Monday, March 10, 2008

The Top 10 Greatest German Loanwords

I was pulling my hair out recently trying to spell "schadenfreude" correctly, despite having used it in an early blog post here. (This eventually lead me to the Wikipedia article on Avenue Q, which lead me to YouTube, which consequently ended with me going around all day whilst humming, "Didja ever clap when a waitress falls / and drops a tray of glasses...") It occured to me as I did this quite how many words English barrows from its close linguistic cousin, German. (Although many dictionaries and similar sources will call English and German brothers, due to the high number of common English words that come from Germanic sources, English's own origins are more Gaelic than Gothic.)

So, for absolutely no reason at all, I present to you my top 10 favorite German loanwords in English. Enjoy!

10. Doppelgänger

Noun. A double, especially of a person. Literally means "double walker." Comes from the myth of the Doppelgänger, a ghostly spirit that follows behind all people and mimics their every move. Can only be seen by the person who possesses them, but because they move in exact time with a person's actions and are always directally behind them, catching a glimpse of one's Doppelgänger is difficult. To see it is seen as a sign of death.

Outside of morbid mythology, it's an exceptionally useful way to describe a lookalike or double without having to resort to--well, to "lookalike" or "double." And it's so much more evocative than "evil twin!"

9. Blitz

Noun; sometimes verb. A powerful or unexpected attack or burst of movement; to move or attack in a manner characteristic of a blitz. Literally means "lightning." (Occasionally you'll get an RPG spell or two that uses it in the literal sense.)

Aside from being a great way to describe someone going reallyreallyfast (how do you say "greased" in German?), this word seems to have wormed its way into a number of absurdly catchy rock songs. Although it seems that not many are familiar with Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz," I know of very few human beings who will not respond (if perhaps negatively) to a rousing cry of "Hi! Ho! Let's go! Hi! Ho! Let's go!"

8. Zeitgeist

Noun. Those artifacts, mindsets, attitudes, and social constructs indicative of a certain era in time. Literally means "spirit of the time."

In case that definition left you more puzzled than elucidated, allow me to expand. It essentially means something which you associate with a specific era in time. Mullets, bad clothes, cheesy cartoons, and disco-esque pop music despite the mentality that disco is dead? That's the Zeitgeist of the 80's. The consistant fear of nuclear attack and the desire to prepare for such? That's a more serious example of 50's Zeitgeist. This is one of those words that I like simply because trying to describe the same concept in English is clunky.

7. Wunderkind

Noun. A prodigy; an exceptionally talented child. Literally means "wonder child."

Like doppelgänger, this word is so much more enjoyable to say than its English counterpart that I end up using it far more than any other. Although "prodigy" means nothing to someone simply seeing the word for the first time, "wunderkind" is immediately understandable--being that "wonder" and "wunder" are cognates, and plenty of people are familiar with "kind" for "child" from fellow loanword "kindergarten." I suppose this concept also has the term "phenom" attached to it, but for some reason, I can't hear it without thinking of surfers...

6. Dreck

Noun. Something awful or terrible. Literally means "dirt."

Incredibly emphatic. It spits so wonderfully off the tongue! Calling something rotten or no-good is satisfying, but but there's something so fulfilling about calling it "utter dreck" that no other word can provide. A properly-placed tongue even sends a little spray of spittle flying after the final phoneme, in a final insult to whatever deserved the dreck-ing.

5. Über

Prefix; sometimes noun. Has a similar meaning to "super"--above, greater than, extremely, etc. Literally means "over; above;" as a single word it can mean "about."

Oh, über. Or "uber," as the laymen spell it. Where would the online gaming scene be without you? We would have no way to describe ridiculously powerful characters! We would have to resort to "very" for emphasis! I'm only being half sarcastic, of course--although we anglophiles tend to misuse über somewhat, it is a handy way of describing something "to the extreme."

4. Kaput

Adjective. Out of order; not working. Literally means "not working."

Falling apart. No life left in it. A goner. It done broke. Although not a proper ideophone, there's no denying that kaput sounds an awful lot like what it means. Although originally German, it probably came to English through Yiddish. However it got here, though, there's no denying the popularity it's enjoyed since then--especially in this electric, mechanized age, where there are more and more things to go kaput on us.

3. Schadenfreude

Noun. A feeling of happiness derived from seeing others' failure or pain. Literally, "joy of pain."

Another wonderful case of us stealing a word for a feeling which we have no name for, schadenfreude is that wonderful feeling that you get when other people mess up worse than you do. Skateboarders falling on their faces, comedians corpsing their acts, anyone anywhere getting hit in the groin--it's hard not to laugh, thanks to that pesky human nature.

It also inspired the decidedly-not-safe-for-work ditty I found myself humming recently. "Schaaaadenfreude--people taking pleasure in your paaaain!"

2. Angst

Noun. A feeling of depression or anxiety. Literally, "fear of nothing."

Quite possibly the single most useful word on the Internet, this single term sums up half the population of MySpace, one-third of the population of Livejournal, and one Potter Puppet Pals video. Describing the way every teenager has ever felt ever--usually to the consternation of everyone who reads their online ramblings--the word "angst" is so singularly handy I don't know how the language ever survived without it. How on earth did people complain about their 15-year-olds before then?

1. Earworm

Noun. A tune or piece of music that one subconsciously repeats. Comes from the German "ohrwurm," literally meaning "ear worm."

The definition of earworm is the Russian folk tune "Korobeiniki."

What you probably know this song as:

You're welcome.

1 comment:

Grubenschnitzel said...

my favorit german loanword is