Word of the Week: geflügeltes Wort

Mar 7, 2014

In both English and German, there are plenty of words or phrases whose origins lie in a specific literary text or quote, but have since been integrated into common language -- even though many people don't know where they came from. The terms "deja vu", "habeas corpus" and the "Iron Curtain" stand as such examples. Germans call these terms geflügelte Wörter ("winged words"), since they "took flight" from their original context and made their way into everyday language.

Many languages have their own geflügelte Wörter, each of which were initially used in a book, text, speech or other form of communication before being publicly adopted to describe a general idea or meaning.

wings Enlarge image (© dpa) A good example is the Latin term "carpe diem", which is generally translated as "seize the day." This term was first used by Latin poet Quintus Horatuzs Flaccus in his collection of poems (Odes). Over time, it was adopted in the English language, used to emphasize making the most out of an opportunity, since life is too short. The aphorism became particularly popular after it was used in the 1989 American drama film "Dead Poets Society." The term "took flight" from Horace's pages and integrated itself heavily in the English language, even though many people may not understands its origins or original context.

Even the term geflügeltes Wort is itself a "winged word." The term first appeared in Homer's works: specifically, it was used 46 times in the Illiad and 58 times in the Odyssey. During the Middle Ages, German poet Heinrich Frauenlob (also known as Henry of Meissen) defined this as a word that grew its own wings. In 1742, German poet Johann Heinrich Voß reused the term geflügeltes Wort when he wrote his own poems about Homer. 

But the expression wasn't clearly used or defined until German philologist Georg Büchmann published his book Geflügelte Worte, Der Zitatenschatz des Deutschen Volkes ("Winged Words: the treasure chest of German quotes") in 1864. Ever since, the term has been used to describe sayings, aphorisms, phrases and terms that left their original context and made their way into common language.

We can guarantee that you've probably used geflügelte Wörter on more than one occasion. Check out our list of a few examples that are popular in the English language - some of which are even in German.

  • An eye for an eye (Book of Exodus)
  • Back to nature! (Retour a la nature! - Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
  • Big Brother is Watching You (1984 - George Orwell)
  • Fahrvergnügen (1989 U.S. advertisement - Volkswagen)
  • Ignorabimus (1930 slogan, Society of German Scientists and Physicians - David Hilbert)
  • Kinder, Küche, Kirche ("children, kitchen, church" - Kaiser Willhelm II)
  • To be, or not to be (Hamlet - William Shakespeare)
  • Turn the other cheek (Sermon on the Mount - Christian New Testament)
  • Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered" - Julius Caesar, 47 BC)
  • Writing on the wall (Biblical book of Daniel)

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

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