German Words that Express Concepts for which English Lacks Suitable Words

There is now an excellent wikipedia article with a List of German expressions in English, so I will no longer be making additions to this page. Please do click here, however, to send (a) corrections, or (b) fun quotations illustrating the use of one of the words listed below in English. Words for which I have found such quotes are hyperlinked in the list below. Most of the words on this list enrich the English language, but some are just references to Nazi terminology.

A great Tumblr post on "Untranslatable German Words" (written in July 2017, many years after I stopped updating this list), including some newer coinages like "verschlimmbessern" and "fremdschämen," is here. A fun article from 2014 describing 10 German words that are or should be on this list is here.

die Angst In German, this word denotes any kind of fear, but in English it is used to designate "a gloomy, often neurotic feeling of generalized anxiety and depression" [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986].
der Bildungsroman a novel that details the psychological development of the principal character [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986]. Die Bildung = education; der Roman = novel. Examples are Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, or Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Fielding's Tom Jones. Literary scholars argue about the definition of the term, and depending on their choice of definition, some argue that there is no such thing as a Bildungsroman.
der Blitzkrieg sudden, swift, large-scale offensive warfare intended to win a quick victory.[Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986]. Der Blitz = lightning; der Krieg = war. The term was coined by an American journalist as a description of Nazi war strategy at the beginning of the Second World War.
die Bratwurst mmm...
der Dachshund Ironically, although the word comes from German, it is not much used in German, having been replaced by a contraction: these dogs (also sometimes called "Wiener dogs" in English because of their shape) are normally called "Dackel" in German. Der Dachs = badger; der Hund = dog.
der Doppelgänger Term for someone who resembles a person to the point that they could be considered their "double." Often used to refer to eerie or uncanny resemblances, or mysterious or evil doubles. A Google search for the word brings up quite a few sites on the paranormal, as well as sites using the term more straightforwardly to refer to e.g. "doubles" of various famous people.
der Ersatz This word literally means "replacement" [e.g. "spare parts" are "Ersatzteile"], and is typically used in English to refer to a cheap, inferior substitute for something, e.g. "ersatz coffee" was coffee made from substances other than coffee beans in wartime.
das Fahrvergnügen Not really a common German word, but this word for "the pleasure of driving" was made popular in English by a successful VW marketing campaign. Fahren = to drive; das Vergnügen = pleasure.
gemütlich, die Gemütlichkeit These terms indicate a cozy sense of well-being in a comfortable environment, e.g. relaxing alone or with friends, perhaps over a drink or two, after a hard day's work. General descriptions of "the Germans" will usually list Gemütlichkeit as one of the highest priorities of every German.
die Gestalt, -en die Gestalt = shape, form, typically referring to people, e.g. "In der Ferne sah ich eine schaurige Gestalt" = "In the distance I saw a gruesome form." Imported into English to name "Gestalt Psychology," which is too complicated for me to describe, but has to do with a theory of perceptions as structures or patterns. Click here for the Wikipedia entry on Gestalt Psychology, and here for the Wikipedia entry on Gestalt Therapy, which is only loosely related, and sees the person in relation to his or her experiences of the world and other people.
die Gesundheit "Gesundheit" means "health" and is what Germans say to someone who has just sneezed. One is wishing that person good/better health.
die Götterdämmerung This literally means "dawn/dusk of the gods." It is the German term for the rather pessimistic concept of "Ragnarok" in Norse mythology, which refers to "the destruction of the world in the last great conflict between the gods and the forces of evil" [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986]. It is the title of a book by Nietzsche, and of the last opera in Wagner's Ring cycle, and thus has made its way into more common usage in English than the Scandinavian original. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2000, the term denotes "A turbulent ending of a regime or an institution: 'The nation had been flirting with forms of götterdämmerung, with extremes of vocabulary and behavior and an appetite for violent resolution' (Lance Morrow)." I think it can also be used in the context of more general pessimistic visions of the future.
die Gretchenfrage Question that gets at a core issue, and is intended to reveal the true intentions of the person being asked. The person being asked the question often responds evasively, or not at all, and the expression is often used in order to point out this evasiveness. Originates from a scene in Goethe's Faust, where Gretchen asks Faust (who has made a pact with the devil) how he feels about religion. He responds evasively, and she lets him get away with it.
das Hinterland 1. the land or district behind that bordering on a coast or river; specifically, an inland region claimed by the state that owns the coast. 2. an area far from big cities and towns; back country 3. the inland trade region served by a port [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986]. Hinter = behind; Land = land.
der Kaffeeklatsch Refers to a group of people getting together over coffee to chat. Also "coffee klatsch" or "coffee klatch" in English. "Klatschen" = to gossip [this verb also means "to clap"].
kaputt broken. Perhaps imported into English for its onomatopoetic qualities?
der Kindergarten Much preferable to the yuppily ambitious term "pre-school," in my opinion
kitsch Refers to tacky, gaudy art or trinkets, the kind of thing purchased by people with bad taste (perhaps this includes most of us more than we're willing to admit?). Art that is pretentious or overly sentimental is generally referred to as kitsch. Graceland and most souvenir stores abound in kitsch, and you can find lots of it at most art fairs and flea markets. Kitschy objects are often cheap, but can be quite expensive; owners of kitschy objects often think the object is beautiful, and creators of kitschy art are often just bad artists, but much kitsch is also created and collected in the full knowledge and enjoyment of its kitschyness. Click here for the Wikipedia entry on kitsch.
Lager beer das Lager = warehouse, storage facility, and this term refers to beer that is stored for some months to be aged after brewing
der Lebensraum Nazi term for "living space," i.e. additional territory supposedly needed for Germans to live in
die Leberwurst [also "liver wurst" in English] a sausage containing ground liver-in case you've never had it, it tastes much better than it sounds
das Leitmotiv [also "leitmotif" in English] musical term for a dominant and recurring theme; more specifically, it refers to a musical phrase representing a character, situation or emotion in an opera. The term originated with the composer Richard Wagner.
das Lied, -er song; used in English to refer to the art songs written by classical composers, notably Schubert
der Mensch, -en this just means "human being" in German, but has entered English via Yiddish as a term of admiration for a sensible, mature, humane person
das Muesli Granolaesque breakfast item eaten by health conscious Germans. Here's a recipe from Combine the following ingredients and serve with milk and maybe some additional fruit/berries: 4 1/2 cups rolled oats, 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ, 1/2 cup wheat bran, 1/2 cup oat bran, 1 cup raisins, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
der Panzer armored tank.
der Poltergeist "A ghost supposed to be responsible for table rappings and other mysterious noisy disturbances" [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986], not always as terrifying as the one terrorizing JoBeth Williams and her family in the classic 1982 horror movie Poltergeist.
das Pumpernickel pumpernickel bread: a coarse, dark bread made with unsifted rye that tastes incomparably much better in Germany than the generic versions of it you get in American delis.
die Realpolitik Defined by Wikipedia as the practice of politics independent of moral or ethical considerations, usually for the advancement of the national interests of a country. frequently used in English to refer to "power politics." Associated famously with the Prussian/German statesman Otto von Bismarck in the second half of the 19th century.
das Reich empire, usually used in English with reference to the Nazi "Third Reich"
der Rucksack This just means "backpack," and I'm not sure why it's still frequently used in English. Perhaps backpacks are a German invention?
das Sauerkraut mmm...
die Schadenfreude glee at another's misfortune

The German verb is actually "schleppen," and refers to the labor of carrying a heavy object, or carrying an object a long way.

  • Perhaps as a humorous complaint about having to carry (drag...) one's laptop everywhere, especially if it's a bit heavier, laptops are sometimes humorously called "Schlepptops" in German.
der Schnaps usually spelled with two "p"s in English. Refers to strong (alcoholic) liquor.
über- This prefix entered English by analogy with Nietzsche's coinage of the term "der Übermensch," "the over-man," for a sort of superior being (there is much debate about what Nietzsche meant by this term), i.e. based on the meaning "over, above" of the word "über," not its other main meaning, "about." Examples: "James Bond's latest übercar"; "Mercedes' staggeringly expensive new übercar"; "If you've got a 1960's UNIVAC 1107, that was an Übercomputer in those days and used to cost over US$ 4 million for the top-of-the line..."
der Umlaut ä, ö, ü
verboten the English equivalent, "forbidden," is perfectly good, but this word has made its way into English based on the somewhat humorous observation that lots more things seem to be "verboten" in German-speaking countries than in most others.
das Waldsterben der Wald = forest; sterben = to die. Germans use this term to describe the depletion of forests due to acid rain etc.
das Wanderjahr A year of travel before settling down to one's vocation (originally a custom of European journeymen). Also used for any lengthy period of travel.
die Wanderlust An impulse, longing or urge to go for long walks or hikes, or to travel, perhaps to get away from it all
die Weltanschauung A comprehensive, especially personal, philosophy or conception of the universe and of human life [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986]. Literally means "world view" [die Welt = world; anschauen = to look at].
der Weltschmerz "Sentimental pessimism or melancholy over the state of the world" [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986].
das Wunderkind This means "child prodigy" [e.g. Mozart], but the term is also often extended to refer to any comparatively young person considered to have special talent--sort of like the term "whiz kid."
der Zeitgeist This term was coined by the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) to refer to "the spirit of the age; the trend of thought and feeling in a period" [Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1986].
der Zugzwang In chess, this describes a situation in which one player has to make a move, but any move s/he makes will be disadvantageous to him or her, whereas if s/he did not have to move, s/he would not be at a disadvantage. Chess aficionados should click here for the Wikipedia entry for this term, which offers lots of examples. The German term literally means "compulsion to move": der Zug = move (in chess; from the verb "ziehen," which means to make a move, but also to pull; normally, of course, der Zug = train); der Zwang = compulsion, from the verb "zwingen," which means "to force someone to do something.