From your lips to God’s ears / Dein Wort in Gottes Ohr

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

From your [lips/mouth] to God’s [ear/s]
Dein Wort in Gottes Ohr (Your word in God’s ear)

This phrase expresses the hope that God will hear what someone has just said (something optimistic about the future) and grant that it may come true. A non-religious equivalent in English might be ‘Let’s hope you’re right!’ Language Log provides the following example of the American English (AmE) version:

»  I told him I thought [the movie Goldeneye] would take $30 million in its opening weekend, to which he replied: ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’ Evening Standard     (London) (4 October 1995.)* «

According to Language Log the expression may stem from Jewish religious texts and probably entered English via Yiddish. The same  post provides some original Yiddish examples, one attributed to Ben Sadock:

»  Fun dayn moyl in gots oyern.  ‘From your mouth to God’s ears’  «

and the other attributed to Lillian Merwin Feinsilver in The Taste of Yiddish (1970):1

»  Fun zayn moyl, in Gots oyer.  ‘From his mouth into God’s ear’.  «

The Jewish English Lexicon classifies this phrase and its variants (sometimes mouth instead of lips, sometimes plural ears, sometimes singular ear) as being used in ‘North America’. This ties in with my own experience: I have once heard the phrase used by a (non-Jewish) American, but never by anyone from the UK.

The equivalent expression in standard German is, according to Redensarten-Index:

»  Dein Wort in Gottes Ohr!  «  (Your word in God’s ear),

which mentions neither lips nor mouth. However, the same source cites an older variant from Wander’s Sprichwörter-Lexikon of 1867–1880, which is closer to the Yiddish/AmE wording:

»  Aus deinem Munde in Gottes Ohr!  «  (From your mouth to God’s ear).2

Note that the publication date of Wander’s dictionary coincides with a period when German-speaking migrants were arriving en masse in the USA; so one could speculate that the German phrase consolidated the influence of its Yiddish counterpart on AmE.


1 Cited in: Nigel Rees, Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2002), p. 90.
2 See under section: Ergänzungen.

What’s with…? / Was ist mit…?

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

What’s with…?
Was ist mit…?

This phrase is complicated to deal with because it has two meanings in both American English (AmE) and German, as illustrated in the table below. Both of the AmE examples are taken from the Dictionary of American Slang (via Dictionary.com), which dates What’s with…? to the ‘late 1930s+’ and attributes it to the Yiddish phrase Vos iz mit…? The German examples in the table are my own, as are their English translations.

whats-with-table-screenshot-paint3

As you can see, the type 1 usage (red) has the same meaning in both AmE and German, while type 2 (blue or green) has different meanings in AmE and German. German type 2 is probably more commonly used than German type 1, but it has no equivalent in AmE.

As I haven’t lived in the UK for many years now, I don’t know to what extent – if any – What’s with…? might be on the rise in British English. When I was growing up, it was still uncommon enough to be perceived as an Americanism. However, it clearly does occur in BrE, as a search for What ’s with in the British National Corpus returned 28 results. The earliest of these was from 1978, although most were from the 1990s.

Come on already! / Komm schon!

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

Come on already!
Komm schon!

In English, already is used to express something that happened before now or earlier than expected. In German, schon is used the same way – as an adverb. But it can also be used as a modal particle, adding various shades of meaning to a sentence depending on the context and speaker’s attitude. In the German example above, schon adds emphasis to a command, suggesting impatience on the part of the speaker. The fact that American English can use already in exactly the same way is usually attributed to the influence of the Yiddish word shoyn (see here, here, and here) rather than that of German schon (see here), although the principle is the same.

British English, on the other hand, has to rely on intonation (‘Come ON!’) or question tags (‘Come on, will you?’) etc. to convey a similar sense of urgency.

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