Germans love using English words and phrases. As these words have moved from English over to German, however, many change their meaning. This can make it difficult for native English speakers to interpret what they mean.

So, to help you brush up on your German, I have created this list of Germany’s favorite English words and phrases.

1. Handy
English Definition: convenient, useful
German Definition: cell phone

This is the most widely-used term for a cell phone, which is actually kind of funny to us English-speakers. Once you get over how strange it is to call a cell phone a Handy, however, you can see how it does make a little bit of sense.

Sir, would you like a free handy?
Photo by UltraSlo1


2. Old-Timer
English Definition: old person; someone with a lot of experience
German Definition: vintage car

For me, old timer is a rude term for an elderly person. So, it sounds pretty funny when we drive by a vintage car show and my German boyfriend will say, “Look at all the old timers!”

3. Ghetto Blaster
English: politically-incorrect and outdated term for a portable stereo
German: the most popular name for a portable stereo

When I first heard this used, I was completely confused. And chances are, if you are an American reading this, you had never heard of it before either (unless you ready by article Deconstructing Denglisch). Don’t worry, though, it is just a portable stereo or boom box. And while some Americans may still use this the term “Ghetto Blaster,” it is definitely not used as frequently as it is in Germany.

4. Couching
English: to express something in a specific manner; to lie down
German: to be a couch potato

I actually found the English definitions above in the Miriam Webster dictionary, although I have never heard this term used in English before. Anyways, I like the German definition much better. I also find it pretty funny when Germans use it:

“What are you doing this weekend?”
“Just couching.”

This family has that couching thing down.
Photo by Cindy Funk

5. Smoking
English: to smoke
German: dinner jacket

Everyone knows that words ending in -ing are verbs. Not in this case, however. Germans will use the word Smoking as a noun to describe a dinner or tuxedo jacket. I must admit I have never actually heard someone say this in German, but I have seen it online. Just check out what happens when you type Smoking into Amazon.de.

6. Black Music
English: outdated term for music created by African-Americans
German: any music genre with a majority of black artists (e.g. Rap, Hip-Hop, RnB, Jazz, Blues)

After the term “Ghetto Blaster,” I think we have already established that Germans are not too worried about political-correctness. So, you should not be too surprised that Germans refer to any musical genre that was started by/dominated by black artists as “Black Music.” Yes, this means that even if you were to go shopping today for CD’s in Germany (as if anyone does that anymore) you will find a section titled “Black Music.” There you can find things like James Brown and Boys II Men as well as the Beastie Boys.

7. Body Bag
English: bag for a dead body
German: cross-body bag; messenger bag

This is a one of the more hilarious instances of a word getting its meaning changed when adopted by a new language. And although it is pretty harmless, it could also cause a bit of an issue. I mean, just imagine if your German roommate tells you they are going to go shopping for a body bag, and you were not aware of the German meaning…

To read more about my thoughts on English being used in the German language, make sure to check out my April column Deconstructing Denglisch over on Expat Focus.