Nietzsche, Zeppelins and Wagner: English Words Derived from German

By United Language Group

You may have heard that English is classified as a Germanic language. Although English has also borrowed heavily from Latin, Greek, French, and Norse (keeping in line with the patterns of trade and conquest that defined thousands of years of British history), much of our modern English vocabulary is rooted in German.

Many English words commonly in use today are based on German historical figures or folklore, or on philosophical or cultural concepts created by German artists and politicians. Here is a sampling of English words derived from German, as well as their origin.

Ubermensch

Also known as the “superman” or the “overman,” the ubermensch is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of an ideal superior human who could rely on his own values and life choices rather than those dictated by Christian morality. The term came into the mainstream after the publication of Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra. In more colloquial language, an ubermensch is defined as someone who has impressive powers or strength that makes them superior to others. The comic book character Superman is one popular example in the English-speaking world.

zeppelin

Although zeppelin might call to mind the English rock band from the 1960s and 1970s, this word refers to a large, cylindrical airship driven by an engine and filled with gas to make it lighter than air. The ill-fated Hindenburg is the most famous example of a zeppelin. The zeppelin was named after its German inventor, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

wagnerian

Richard Wagner (pronounced “vog-ner”) was a nineteenth-century German composer known for his grand operas such as “The Ride of the Valkyries” and “The Flying Dutchman.” When something is described as Wagnerian, it means that it has a dramatic intensity similar to an opera.

doppelgänger

Ever walk down the street and see someone who looks exactly like you? You might call this person your doppelgänger. German folklore contends that all living creatures are paired with an invisible spirit that looks identical to them. The word doppelgänger, coined by German writer Johann Paul Richter, comes from the words doppel-, meaning “double,” and -gänger, meaning “goer,” and was initially used to refer to these spirits that were considered an omen of bad luck.

Poltergeist

Scary movies like Poltergeist also take their inspiration from German. A poltergeist is a supernatural being that makes itself known to others through noise, rattles, and knockings rather than by sight. The word is derived from the German verb polter (“to make noise, to rattle”) and the noun geist (“ghost”).

cobalt

Either a brilliant shade of blue or one of the elements on the periodic table, cobalt is another common English word derived from German. Cobalt comes from the German word kobold, which means “household goblin.” The cobalt element came from a rock that was commonly found in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany, which was known to make silver miners sick due to its arsenic and sulfuric properties. Since it was often difficult at first to distinguish between raw silver and cobalt, miners felt tricked as by a goblin or imp and the name cobalt stuck.

angst

Long associated with teenagers, the word angst was popularized by Sigmund Freud’s psychological work in the twentieth century. Angst, which means a “looming feeling of dread and anxiety,” is identical in English and modern German word and also related to the Old High German angust.

realpolitik

Initially coined by 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, realpolitik is best defined as “practical politics,” or crafting political policy based on power dynamics and realism rather than lofty ideals. Otto von Bismarck and his realpolitik philosophy are credited with the consolidation and unification of the German empire in the 1870s.

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