Germanisms in American English

Abbreviations: AmE = American English; BrE = British English

Being a Brit married to an American and living in Germany puts me in a good position to compare British and American English with German. And over the years I’ve been struck by the number of American English expressions that have close equivalents in German, but are not typically associated with British English. For example:

AmE:        Can I get a coffee?
German:  Ich bekomme einen Kaffee (bekommen = to get)

In British English it’s more traditional to order a coffee (or other food and drink) using phrases like can I have…? or I’ll have. Admittedly, can I get…? now seems well established in BrE, too, but I can remember a time when that usage was only familiar from American TV and films. The same applies to some of the other expressions on my list below.

But before we come to that list, let’s look briefly at some historical reasons why there might be more of what I call ‘Germanisms’ in AmE than in BrE.

Firstly, during the 19th and early 20th century, several million Germans immigrated to the United States, and their German mother tongue influenced the way they spoke English. It has to be said that some of the AmE expressions featured below may not have originated exclusively from German, but also from other immigrant languages with similar constructions. For instance, the fact that many Americans say ‘do you want to come with?’ (without adding an object such as me or us) is attributable not only to the German verb mitkommen, but also to equivalent constructions in Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Another group of immigrants that contributed Germanisms to AmE were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who also began to arrive in the US in large numbers in the 19th century. One feature of AmE attributed to Yiddish is the emphatic use of already (e.g. ‘come on already!’, ‘enough already!’). However, since the Yiddish word shoyn (=already) is so similar to German schon – which can be used in just the same way – I consider this usage to be a Germanism in the broader sense, even if Yiddish happened to be the main vehicle through which it became widespread in North America. Yiddish is, after all, closely related to German.

Germanisms need not be linked to a critical period of mass migration to warrant inclusion in this blog. Some of them may have entered AmE much later (e.g. foosball or ghost driver). In fact the only criterion for including an AmE word or phrase here is that I once happened to notice that a parallel expression existed in German but not in BrE. Whether or not all these so-called Germanisms can actually be traced back to German influence is another matter. And at this point I should make a few disclaimers:

  • There may well be AmE expressions on my list whose resemblance to supposed German counterparts is purely coincidental.
  • In some cases, even if the resemblance is not coincidental, the direction of influence may turn out not be from German to AmE, but rather from AmE to German. For instance, which came first: have a nice day or schönen Tag noch?
  • There may also be items on the list whose similarity is not due to borrowing, but due to the shared West Germanic origin of English and German. This may be the case with the phrase what gives?, which looks like a loan translation of German was gibt’s?, although the two phrases may in fact originate from the same early Germanic root. When such forms are found only in AmE and not in BrE, it may mean that they once existed in BrE and then died out, but lived on in AmE, as was the case with the past participle of get: gotten.

For now, at least, I consider it beyond the scope of this blog to ‘prove’ that the AmE expressions listed below can be attributed to German influence. Entries 1–7 on the list have already been cited by other sources as having German or Yiddish origins (see links for details) but the remaining entries have not, as far as I know. So if any readers can share evidence to support or challenge the Germanism hypothesis with reference to specific items on the list, I look forward to your comments.

Finally, I should say that the following list is by no means exhaustive. Wikipedia has a much longer list of German terms commonly used in English, many but not all of which it says are ‘used in American English, under the influence of German immigration, but not in British English.’ However, Wikipedia’s list consists mainly of isolated nouns, whereas my list is more focused on idiomatic phrases and informal speech. Some of the entries below link to separate posts in which I discuss the relevant language points in detail. Ultimately I hope to add links for all of the entries, but this is still a work in progress…

List of AmE expressions with close equivalents in German:

    1. Do you want to come with? / Willst du mitkommen?
    2. Noodles / Nudeln
    3. Come on already! / Komm schon!
    4. What’s with…? / Was ist mit…?
    5. From your lips to God’s ears / Dein Wort in Gottes Ohr
    6. Foosball / Tischfußball (Kicker)
    7. Ghost driver / Geisterfahrer
    8. Sports fan / Sportsfreund
    9. My eyes are yellow! / Meine Augen sind schon ganz gelb!
    10. Can I get…? / Ich bekomme…
    11. And I don’t know what all / Und was weiß ich nicht alles
    12. I’m through / Ich bin durch
    13. I guess / Ich schätze
    14. Would…would / Würde…würde
    15. Side stitch / Seitenstich
    16. Out of… / Aus… (originating from)
    17. Have a nice day / Schönen Tag noch
    18. Happy holidays / Schöne Feiertage
    19. You know what? / Weißt du was?
    20. To go eat / Essen gehen
    21. To forget sth. somewhere / etw. irgendwo vergessen
    22. To go with the car / Mit dem Auto fahren
    23. Super (+adjective) / Super (+adjective)
    24. It’s all good / [Es ist] alles gut
    25. Powdered sugar / Puderzucker
    26. Far-sighted / Weitsichtig
    27. Say! / Sag mal!
    28. We won’t melt (in the rain) / Wir sind ja nicht aus Zucker
    29. Three to two / Drei zu zwei (saying the football score ‘3-2 ’)
    30. Grilling weather / Grillwetter
    31. What gives? / Was gibt’s
    32. To wait on someone / Auf jemanden warten
    33. Math / Mathe

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