Pfeffer, J. Alan and Garland Cannon, 1995:

German Loanwords in English. An historical dictionary

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xxxiv + 381.

ISBN 0 521 40254 9 (hardback) £60.00 (US$54.95).

reviewed by

Jonathan West

Department of German Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

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This is an utterly fascinating and absorbing book. It is an expanded English-language version of Pfeffer's Deutsches Sprachgut im Wortschatz der Amerikaner und Engländer (1987), a reference work which has done much to revise the once-prevalent notion -- laid at the door of Skeat (1910) -- that the influence of German on English is negligible and largely confined to technical terms. Baugh and Cable (1993:357) and Crystal (1995:83, 127) certainly give the impression that German loans are small in number and that they enter the language via American English. Pfeffer increased Skeat's list of thirty-six items to over 3,000, and the present work presents us with no less than 6,001 loan words, if the Appendix is included. By way of comparison, Mitzka's (1975) edition of Kluge's Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache lists just over a hundred loans from English and "American", showing just how unreliable dictionaries can be in this respect.

Unlike the 1987 work, Pfeffer and Cannon include far more extensive discursive sections: the introduction deals with sources, the history of the subject, the forms of the entries (which are almost self-explanatory), the degree of acculturation (xix-xxxiv). Part I gives us an historical overview by semantic fields (pp. 3-110); Part II presents a linguistic overview of the material (pp. 113-132); Part III comprises the dictionary itself based on "primary sources" (pp. 135-378) and Part IV is the Appendix of 621 words gleaned from "secondary sources". As the lists of both primary and secondary sources mix dictionaries and monographs, it is unclear whether the appendix is anything more than a supplement.

But what of the data itself? A few of the German loanwords are very old indeed, the earliest being snorkle (dated 1346) "a crease" (alas, not snorkel, the breathing apparatus!), but most were borrowed in the two hundred years from the mid 18th to the mid 20th century. In view of this, how could Skeat have been so very wrong? How has it been possible to multiply the stock of German loanwords in English?

One answer is of course to widen the criteria for inclusion and here the authors appear to have been fairly conservative and to have been clear in regard to their methodology, even if they have not always acknowledged the weaknesses in it. They count lexical items which have been borrowed directly from Standard German (therefore excluding dialects and Yiddish). It is presumably on this criterion that items such as rumble room (German Rumpelkammer) are excluded, but how can the donor language be easily determined here? Their final list includes formal loans assimilated to varying degrees, as English does not generally recognize a distinction between foreign and loan words, and semantic loans of various types. On the other hand, they exclude those likely to have been mediated by another language (e.g. German Vampir, transferred into French as vampire, and subsequently into English as vampire), or in fact coined in English (e.g. Freudian, Kantian, Leipziger). Here, only detailed study of the sources can provide the likely solution:zigzag is excluded on the grounds that it has been mediated by French, but the earliest examples in English are written with "c" and "k", making a loan from German Zickzack appear more likely. Proper names are excluded unless they have acquired secondary significance (e.g. Mindel "second stage of European glaciation" -- primarily the name of a Bavarian river). Ohm, the unit of resistance, named after Georg Simon Ohm (1787-1854), is excluded because the term "was suggested in 1861 by Sir Charles Bright and Mr. Latimer Clark, and adopted in 1881 at the Congress of Electricians in Paris" (p. xxvi). Exclusions also cover loans created by Germans in another language (e.g. Kepler's inertia) and cultural transfers where no German donor word exists (e.g. doodlebug for the V-1 and V-2 rockets).

Some of this is arbitrary, but it suggests proper caution and copious research. It is difficult to understand, therefore, why the authors throw caution to the winds in espousing what I can only describe, not only in the hope of making it into the next edition, as a klingklang etymology (German Klingklangetymologie). In deriving the first element of nitwit from Upper German nit "not", they violate one of the first principles of etymology by ignoring the resources of the receptor language. The word nit, although it means "egg and/or young of a louse", was early applied to people as a term of scorn or abuse (see OED). Moreover, ohm does indeed appear in the historical overview of the physics semantic field. Of course, it is not ohm the unit of resistance, but ohm the old wine measure of 30 to 36 gallons. I would not mention these flaws were they the only ones, but occasionally typographical errors and the like gave me the impression that the book had been rushed into print. On p. 60, we read that "[...] Schelf appears to derive from MLG Mitteleuropa as a concept for Central Europe already current in the days of Metternich". One can see what has happened, as when Phonai becomes Phonia in the footnote on p. xxiii, or the umlaut is missed off tägliche on p. xiii, but it is worrying.

That said, the alphabetic index to the semantic fields and the dictionary will contain some genuine surprises for those who have not considered the question of German loans in English before. In the field of astronomy, for example, astrophysics (1890) is revealed as a German loan; in biochemistry, not only the term itself (1881), but also protein (1838), biochemical (1851), enzyme (1881), neuron (1891) and peptide (1906) are claimed; in biology, the term itself was borrowed much earlier (1813), followed by metabolic (1845), protoplasm (1846), symbiosis (1877), plankton (1891), genotype (1898), chromosome (1889), gene (1911) and genome (1930), to mention just the most striking. The sheer weight of data such as this confirms that Skeat probably did not cast his net widely enough. True, the terms are largely technical, but some of them are in very frequent use indeed outside their technical registers and we are largely unaware of their origin. Which member of the public would connect rain forest (1903), environment (1827), ecology (1873), vaseline (1874), heroin (1898), statistics (1787), entropy (1868), recursion (1934) and formalism (1934) -- these last two of particular interest to linguists -- with German words? Really outside the technical field, shirk (1639), trollop (1615), chain smoker (1890), overnight (1892), and homesickness (1756) are other examples of surprises.

Sometimes, the commentaries could have gone further. If bar (the unit of pressure) is borrowed from German, who coined it in 1903? This question almost raises itself because the word barometer is usually ascribed to Boyle (see Onions 1966:75). Similarly, Schottky-effect is listed (1925), and Schottky-barrier (1949), both referring to the theory, but not Schottky (barrier) diode, referring to the application in the electronic component. Hertz, now the unit of frequency preferred to the cycle per second, is there, as is megahertz (one million hertz, older Megacycle), but also terahertz (a [British] billion), but not kilohertz or gigahertz, which are much more commonly used. We British would do well to remember that German has furnished us with the terms social democrat (1877) and social democracy (1888) and also honest broker (1878), even if the other sort dominate. In this connection, I missed final solution (surely dependent on Endlösung).

The example of final solution illustrates that there is room for further research, but yet other areas reveal that there is still work to be done in the field of German loans in English. Here, I have questions but no easy answers. For example, under "Mathematics" (pp. 35-37) I was surprised not to find set theory and its derivatives such as null set, union set (German Mengenlehre, Null-Menge, Einer-Menge) , as this approach to mathematics is surely attributable to Georg Cantor (1845-1918) and would provide a rich trawl of possible loanwords. Another example is the field of electronics, not considered separately but under "Physics" (pp. 48-51). We have Barkhausen effect (1924), and therefore Barkhausen oscillator (1940 according to the dictionary -- though the expression is attested earlier, AHWT 1938: K.61), but not Lecher lines or Lecher wires (after Lecher, the German scientist who produced standing waves in tuned lines in 1890; AHWT 1938:R.38), Ziehen effect (or frequency jump effect, AHWT 1938: K.29, sometimes called pulling), Lenz's law (about the direction of an induced electric field -- Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz, 1804-1865), Principle of Uncertainty (if this is derived from Unschärferelation, coined by Werner Heisenberg (1901-76). I also missed the Bunsen burner (surely from German Bunsenbrenner), named after the German chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811-1899), who discovered the elements rubidium and caesium, which are both listed.

My feeling is that the definitive dictionary will not be based on other dictionaries, but on a detailed examination of contemporary scientific papers. And, if the large numbers of possible loans turn out not to be such, some additional revision of the list of English loans in German will be needed. Until that happens, Pfeffer and Cannon will surely find its way into every library and onto every lexicographer's shelf. The book's most astounding insight is that the importance of German loanwords, even for everyday English, has probably not been exaggerated. Indeed, German words continue to be borrowed, even outside the areas of science and technology, as the recent appearance of wheat beer and rye beer (from German Weizenbier, Roggenbier) on anglicized labels on our supermarket shelves eloquently demonstrates.


AHWT 1938 = B.R.230. Admiralty Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy. London: HMSO.

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, 1993. A History of the English Language. London: Routledge. (Forth edition, first edition 1951.)

Crystal, David, 1995. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. London, New York: BCA.

Kluge, F., 1975. Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter. (21st edition by Walther Mitzka.)

Onions, C. T. (ed.), 1966. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pfeffer, J. Alan, 1987. Deutsches Sprachgut im Wortschatz der Amerikaner und Engländer. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Skeat, Walter, 1910. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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