German English

Earlier this week I heard the word Schadenfreude and it really intrigued me – that this very non-English sounding word was being used in English. It is a German word that means to take pleasure in someone else’s pain – for which we have no exact one-word translation in English.  That got me thinking of other German words that we use regularly that were obviously ideally suited to describe something better than English could and so were adopted into the English language.

For the love of driving.

Fahrvergnugen – the love of simply driving – this is another German word that has no exact English translation. This word was used in German car ads and so became quite well known.

Wanderlust – intense desire to travel – this German word is so commonly used in English that I didn’t realize it was not an English word.

Doppelganger – a double who looks exactly like another person – this is another which is used regularly because there is no one word to capture its meaning in English. I’ve noticed the usage of this word seems to have gone up a lot and I see it quite a lot in Instagram – maybe people find their doppelgangers a lot more because of social media.

President Obama and his doppelganger

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – another German word that describes the spirit of the times better than any English word could.

Kindergarten – children’s garden – interestingly another German word.

Kitschy – something that’s tacky – this is another German / Yiddish word that describes something tacky particularly with reference to art or decorations.

Hinterland – backwoods – another lovely German word that does the job better than English could.

Huck Finn – a Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman – a literary term most high schoolers who have read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” know only too well – and now we know the word is German.

A delicious deli

Deli short for Delikatessen – another common work which comes from Germany.

Interesting how English adopts words and adapts itself – maybe that’s why it’s the most widely spoken language in the world!!


Now this is an interesting word.  I was wondering about its origin because it clearly does not sound like an English word. Like many other untranslatable words this one is also German – bildung literally means education and learning, and roman means a novel – and the word has come to mean a novel that focuses on the growth of the protagonist or simply a coming-of-age book.

The word was coined by German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770 – 1852) in the 1820s during the period of German Enlightenment. He first used the word when he was lecturing students at the University of Dorpat on the self-actualization that individuals realize as they navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. The book he may have been lecturing on was Johann Volfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), which now is considered the first novel of theis genre.

The first Bildungsroman: Goethe’s 1795 Novel

During the period of Enlightenment, the centuries old feudal system ended, and there was a burgeoning middle-class.  Artists and authors moved away from religious and aristocratic patronage and gravitated towards this middle class. This was a different, revolutionary era – individuals looked to themselves for their salvation, and personal journeys became of great importance. As a result, authors started writing narratives about personal, mainly spiritual, growth which eventually we now know as Bildungsroman.

When most of us think of American Bildungsroman literature, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer immediately come to mind. Another example is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Within the genre, there are subgenres –Erziehungsroman is the academic growth of the protagonist, Kunstlerroman is the realization of an artist’s potential, and Zeitroman is one in which the both the era and the protagonist develop together.  So there we have it – an in-depth look at a literary term we have all used when writing papers on Huck Finn!!