“Fahrvergnügen” sounds echt German! … more German words that found their way into the English language
Two weeks ago, we addressed the topic of German words used in everyday English. In this blog article, we turn our attention to more specialized borrowings. We explore terminology used in scientific contexts, but also words used in advertising – a field in which inventing new, creative words is virtually part of the job description.
Technical, scientific, musical, and historical words
So let’s turn to another class of words imported from the German language – those used primarily in science and other areas of technical or expert knowledge. This accounts for a sizable portion of German’s influence on English. For example, almost one third of Pfeffer and Cannon’s German loanwords are from the fields of minerology or chemistry. Here is a sampling of nerdier loanwords:
|Term used in English||Most common use in today’s English||Term used in German|
|gneiss||a type of rock||Gneis|
|loess||a type of geologic deposit||Löss|
|echt||authentic, bona fide||echt, waschecht, authentisch|
|feldspar||a class of minerals||Feldspat|
|fusel oil||a by-product of liquor production||Fuselöl|
|graupel||a type of icy precipitation similar to hail||Graupel|
|ansatz||in mathematics, an estimate that aids in the solving of a problem||Ansatz (although Ansatz has other meanings and is much more common in German)|
|Sehnsucht||a feeling of longing||Sehnsucht|
|realpolitik||a pragmatic political style or approach||Realpolitik|
|rinderpest||a dangerous disease that infects cattle||Rinderpest|
|zeitgeber||an external factor that guides the biological clock of a living thing||Zeitgeber|
Words for foods and traditions
Another category of words worth highlighting are those related to the food and traditions of German-speaking countries. Many English speakers are likely familiar with (Wiener) schnitzel, strudel, biergartens, and schnapps. Then there is the world-famous Oktoberfest. But perhaps more surprisingly for native German speakers: words like Tannenbaum, bierstube, and even brötchen have been recorded in English dictionaries. And the list goes on: in the Merriam Webster dictionary, for example, you will find entries for lebkuchen, leberwurst, pfeffernuss, pfefferkuchen, and stollen.
English speakers have also borrowed quite a bit from Yiddish, giving English some vocabulary items that might easily be mistaken for loanwords (directly) from German. Some words borrowed from Yiddish are quite common, such as mensch (and menschy), schlep (or schlepp), schmaltz (and schmaltzy), dreck and schmutz. Lesser known ones include verklempt and luftmensch.
As Wikipedia puts it:
“Since Yiddish is very closely related to modern German, many native Yiddish words have close German cognates; in a few cases it is difficult to tell whether English borrowed a particular word from Yiddish or from German.”
Words from advertising
Finally, let’s look at German words used in advertising. The English language features regularly in German advertising, often with the ostensible aim of evoking coolness, hipness, or youth. But is German ever used in advertisements for English-speaking audiences? Does the German language bring a similar “cool factor” to the advertising of the English-speaking world?
Well, the answer to the first question is a clear “yes”, though it’s safe to say – at least in my experience as an American – that German is a pretty rare sight in advertising. Likely the most famous example of the German language in American advertising was Volkswagen’s use of the word “Fahrvergnügen” in a marketing campaign that started in 1989. As part of this campaign, they featured the slogan, “Fahrvergnügen. It’s What Makes a Car a Volkswagen.” Volkswagen used German again in the 2000s and 2010s, branding itself as “Das Auto.”
Another trend in American advertising, noted by Felix Kronenberg, who wrote a doctoral thesis in 2007 on the “depiction of Germans and Germany in American advertising,” is the use of wunder- and wunderbar:
The most frequent German or German/English word compounds in U.S. American advertising are derived from the German word “wunderbar,” which is itself a common sight in American advertising…The German “wunder” and the English “wonder” are a minimal pair, they only differ in the second letter and look quite similar…“Wunder” and “wunderbar” are easily recognizable; they are foreign and yet not too alien, which can explain their popularity in advertising. (Kronenberg, p. 149)
Both Lufthansa and the German National Tourist Office, for example, told consumers in the 1980s that “Germany is wunderbar.”
The answer to the second question – whether German has a “cool factor” – is less straightforward. Kronenberg observes that “using foreign words in advertising has several advantages. It elicits international prestige and invokes the country-of-origin effect by choosing words that appear to be German, that are ‘typically’ German.” Kronenberg also quotes work by linguist Mary Ellen Ryder and her colleagues, who argue that the German and Japanese language – due to “their modern connotations”– can have a particular effect on consumers:
“…German and Japanese can also be used to convey an impression of scientific or engineering excellence, as in the Mazda campaign promising Kansei engineering or the Volkswagen campaigns using Fahrvergnügen.“
We’ve now come full circle, as this observation brings us back to the technical jargon discussed earlier. It is German engineering savvy that seems to have the most persuasive – or cool – advertising effect, even though Germans prefer, of course, to convey this idea with an English phrase: “Quality made in Germany.”
Sources and Further Reading
 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Yiddish_origin
 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Volkswagen_advertising&oldid=962443622
Online dictionaries and reference works
Cannon, G. H., & Pfeffer, A. (1994). German loanwords in English: An historical dictionary. Cambridge University Press.
Durkin, P. (2014). Borrowed words: A history of loanwords in English. Oxford University Press.
Ehlert, C. (2013). Das Wandern ist des Wortes Lust: Germanismen im britischen Englisch: German Loanwords in British English. tredition.
Kronenberg, F. A. (2007). From trade cards to the internet: depiction of Germans and Germany in American advertising [Doctoral dissertation, Universität Regensburg]. https://epub.uni-regensburg.de/10696/1/dissertation_felix_kronenberg.pdf
Limbach, J. (Ed.). (2007). Ausgewanderte Wörter. Hueber Verlag.