English Words in German with Surprising Meanings

Just as French words are chic in English, English words are cool in German. Many of these anglicisms make Anglos cringe… an English word jammed in a German sentence just doesn’t sound good to our ears.

Nonetheless, studying these words can be interesting. Often the meaning is more or less the same, as is the case with cool, but there are many with slightly unexpected meanings.

New Meanings

In linguistics there is a phenomenon, the name of which I’ve forgotten, which involves loanwords taken from other languages. A new word enters a language, but since it is often a common word, there is usually already an equivalent word in the new language.

Speakers encounter this new word, and since they already have a word for that concept, their brain assumes the new word must add another dimension of meaning. After the word has been accepted in the new language, it will often settle on a meaning with this added degree of specificity.

I’ll give you two examples of words which have entered British English from American English and taken on an added dimension. The first is cookie. What the Americans call cookies we simply call biscuits. When the word cookie entered British English, it became associated with a certain type of typically American biscuit – a chocolate chip “Maryland” cookie. We already had a word for the American cookie (biscuit) so speakers searched for another layer of meaning, and found it in small round chocolate-chippy biscuits.

Another example is apartment. In British English an apartment is simply called a flat. Buildings in the UK tend to be old, crumbly things. They are usually home to spiders, steps of unpredictable height and draughty windows. Apartments on the other hand are clean, bright and modern. So that’s exactly what an apartment is – a clean, modern flat. Often one that was newly built.

English Words, Made in Germany

Back to German. The language just loves to suck up nuggets of pure coolness in the form of English words, or anglicisms, almost by osmotic effect. And the same weird-meaning-developing phenomenon often occurs here too.

Sometimes German takes it one step further and even creates pseudo-English words that don’t actually exist in English. What at first glance seems like a loanword was in fact made in Germany. Anyway, here are some examples of anglicisms in German that don’t mean what you think.

die City

A perfect example is die City. I know… doesn’t it just sound so… awful. I mean, a city is a Stadt, right? So when the word city entered German (don’t forget to capitalise it – die City), speakers searched for an additional layer of meaning. And they found it. Die City refers to what in English is referred to as the city centre, downtown, or central business district. So “Berlin City” – no it’s not the name of some cringe-worthy Netflix series about shopping – means downtown Berlin.

das Shopping / shoppen gehen

Which brings us onto the second example. The word “shopping” in English can refer to buying food, or “groceries” as the Americans like to call it, as well as to buying clothes and other such leisure items. Being a respectable language, German already has a word for grocery shopping – einkaufen. E.g. Ich muss einkaufen gehen. I have to go shopping.

Shopping on the other hand strictly refers to clothes, jewelry and other such items. Lass uns shoppen gehen. Let’s go shopping.

das Public Viewing

Just look this one up for yourself. It’s too ridiculous to even write about here. Seriously, it’s a barrel of laughs. When I tell German what this actually means they are horrified.

das Handy -s

The classic fake English word that you probably already know. It’s the German word for a mobile phone or cellphone. I would love to meet whoever first used this word. If you want to describe something as being handy in German, i.e. useful, you would say it’s praktisch or nützlich. If you have something handy, meaning close at hand, you would say you have it griffbereit or parat. For a person who’s very handy at something, you would say they are geschickt.

der Beamer

This one is kind of the opposite of what we’ve looked at so far. It’s a pseudo-English word in German that doesn’t mean what you think it does in English. I looked up “beamer” in several English dictionaries and I found the following definitions:

  • a machine for winding yarn or cloth on a beam
  • an old Northern Irish slang word for when someone goes red with embarrassment. This one is cute.
  • a BMW
  • a ball bowled directly at a batsman’s head or upper body without bouncing (regarded as unsporting)

None of these comes close to the meaning in German. Yes, Germans are often shocked to find out that beamers aren’t called that in English-speaking countries. Instead we call them projectors.

das Shooting -s

Nothing to do with guns. It’s short for das Fotoshooting – a photo shoot.

der Drink -s

This is an example of a word adopted into German with a more narrowed meaning. It does mean drink, but it can only be used for certain types of drink, namely alcoholic drinks. If you want the normal word for any kind of drink, including soft drinks, it’s das Getränk -e.

die Box -en

The German word Box comes from the English word box, which in turn comes from the Vulgar Latin buxis, which is also the source of the German word die Büchse -n (cannister, tin, can). So German already has this word, but it took a detour via English and then re-entered German, resulting in two similar words.

But it doesn’t mean box! In day-to-day speech, when someone says Box, they are generally referring to a speaker, especially a Bluetooth speaker. Box is short for die Lautsprecherbox -en.

If you want to say box, as in what in English is generally called a cardboard box, then you use der Karton -s. Note that the n is pronounced in a slightly French way, like this. If you’re referring to a crate, like a beer crate or more sturdy box, then use die Kiste -n.