Apparent anglicisms in German/Scheinanglizismen

On the perennial topic of English borrowings in German, Renee Goodvin in the Living in Europe blogzine is interested in English words borrowed in German but given a different meaning.

Her example is Mobbing, which is certainly used a lot in Germany but I think does come from English.

bq. In German, “das Mobbing” translates to “workplace bullying,” which is what the woman on the tape was describing. However, the only time I ever use the word “Mob” in English as a noun is in reference to organized crime or a large group of dissatisfied or angry people. I also occasionally use “mob” as a verb as in “the crowd mobbed the store,” but in reference to workplace bullying? Never.

bq. I would really like to compile a list of English words with “invented” German meanings. If you have any examples, please email me at blondelibrarian (at)

Trying to think of words that fit what she means (if I understood her right), I found a Wikipedia entry on Scheinanglizismus. I had already remembered Pullunder, but this reminded me of Bodybag, which is used in Germany for those ‘handbags’ that are like a shrunk and mutated rucksack and hang close to the body. In English we tend to associate them with Vietnam. And there is a reminder of the ancient word Twen. Dressman and Handy too, of course.

I’m not sure that the article is fully reliable. Is Patchwork-Familie really invented? I seem to remember researching it when I first met it in German and finding some convincing English uses.

There’s a link to an article on invented English words in German by one Robbin D. Knapp, who may possibly be the author of the Wikipedia entry.

23 thoughts on “Apparent anglicisms in German/Scheinanglizismen

  1. Hi Margaret. It appears as though the BE/AE divide has reared its ugly head yet again! The Swedish scientist who coined the term “mobbing” discusses its usage or lack therof in Europe, the UK, and the US here:
    According to him, mobbing is used in the States for workplace bullying and is not used as frequently in the UK, which could explain why I have no problem with the term in English but you seem to.

  2. Great post Margaret. Although it is clearly more related to typical German mispronunciation of English vowels, one of my favorites in this category is “crash”, e.g. “Crash-Hemd in absolut angesagter Crash-Optik”. That’s when it’s good to have a Bodybag with you.

  3. @Matt: You may be right that it’s used more in the USA, but as I wrote, ‘I think it does come from English’ – it’s the person I’m quoting who has difficulty with it. Was it coined by a Swede? There’s definitely a term ‘mob’ in English to refer to the behaviour of a group of birds (à la Hitchcock, presumably).

    @Michele: Yes, that’s a brutal one.

  4. My first spotting of “mobbing” as workplace harassment occurred a few months ago, in a paper by a Mexican researcher in the field of occupational health. The term was new to me, but this search: convinced me that the term is widespread and has gone far beyond Scheinanglizismus.

  5. I suppose I should really go and correct Wikipedia. It’s usually excellent, but sometimes people post on their hobby-horses and they aren’t right. I don’t think (as I implied perhaps too subtly) that ‘mobbing’ ever was a Scheinanglizismus.

    Others on the list are wrong too. Take ‘check’. It says the German meaning is ‘kontrollieren’, but the real English meaning is ‘understand’. To me, the main meaning in English is exactly the same as the German one, whereas ‘understand’ is a subsidiary colloquial U.S. meaning.

    The same goes for ‘outing’. When it came to be used to mean revealing that a person was homosexual (*not* ‘coming-out’ as Wikipedia says), it didn’t lose its original meaning of a day trip. And so on.

    Talkmaster strikes me as a German creation, though.

  6. Is mobben confined to workplace bullying in DE? In AU it also seems to refer to school, even Kindergarten – psychological – bullying by teachers of their pupils or of pupils between themselves. I have the impression drangsalieren is the physical, thumping form of bullying, esp. of children.

  7. Margaret Marks of Transblawg, who brought us news of the unappealing term “brain up,” has a further report on quasi-English words as used in Germany. If you think you know what Bodybag means, you’re probably wrong….

  8. @AMM: The Swedish link given by Matt Bulow in the first comment has a good discussion on the distinction that ought to be made between bullying and mobbing. The man says that bullying involves physical and psychological violence. Mobbing does not involve physical violence, and even the psychological pressure is more subtle.
    I agree with you about drangsalieren.

  9. I’m an American (though it’s been a while since I lived there) and I never heard mobbing (meaning workplace harassment) until I came across it in a Polish newspaper. A few years ago, there was a big series in one of the main dailies and around that time an English co-worker who also reads Polish asked me if it was an American term. I had to say, not as far as I knew.

  10. @Michael: Yes, I have a feeling that this term is used in special contexts, for instance by sociologists, and it has entered the popular press and popular imagination in Germany and Austria, but not in Britain and the USA. But this is just speculation.

  11. There’s a mini-discussion over at Transblawg re the first use of the term “mobbing” in an institutional context. Matt Bulow says that a Swede coined this usage, although the author he quotes, Heinz Leymann, says he borrowed it from another…

  12. On the subject of English words misused or misconstrued in German, I am always amused (and, as a translator, frustrated) when customers of mine use the term “Top Price” in their advertising literature meaning, of course, a rock-bottom price. I sometimes wonder if they actually sell anything.

  13. Mobbing in this sense may have wandered in from ethology and animal behavior studies: it’s what crows do to hawks, and what mocking birds do to crows, etc. Sounds like a good semantic fit, anyway. If so, I still wonder if it is a loan from German or Swedish, both major languages in that field? I’ve never heard it used this way in other contexts. I only know and use it meaning ‘crowding around or up to a person or place’ without suggesting hostility or violence.

  14. Well done to John for the Scandinavian connection.

    Mobbing in Norwegian does mean bullying. WA Kirkeby Nor>ENG dictionary, Kunnskapsforlaget 1986: ‘rundt om pa skolene foregar det daglig mobbing: there are cases daily in schools round about of pupils being persecuted(or “mobbed”)by fellow pupils’. As can be guessed from the Eng. style and lack of hyphens, the lexicographer is not a native Eng. speaker. Also many of his entries are lifted and transliterated from the Danish dict. Vinterberg & Bodelsen.

    Note the date 1986 of the edition of the dictionary. Does it precede use in the German-speaking countries?

  15. @John: ‘mobbing’ is not a German word by origin, so it’s been borrowed. I find the idea that it came from bird behaviour convincing. The OED gives that, but not this later meaning.
    @AMM: are you saying that ‘mob’ is a Scandinavian word, or did the Scandinavians borrow it from English, adapting the meaning?

  16. Mobben = the mob is a perfectly good Nor word of ancient pedigree, but shows up neither in Swe, nor in Dan. It’s poss. it migrated as Old Norse over to the British Isles and then came back into Norway at the height of the Swinging 60’s with soccer and girl pop fans ‘mobbing’ their idols.

    Any Viking etymologists out there?

  17. As I understand it (by hearsay only) “mobba” (to bully) came into Swedish directly from modern English.

    A source:

    Vi har lånat in detta ord [doppning] från engelskan, där det heter doping. Den engelska substantivändelsen -ing motsvaras av -ning i svenskan. När vi lånar in sådana substantiv hänger ofta den engelska formen kvar. Men så fort vi bildat ett verb i svenskan till substantivet är det naturligt att substantivet får ändelsen -ning. Jämför med andra lån från engelskan: banta:bantning, boka:bokning, dumpa:dumpning, filma:filmning, jumpa:jumpning, lobba:lobbning, matcha:matchning, mobba:mobbning, tajma:tajmning, zooma:zoomning.

    We have borrowed that word [dopning] from English, where it is “doping”. The English substantive ending -ing corresponds to -ning in Swedish. When we borrow such words from English the English form is often retained. But as soon as we think of it as a Swedish word in the substantive form it is natural that the substantive gets the -ning ending. Compare with other English loans:

    It’s given variously as mobbing (11 900) and mobbning (44 700 ghits), which suggests it isn’t fully naturalised yet, which certainly supports recent borrowing.

    (If I had a modern monolingual Swedish dictionary I’d’ve looked this up when the thread started :-)

  18. We need a Swede (I am) with a fairly fresh etymological dictionary (I haven’t got) to be sure. But some aggressive googling has produced:

    This messageboard thread, where someone says what is neatly summarized on this Swedish page:

    “Begreppet mobbning användes första gången av förre radiodoktorn Peter paul Heinemann i en bok från slutet av sextiotalet. Han inspirerades till begreppet av djurforskaren Konrad Lorenz.”

    “The term ‘mobbning’ was first used by former ‘radio doctor’ Peter Paul Heinemann in a book from the late sixties. His use of the term was inspired by the zoologist Konrad Lorenz.”

    Konrad Lorenz is, indeed, the “bird connection”. Further googling led me to believe that “mobbning” as synonymous with “bullying” then made its way around the anglophone world through the academic community. Scandinavians were apparently pioneers in ‘mobbning’ research.

  19. Oh, not quite synonymous – the term “mobbning” excluded physical violence, whereas “bullying” did not. The m-word probably cornered a fair market share in the international competition because of this. That’s me speculating, though.

  20. Thanks to Des, Simon and Margaret. We’re literally back to the question: ‘which came first: the chicken (Lorenz’s mobbing or mocking bird)or the egg?’

    Mobb(n)ing does show up in the Swe>Eng Modern Svensk Engelsk Ordbok/dict. Prisma 1980, with the puzzling one worder ‘mobbing’.

    However, my Swe/Swe Slangordbok/Slang Dict. of the same date has no entry for either the mob – as in Mafia or otherwise – or mobb(n)ing.

  21. Well, this entry is really going somewhere – but where?

    @Simon: I think that’s what I believed all along: an English word taken into Swedish by sociologists and entering the popular imagination at least in Germany and Austria.

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