Playing foosball in the hinterland – Why German is not as foreign to English speakers as you might think
Sure, English words are sneaking into German dictionaries at breakneck pace these days, but German has made its deutsche mark on the English language, too. For translators and interpreters who work between these two linguistic worlds, this commingling is important to be aware of. Loanwords (a word that is itself modeled after a German word – Lehnwort!) need to be handled with care by translators and interpreters.
If the meaning in the target language has retained essentially the same meaning it has in the source language – great! Maybe there’s no need to “translate” that word at all (bildungsroman, for example). But if the word has taken on new meanings or connotations in the target language, or sees much more limited usage than in the source language (e.g. gesundheit, which in German means “health”), then we may need to find a more appropriate term (we’ll get funny looks if we talk about public gesundheit officials, after all).
There are, of course, the classics: bratwurst, sauerkraut, lederhosen, autobahn, glockenspiel, kaput and kindergarten, to name just a few.
According to Pfeffer and Cannon, German contributions to English vocabulary picked up steam between the 1750s and the 1950s, with the peak rate – an average of 35 new German-sourced words per year – occurring between 1850 and 1900. So in other words, whether English native speakers have studied German or not, they’ve encountered at least some of the words and characteristic sounds of German, and a great deal of its etymological echoes.
Let’s look more closely at a few German stowaways in the English language, beginning with some words that might come up in everyday conversation or general interest writings. After each of the following words is a brief definition (describing the word’s most common use in today’s English) and possible translation(s) into contemporary German:
|über-||prefix indicating very, extremely||extrem, super, mega, über (sometimes)|
|ersatz||inferior (of a replacement/substitute)||minderwertig (e.g. ein minderwertiges Ersatzteil)|
|blitz||a quick/sudden maneuver (often in context of American football or marketing)||schnelle Inangriffnahme von einer Sache/einem Problem; intensive Werbekampagne|
|spiel||attempt to verbally persuade (often canned or rehearsed)||Verkaufsmasche, Leier|
|hinterland||remote, rural area||ländliches, abgelegenes Gebiet|
|ur-||prefix indicating original, early-stage||ur-|
|foosball||a game played using a special table with hand-operated figures and a ball; rules resemble those of soccer||Kicker, Tischfußball|
|spritz||to spray (usually a small amount of) something||(leicht, schnell mal) besprühen|
|angst||a feeling of psychological distress, often associated with moody teenagers||neurotische Angst, Grübelei|
|wanderlust||an urge to travel or explore||Reiselust, Fernweh|
|doppelgänger||a person who looks strikingly similar to another person||Doppelgänger, Ebenbild|
|verboten||disallowed or taboo||verboten, untersagt; tabu|
You’ll notice that not all of these words can simply slip (back) into German and serve the same purpose they serve in English—an important point for translators and interpreters. This issue of meaning change is especially pronounced for ersatz, which in German does not generally carry the connotation of inferior replacement/substitute and primarily means just replacement. Translators and interpreters are well-advised to be careful with angst,wanderlust, and verboten, too, as they can have different meanings in English.
In the case of foosball, the word never really existed in German to begin with, but its formation drew on the German word Fußball (soccer in the U.S. and football everywhere else), according to Merriam Webster. In Germany, the game is called Tischfußball (‘table football’), the shortened and anglicized foosball didn’t show up in English until 1966.
For language nerds, this linguistic cross-pollination is especially fascinating to observe. But because a word can drift in surprising semantic directions once it lands in another language, good translators and interpreters must stay immersed in all of their working languages to keep an eye (and an ear) on these transplanted terms.
Sources and Further Reading
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.
Limbach, J. (Ed.). (2007). Ausgewanderte Wörter. Hueber Verlag.
 The definitions are mostly sourced from Merriam Webster (via merriam-webster.com), Oxford University Press (via lexico.com), the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (via dictionary.com), or Collins online Unabridged English Dictionary (via collinsdictionary.com).