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Zeitgeist Alert! How German Words Are Slipping Into American Culture

There are signs of 'Denglish,' a German (Deutsch)-English brew becoming fashionable in American culture. Some of it is crossover from Yiddish, some of it is über hipster posing.

Denglish, the new cool?
Denglish, the new cool?
Matthias Heine

BERLIN — Quite a bit has been written recently about the fact that the German language is very “in” with the global hipster community. Welt writer Brenda Strohmaier diagnosed the trend earlier this year: "In Denmark ad agencies are called Geist or Mensch, stylish New Yorkers wear the Ohne Titel label, the Spaniards brew a beer called Maier, and a limo service called Uber is presently driving passengers around in 26 of this world’s countries."

There was little advance warning that the English language would suddenly be foozled by the prolific use of German words. Sure, there were the American pundits who embraced über. But not even the most pessimistic forecasters of a language apocalypse (and there aren’t so many of those among Anglosaxons anyway) fomented anxiety about a foreign-word invasion or foresaw an impending reverse Denglish crisis — with German words infiltrating the English language — in the United States and UK.

But now there are signs that at least in intellectual circles a German-English brew is becoming fashionable. How else are we supposed to understand the fact that in late May a New York Times film review of a new comedy included three German words in a short sentence: "In Blended Adam Sandler once again proclaims himself both über-doofus and ultimate mensch."

Those three words really are as German as they look. Über is the only one not in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the historical reference work about the English language worldwide, but my own research shows that the word has been in fashionable use in both the United States and Great Britain for some 20 years.

Doofus has been a much-used word in English since the mid-20th century, both as an adjective and as a noun. And it means exactly the same as the German word doof: dumb, thick, nerdy, dense. The OED says it could come from doof but presents an alternative possibility — that it derives from goofus. But in view of the strong influence of German in the U.S. due to mass immigration, it seems more likely that doofus was modeled on the German word with a pseudo-Latin -us tacked on.

Embracing Yiddish

The OED lists 3,502 German words now used in English. Among these are many that originally came from other languages — among the German expressions, there is a Yiddish subcategory with 239 listings. Yiddish was a form of German spoken by eastern European Jews that retained many aspects of Middle High German. Because of the Holocaust, when two-thirds of Europe's Jews were killed, Yiddish is only spoken these days by older people who emigrated to the United States and Israel.

But it is from that dying language that mensch began being used outside the Yiddish community in 1930, and it has another meaning besides the German word that simply means person (although mensch! is also an exclamation like Jeez! Wow! Man!). In English, the word denotes an honorable, morally upstanding person. As literary examples for the use of the word, the OED quotes Nobel Prize winners Saul Bellow and Harold Pinter — an American and an Englishman, respectively. In 1953, Bellow wrote in The Adventures of Augie March, "I want you to be a mensch." And Pinter used the word in one of his most famous plays, The Birthday Party, in 1959: "You'll be a mensch. ... You'll be a success."

Taken on their own, the three German words in a single New York Times sentence shouldn’t sound alarm bells with language purists. With the exception of the trendy über, they are time-honored, honest and literary English words. Mensch is also very typical of New York and other large U.S. cities where the Yiddish influence was greater than it was in rural areas.

It would be interesting to know if the author of the review, A. O. Scott, simply missed the Germanisms because he was unaware that this is what they are, or if this was a stylistic exercise unconnected to the content of the film about two single parents (Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore) who meet while vacationing in Africa.

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