Stories about German Words
by Steve White


Why is a poet a “Dichter”?

The modifier dicht is cognate with English “tight”, and is largely used in the same way, but with different emphasis.

The use as in English “watertight” (wasserdicht) is much more common in German. Dicht is used to describe things that can hold water or keep water out; and the verb dichten is what one does with bricks or pipes, to join them together tightly.

So a Dichter is a tightener of words, a composer, and a Gedicht is a composition of words, and dichten is the business of the Dichter: to compose, to tighten words together.


I had thought that the Fleder in Fledermaus had something to do with flying, so that German would render “bat” as “flying mouse”.

That may be a fair guess, but the story is better than that.

Fleder is from an old form of the modern German “flattern” which is in English “flutter”.

A bat is a fluttermouse.

(The English word for this creature arose relatively recently, since Middle English, evidently as a corruption of the Swedish word, which literally meant “night-watch”.)


Schmetterling is a funny, cute-sounding word for “butterfly”, but what is the sense of it? A pocket dictionary definition of schmettern gives only “make a loud noise” or “strike”.

But the Schmetter here is from an older usage, having to do with milk products.

The Duden Deutsches Universal-Wörterbuch has (in my free and broken translation), under Schmetterling:

“…from the High Saxon to ‘Schmetten’, following the old folk belief that witches fly about in the form of butterflies, in order to steal milk and cream”

And under Schmetten, it says this was an Eastern German and Austrian word for cream, deriving from the Czech “smetana”.

I also like to think, the English (and Germans) very much like their butter. Butterfiles are also nice, and often the color of butter (and sometimes cream).


The verb vergessen is identical in meaning and similar in sound to its English cognate “forget”, but interesting things have happened to it in both languages.

In English, the common Germanic prefix ver- (meaning “away”) has been completely lost. In this word and a few others, ver- has been confused with ‘for-’ (which has its own meaning that makes little sense with this word). The original sense of “forgot” was that a memory “got away”.

In German, it is typical that words can be decomposed into parts with individual meanings. However, the last part of this word, gessen, doesn’t mean anything by itself. It used to, though: German used to have a cognate of English “get”. (The dictionary writes geʒʒan. There are still a few echos of the word in German nouns.)

The upshot is, the word “forget” has been half forgotten in both German and English.


German and English share words about death and killing, but as is the usual story, the usages have drifted.

Tod means “death”, and tödlich means “deadly”, but töten means “kill” (a Norse word), rather than its English cognate “to die”.

The verb used to express the English “to die” is sterben, which is cognate with “starve”, whose meaning in turn is expressed by verhungern, which is an intensification of the word common to both languages: hunger.


Craft, strength, stark, and crass are all common Germanic words, but are used differently in English and German.

Kraft means “strength”;

kräftig means robust, burly or forceful, but not “crafty”.

streng means severe, stern, strict, but not “strong”.

stark, Stärke mean strong, strengths, but not “stark”.

krass means stark, blatant, extreme, and even “crass”.

Finally “craft” in the sense of “handcraft” is expressed in German by means of another shared word: Handwerk.


The inscription on the memorial to Charlemagne in front of Notre Dame Cathedral reads

ses Levdes

OK, what’s this “Levdes”?

The v is the usual stylized Latin replacement for u. So it’s “Leudes”. Middle Latin for “vassals of the King”. It sounds awfully familiar.

Yes, it was introduced into Latin by Charlemagne’s Frankish predecessors. It was the common Germanic word Leute, which was also used in Old English, but replaced in modern English by the French/Latin word “people”.

English has the cognate “lewd”, which shows the connection with vulgar, crude folks. That word was re-introduced into English in its mangled form via Latin. Then there is “lay” (in contrast to ‘clerical’), which came via French/Latin from Greek, but which is ultimately the same word.

Kleiber, Klei, and klieben

A surprise for English speakers: the verb “cleave” has two almost opposite meanings.

The words in German for these meanings are similar but distinct:

The first meaning is from Klei, which means “clay”. (It also explains the name of a common bird Kleiber, which makes a nest of a hole in a tree by using clay to reduce the size of the hole to fit its body.)

The first meaning is a weak verb in both languages

The second meaning is rare in modern German (as in English), but its conjugation is strong, like that of English:

(Currently, the conjugations of both verbs in English is completely confused, with ‘cleaved’ being an alternative for both the simple past and past participle.)

The two verbs were also distinct in Old English, and had conjugations like the German ones.

It has been suggested that the confusion of the words led to their replacement by “stick, split”, but in German, the modern word for klieben is spalten, so this replacement was happening a long time ago.

legen, liegen, sitzen, setzen

There are two other cases similar to that of kleben, klieben, in that the English cognates are conjugated similarly to the German. In both cases, the English verb conjugations are often confused.

Here, the meanings of the two verbs are not opposite. These are pairs of related verbs, one of which is transitive, and the other intransitive.

Also note: ‘to seat oneself’ is related, but in German, the expression is sich setzen.

Another example of a transitive/intransitive pair in English are the verbs ’rise’ and ‘raise’, but these are of Scandanavian origin.

Latin words in German

After the Norman invasion, English suffered a wholesale replacement of half the language by French and Latin — but German, too, has a great deal of Latin influence… it just came about differently.

A big Latin vocabulary has been systematically imported into German. Latin verbs are regularly marked with “-ieren”: transportieren, etc. These words are used in parallel with the German terms — sometimes for clarity, or just to lend an educated tone. For example, Figur is from Latin, but Gestalt is largely synonymous.

But the process started much earlier. For instance, the modern German for “head” is Kopf, but that derives from the Latin caput (as does English “cap”). Here, English preserved the old germanic word, which in German exists mostly in prefixes as Haupt-: Hauptmann for “captain”, Hauptstadt for “capital”, Hauptbahnhof for “main train station”. (John Schutze points out a case where German preserves the original meaning: enthaupten for “behead”.)

The verb “to buy” is kaufen. (The verb “to sell” is verkaufen.) This comes from the Latin caupō, for “innkeaper” (a person who often had lots of things to sell). This same word is also common in English, but due to its journey through French, is nearly unrecognizible: “cheap”. (The English buy and sell are old (North) germanic words, which are not represented in modern German.)

Another Latin word is unsurprisingly used for place names: Köln is from colonia, as is the English word for the same city: Cologne, which is of course French for the same establishment.


The odd-looking German word gewiss, meaning “certainly”, also existed in Old English, and persisted at least through the 1400s, but was occasionally seen until the 1800s as iwis, or ywis.

It’s from the stem wissen, “to know”, and thus cognate with English wise and wit.

danke schön! bitte schön!

Think: “pretty please!”

woher, wohin

English speakers tend to have trouble with these common direction-words, but they shouldn’t, because, until recently, their English equivalents, “whither” and “whence”, were in common use.

laufen, rennen

The German word rennen (renne, rannte) is clearly the English verb “to run” (run, ran)… but isn’t used quite the same way: it suggests racing.

What on Earth is this laufen, meaning “to walk”?

It still exists in English: “to leap”, and the Old Norse cognate loan-word “to lope”, both of which suggest more vigorous forms of activity. An even more vigorous form of activity is described by “to elope”.

German scarcely makes the distinction of English “walk/run”. A stride in which both feet are sometimes off the ground is described in German as schnell laufen.

The germanic ancestor of “walk” had meanings like “turn, wind, roll” — so the idea of a wandering, or rolling walk. But German still has walzen, “to wander”, and of course we all have the Walz.


English speakers are often shocked and amused at the sight of a sign such as “Die Fahrt ist konstenlos”, or “Ausfahrt freihalten”, on account of a rumbling similarity to the English word for a bodily function.

German learners gradually get used to it: Fahrt is just the substantive of the verb fahren, meaning “to journey”. This word was common in Old English, but has been displaced by “journey” (from French “journée”, for a trip of a day), and “travel” (from French “travail”, for a laborious or even torturous trip).

But fahren didn’t completely disappear from English! Consider the “fare” for a trip, and “How do you fare?” And the old word “wayfare” is almost the German verb wegfahren.

Igel und Adler

The German word for hedgehog, Igel, is pronounced just like “eagle”, while the word for eagle is Adler.

Igel represents the old word for the cute furry creature, and that was its name in Old English, too. The old (now poetic) word for eagle in German is Aar. (Its Old English cognate was earn.) So there was once agreement on this.

In German, the bird got promoted to edler Aar, which then got compressed to Adelare, etc.

In English, the name of the bird was replaced by the Old French aigle, from Latin aquila. The bird takes priority, so the name of the cute fuzzy animal had to move.

genau und nahe

The word genau means “exact” or “exactly”. This doesn’t seem like anything in English. But it is related to words with meaning like “near”, such as nahe. And these are related to various Western germanic words meaning close, or stingy, or narrow.

Consider the English phrase “a narrowly reasoned argument”.

schick und chic

This originated as the common German verb ‘schicken’, which means “to send”. A noun form of the verb “der Schick” is now rather rare, but meant ability, skill, talent, gift (sent from the gods, you see).

In the 1700s, this noun was imported into French, spelled “chic”, with the meaning “elegance”, and then as an adjective meaning “elegant”.

The word was then imported into English, with the French sense and spelling.

But I hear the adjective “schick", used with something like the French meaning, in Germany every day. (Germans think it’s a Germanized spelling of an English or French word, and often spell it ‘chic’.)