German Language Blog

Untranslatable German Words: Der Geisterfahrer Posted by on Sep 17, 2014 in Language


Photo by jonfeinstein on under CC BY 2.0

Guten Tag! Here’s another little German language lesson in the form of an untranslatable German word – and today there are a few other words thrown in for good measure.

Today’s word is Der Geisterfahrer.

Before I tell you what this word means, here are some similar-looking words, along with their meanings. You will see why these are relevant in a moment:

Die Geisterbahn: Ghost train (at a funfair)
Die Gesiterstadt: Ghost town
Das Geisterschiff: Ghost ship

Following the pattern above, you can logically conclude that Geisterfahrer means ‘ghost driver’ – as in, a ghost that is driving a car, or perhaps a car that isn’t really there. The word is made up of the words Geist (ghost/spirit) and Fahrer (driver).

However, while Geisterbahn, Geisterstadt and Geisterschiff are all quite literal in meaning, Geisterfahrer is much more intelligent than its fellow ghost-related words; it does not refer to a ghost, but to a person who is driving on the wrong side of the road. This is clever because it suggests that a) that driver is somewhere he shouldn’t be (like the aimlessly wandering ghost), and b) if you drive on the wrong side of the road, you could have a fatal accident – and then you really would be a Geist!!

You only need to look up ‘Geisterfahrer’ on Google to see all of the headlines that come up. For example, ‘GEISTERFAHRER-SCHOCK AUF DER AUTOBAHN’, from (you can watch the video here, if you fancy hearing a bit of German news!).

Another word for Der Geisterfahrer is Der Falschfahrer, which literally means ‘the false driver’. The meaning of the words is the same, but in my opinion Falschfahrer does not have as much impact as Geisterfahrer does. The word Geisterfahrer really emphasises the consequences of the action it is describing, which is why it is such an interesting word.

The words Geisterfahrer and Falschfahrer are not to be confused with a similar word, Der Schwarzfahrer, which means “Black Rider” (Schwarz = black, Fahrer = rider, in this context). This refers to someone who uses public transport without buying a ticket. The word translates to ‘rider’ instead of ‘driver’ because while one drives a car, one rides public transport, and the word fahren can be used for both.

Here’s a confession: I was a Geisterfahrer for about 2 seconds the other week on my way out of the Morrisons car park. Luckily I was going about 1mph and someone beeped me back into the right lane. I felt stupid.

Have you ever been a Geisterfahrer, or had experiences with a Geisterfahrer? What do you think of this word, considering its literal meaning? Personally, it sends chills up my spine!

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Suzanne MacLeod:

    Could ‘Geisterfahrer’ also mean ‘experiencer of ghosts’ – Geist-Erfahrer – or ‘one who has seen a ghost’?

    • Trinity:

      @Suzanne MacLeod One time me and my mom were driving down a one way road in the dark, there weren’t many other people around, just a few cars and semi trucks, everyone had there head lights on so we thought nothing of it as we saw a pair in front of us(at the time it didn’t occur to me or my mom that almost no cars had headlights in the back of them in America.) But then they started getting closer, and closer, and closer even though we were going the same speed as everyone else. Then my mom saw that the car was a giesterfahrer and swerved out of the way just in time while the car sped by us.

  2. Alex:

    I have been a Geisterradfahrer once without knowing it! I was living in Hamburg, late for work that day and the traffic lights were taking ages so I decided to take the other cycle path. On the other side of the rode. Until a Polizei agent stops me and asks me if I’m English. I’m French, so I was a bit startled by the question. Until he replied “And do you drive on this side of the road in France?”. Wooops!

    • Constanze:

      @Alex I know it seems silly, but I never realised you could be cycling in the wrong direction… and that it would be serious enough to be stopped by police!

  3. Markus:

    In the early morning hours of November 11th, 2014, I drove on the Autobahn between Mannheim & Kaiserslautern, on my way to Brussels. That’s when I heard a warning about a Falschfahrer on the very stretch of road I was driving. It was quite unsettling! It was dark, with patchy fog, and I didn’t know if someone was coming at me and at what speed. I stayed on the very right hand lane, slowed down quite a bit, and passed trucks as if I was on a 2-lane road. Only when I could see there was no vehicle coming at me.

    • Constanze:

      @Markus Thanks for sharing your story. It’s scary stuff! Quite deserving of its name, I think.

  4. Auslander:

    In chatting with an old timer who had driven often on the autobahn, he recollected a strange custom. Apparently, instead of holding up offensive fingers it was once common to raise one’s hand in the shape of an ‘E’ for entschuldigung in apology after doing something foolish. Is there anything similar, today?

    • Constanze:

      @Auslander Very interesting! Not as far as I am aware – I’ve never seen or heard of this! If anyone knows about it, feel free to comment!

  5. Kurtis:

    I first heard this word on a Munich radio station on Halloween during a traffic report. I figured it was a Halloween prank. After they kept repeating the warning during several traffic reports, I finally pulled out my Worterbuch and was quite surprised by the actual translation.

    • Constanze:

      @Kurtis It’s quite a morbid word, I agree! It definitely sounds like something that belongs in a Hallowe’en movie!