Linguistic Adventures - German and English -  by Robert Wilde

Over to our German cousins today – not only does English owe much of provenance and development to Germanic sources but it has also borrowed German words and invented idioms and phrases containing the word German. A brief look at a German text will soon show you how many German and English words are connected;  book and Buch, fall and fallen, earth and Erde, world and Welt, fish and Fisch -  and here is something surprising – I analysed 20 famous English poems and found that more than 90% of their vocabulary was of non-Greco/Latin sources, such as Norse and Germanic. Early German also had Latin sources – German Fisch is connected to Latin pisces, and the way the words changed over the centuries is laid out in certain sound shift tables. But this subject is far too complex to be analysed in a short article.

Even in the 150 or so  words above, I note that the majority of the words used are Anglo-Saxon/Germanic/Norse in their origins. French, Latin and Greek sources gave English what you might call its intellectual vocabulary – legal, ecclesiastic, psychological and scientific words. But for the day-to-day business of living we prefer non-Latin and Greek roots. If you tell a girl ‘I am enamoured of you’, instead of ‘I love you’ – she will probably not be impressed – or ‘over the moon’.

Anyway, let’s get on with it. Here’s the first one: my Germans are freezing.

My mum – London born and bred - used to say this: what could she have meant?

To solve this one we have to go to Cockney rhyming slang where a word similar in pronunciation is substituted for the original. The idea was to fool the police. There are many of these words in use today in everyday speech – loaf from loaf of bread = head, is one example. But Germans?

History reveals the answer. 150 years ago, travelling German bands delighted Londoners with their splendid music shows on the streets of the city. From German bands came the Cockney rhyming slang for hands. Hence my mother’s cold hands. Que gelidan manina, indeed!

Perhaps not so pleasant an example is German measles – rubella. We call it German measles because the illness was first described by German doctors in the 18th century.

However, a German shepherd is usually welcome anywhere. No, I am not referring to a merry German happily tending to his sheep on German meadows but to the handsome German dog.

Now let’s move to words from German which are current in today’s English.

Schadenfreude is a good one – it means ‘malicious pleasure in the misfortunes of another’. How happy we are when our enemies are brought down by bad luck or circumstance! (And our friends!)

Weltschmerz – literally ‘world-pain’ is another – it means world-weary; those days when you just get fed up with it all. We all get them.

Kindergarten – literally translated ‘children’s garden’ is a nursery for pre-school toddlers.

Realpolitik has come into the language to describe the politics of practicality not idealism – you do what you can or must, not what you dream of doing.

Blitz is the German for lightning and refers in one application to the bombing of British cities – a long time ago now. But Brits liked the word and incorporated it into the language:

‘I think I’ll have a blitz on that paperwork today; I’m buried in paper! ‘

It’s about time I had a blitz on the living-room – it’s so untidy.

What is meant is brief but quick and intensive work on solving the problem. As a verb, to blitz through is not unknown – She just blitzed through that job in minutes.

There are many more German imports into English, but let’s take a look at some which came into the language centuries ago, and changed their meaning.

Several hundred years ago, Britain traded with Silesia – Schlesien in German – and one of the imports into Britain was cheap cloth. This became known as sleaze in English, and then changed its meaning to embrace other ideas. Sleaze is now pornography, or financial crime – highly negative in meaning. Sleazy, the adjective is used for example to describe unpleasant nightclubs. A man who is engaged in crime, or financial mismanagement, or bad behaviour with women is a sleazeball.

From another part of Germany came hessian - from German Hessen/Hessisch and this the cloth we make sacks out of.

A shyster is a man who acts dishonestly – a crooked banker is a shyster. It stems from a German word Scheisse(r) meaning – well, I can think of no other way to say it – somebody who is a s*it, i.e an untrustworthy, unpleasant, unkind person.

A Frankfurter needs no explanation but we careful if you translate it into German – ich bin Frankfurter, means ‘I come from Frankfurt;, but ‘ich bin ein Frankfurter’ means I am a sausage from Frankfurt. The same applies to Hamburger!

Now, for our German-speaking friends, a test – below you will find translations into English of two German poems. I think you know them!

© R Wilde

O'er every summit

Reigns peace.

In the tree's canopies

Thou sensest

No whispering breeze.

The birds are silent in the trees


Soon you, too, will be at ease.

© R Wilde

Thou from Heaven's blessed realm.

Thou - for all our pain and care the balm.

Thou who giv'st the doubly suffering heart

A double solace to fill its every part -

Oh, I sicken of this striving,

Why this rapture - and  pain fierce-thriving?

Sweet tender peace,

Enter me and grant release.

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