a strong alcoholic beverage. The English spirit, as in “strong alcoholic beverage”, is translated in German to Spirituose. The German SpirituoseAsbach Uralt” even has this in their byline: Der Geist des Weines (“the spirit of the wine”). Spiritus does exist as a word, too, but it refers to the pure alcohol not intended for consumption, but for certain lights, for example.

Asbach Uralt – See the byline in red on the bottle: Der Geist des Weines (Image by Algont at Commons.wikimedia.org under license CC BY SA 3.0)

So Geist acquired lots of meanings over the centuries, going way beyond just ghosts and spirits.

How did Geist get all these meanings?

Image by WizardOfGoth at Flickr.com under license CC BY SA 2.0

Geist shares the same Wurzel (root) as the English ghost – the Germanic gheis means something like erschrecken (to scare). Obviously, the “ghost” meanings come from this, as in Geist and Poltergeist.

The other meanings of the word, where the spirit and the mind is more the focus, come from the other original meaning Erregung, Ergriffenheit (excitement, emotion). While the word was later influenced by the Latin spiritus (where the English “spirit” comes from) and the French esprit (in German, there is the Latin-derived Spiritus Sanctus (Holy Spirit) or Heiliger Geist), the German word was able to sich durchsetzen (establish itself) for all these meanings.

And there you have it! Geist – a word with curiously many, diverging meanings.

How do you say Geist in your country? Does it have as many meanings as in Germany? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, and I am half Dutch and half German. I was on exchange in the United States, and I really enjoyed that year! So in that sense, I kind of have three nationalities... I love all of them!


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