35 German words you never knew you already knew

Saturday, April 09, 2011

(unless you already know German)


In every language there is shared vocabulary, and German is no exception: obvious words like Hotel and Sport and Sandsturm, to slightly less obvious but still pretty easy ones like Welt (world), Blut (blood), and Zickzack (zigzag). There is, however, a third class of English-German (and other Germanic languages) cognates that are even less obvious, those that are so hidden that their commonality remains unknown until actually pointed out. The site Etymonline.com is just fantastic in showing the etymology (word origin) of just about any English word, and I spent a great deal of time there last summer gathering hidden English-German cognates, a few hundred of them. Here are 35 of the most interesting. Once their common origin is pointed out you'll wonder why you never noticed it before.



1. bone - Bein.


Bein is the German word for leg. Interestingly, English is one of the few Germanic languages that doesn't use the terms leg and bone interchangeably.

2. carouse - gar aus, from gar austrinken

gar (quite, much) + austrinken (to go out to drink), thus carouse means to go out and drink up a storm.

3. cheap - kaufen

kaufen = to buy. The Dutch word resembles English even more: kopen. Most Germanic cognates that have a ch in them will have a k in its place (church - Kirche...); Frisian is the only language that shares the ch sound.

4. clean - klein

klein = small, so both words share the concept of small, clean, dainty, delicate.

5. deer - Tier

Tier = animal. The word deer was apparently originally a generic term for a beast.

6. doppelganger

lit. "double-goer". The German word doppel means double, gang means walk or gait, and -er is the same as the English -er suffix.

7. dreary - traurig

traurig = sad. Another good example of German t vs. English/Dutch/Norwegian/etc. d.

8. erstwhile

Erstwhile is a word that some English speakers have trouble with, as it has fallen out of use to a certain extent. It means previously or former, and the word erst is the German word for first.

9. fare - fahren

fahren = to go, but with a vehicle (i.e. walking).

10. fear - Gefahr

Gefahr = danger. The ge- prefix is obselete in English, but you can see some of its remnants in some words like enough (genoug -- ynough -- enough).

11. fee - Vieh

Vieh = cattle. The word fee derives from this, as cattle represented money and power. The German v is pronounced like the English f and an h at the end is not pronounced, so the pronunciation is pretty much the same.

12. flutter/flitter - Fledermaus

It's impossible for a German to not know that bats are rodents, because the word itself tells you that they are. A bat is a "flutter-mouse".

13. fowl - Vogel

Vogel = bird. The word in English has evolved to refer to a certain type of bird, while in German and other Germanic languages it continues to apply to all types.

14. frolic - fröhlich

fröhlich = happy, cheerful. The -lich suffix is like the English -ly.

15. yield - Geld

Geld = money. In Old English a g before an e was pronounced y, so if you were to show the word Geld to one of them they would pronounce it something like "yeld", very similar to the modern yield.

16. sound - Gesund(heit)

Gesund = healthy, Gesundheit = health. The -heit suffix is like the English -hood, so the German word for health is literally like saying "soundhood".

17. godhead, maidenhead

These two words confuse people at times, because -head here is actually just a different form of -hood, and has nothing to do with the actual word head. Thus godhead (godhood) = deity, and maidenhead (maidenhood) = maidinity, maidenness. In German the word is Gottheit.

18. harvest - Herbst

Herbst is the German word for autumn or fall. The Old English word for September was also similar: hærfestmonað (harvestmonth). Certainly beats September, a simple derivation from the Latin word for seven (Latin months are always two months off - September is seven, October is eight...).

19. henchman - Hengst

Hengst is the German word for stallion. Henchmen always ride on horses and go around tormenting honest civilians.

20. laud - Lied

Lied = Song. Don't forget that it's pronounced "leed", not "lied" (you lied!).

21. lift - Luft

Luft = air. History buffs will recognize the word Luftwaffe (air force, Waffe is cognate with weapon), and Lufthansa is also a word most people know.

22. lore - Lehre

Lehre = teaching, science, lesson. A Lehrer is a teacher.

23. nitwit - nichts + Wit

nichts = none, Witz = wit, cleverness, no a nitwit is a person with no wit at all.

24. per - ver

While not an actual word, it's good to know that the per- prefix (perplex, perforate...) is mostly the same as the German ver-, which usually intensifies a word. Verlassen (abandon), verkennen (explore), etc.

25. pray - fragen

fragen = to ask a question. Reminiscent of the English "pray tell, what is this?".

26. room - Raum

Raum = space. Since we learned the word fahren above, now we know that a space explorer is a Raumfahrer, literally a "room-farer", a person that fares through the room (space).

27. scathe - Schade

Schade = damage, but you use it most often to mean "too bad" (Schade!). Scathing! The word Schadenfreude comes to mind here as well.

28. shall - Schuld

This word is very interesting: Schuld means debt, or obligation. The English word shall originally came from this: I owe, I have to, I must, etc.

29. sight - Gesicht

Gesicht = face. "A thing seen".

30. stead - Stadt

Stadt = city. The word is also cognate with stand (to make a stand somewhere), the word homestead is another related word.

31. stout - stolz

stolz = proud, as in being proud of one's work.

32. stream - Strom

Strom means electricity, something that runs on a current.

33. thatch - Dach

Dach = roof. Originally from a verb meaning to cover.

34. tidings - Zeitung

The English word tide (tidings) originally meant time, a sense that other Germanic languages have retained. English t is often z in German (tongue = Zung), and with English d becoming t here, the word Zeit is now completely unfamiliar until pointed out. The Dutch word tijd is much easier to recognize. The word Zeitung does not exactly mean tidings though, it's newspaper.

35. twilight - Zwielicht

The German word for twilight is Zwielicht, literally two-light. Apparently the "two" here actually means "half", as twilight is the time of day when you are halfway in between light and darkness. Although the German word for two is zwei, you'll sometimes see the e and i reversed in compounds like the word Zwieback, a type of toasted bread that literally means "twice-baked".

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