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 “bat” would be rendered “flying mouse”.

That’s maybe a fair guess, but it’s 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 die.

The verb used to express the English die is sterben, which is cognate with starve, whose meaning in turn is expressed by verhungern, which is a modification 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 meaning clay. (It also explains the name of a common bird Kleiber, which makes a nest of a hole in a tree by reducing the size of the hole to fit his body using clay.)

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

whereas the first is a weak verb

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.

Latin words in German

English suffered a wholesale replacement of half the language by French and Latin after the Norman invasion, 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 only in prefixes as Haupt-: Hauptmann for captain, Hauptstadt for capital, Hauptbahnhof for "main train station".

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.