Ghost driver / Geisterfahrer

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Ghost driver

The German word Geisterfahrer is a colloquial term for Falschfahrer (literally ‘wrong-driver’). If you look up Falschfahrer on German Wikipedia and switch to English, you’ll find an entry on wrong-way driving, which is described as ‘the act of driving a motor vehicle against the direction of traffic’. Although I’ve often come across the term Geisterfahrer since living in Germany, I’d never once encountered the phrase wrong-way driving before researching for this post. This suggests that the phenomenon is not as commonly discussed in English as it is in German (for whatever reason).

The English term ghost driver is a loan translation of Geisterfahrer, and is usually found in texts discussing wrong-way driving in Germany. In such texts it often appears in quote marks or brackets alongside the original German term (e.g. here, here and here), the assumption being that the average anglophone reader won’t understand it without further explanation.

Despite its rare usage, I have decided to include ghost driver in this series of ‘Germanisms in American English’ because it is classified in several online dictionaries as being American English. Why it should be considered American in particular, I don’t know. The Collins German Dictionary (via Free Dictionary) and describe ghost driver as informal/colloquial American English (‘US inf’ and ‘Am. coll.’ respectively).

[To view the Free Dictionary entry in full, you may need to select ‘German / Deutsch’ from the site’s drop-down language menu. Here’s a screenshot of what you should be seeing:]


Urban Dictionary’s top definition of ghost driver does not specify the term as American English, but it is clearly written from a non-European perspective.

However, the fact that I haven’t found ghost driver in any mainstream monolingual English dictionaries, or even in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, suggests that this is at best a niche term in English (American or otherwise) – and probably only familiar to those who have spent time living in Germany.

The earliest occurrence of Geisterfahrer I could find in the German language corpus (DeReKo) of the Institut für Deutsche Sprache was in 1978; and Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the first occurrence in 1974. This suggests that ghost driver (as a loan translation of Geisterfahrer) is almost certainly a late 20th century phenomenon, and therefore unlikely to have been imported during the main period of German mass migration to the US.

Additional notes:

1)  Literal equivalents of Geisterfahrer / ghost driver exist in other languages, too, as I discovered when I found an entry for conducteur fantôme in Wiktionnaire (French Wiktionary). That entry also refers to equivalents of the term in Danish, Dutch and Swedish – which means that the German origin of ghost driver, while likely, cannot be taken for granted.

2)  My recent Google searches for ghost driver have revealed a completely different use of the term: in China, according to English language reports, ghost drivers are car drivers registered with the online transport network Uber, who scare potential customers into cancelling their rides, then pocket the cancellation fee.

Do you want to come with? / Willst du mitkommen?

This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.

Do you want to come with?
Willst du mitkommen?

Some regional varieties of American English treat come and with as two elements of one compound verb, which is exactly how German treats kommen and mit in the verb mitkommen. Standard English, however, treats come as a simple verb and with as a preposition, which must be followed by an object, as in ‘Do you want to come with us?’

The verb come with has its own entry in Wiktionary, where it is described as:

» American English. From a substrate of several Germanic immigrant languages that feature the same construction. «

The ‘immigrant languages’ referred to in the citation are Dutch, German, Norwegian, and Swedish. A discussion thread at mentions the influence of those languages, too, and also suggests bring with and go with as verbs which may be used in the same way as come with in relevant regions of the US. My wife, who is from Illinois with relatives in Minnesota, confirms this to be true and would even add take with to the list. All of the aforementioned American English compound verbs have direct equivalents in German: mitbringen, mitgehen, mitnehmen.

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 to be fairly 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 the 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, the United States absorbed several million German immigrants, whose native language 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.

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 / 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 BrE, it may mean that they died out in BrE but survived 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 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 the links in the list 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 cases, 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 language points in detail. Ultimately I intend 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. With the car / Mit dem Auto
    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