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Of Sausages and Cities: German in the Kitchen

What does a Hanseatic city have to do with America's most popular sandwich? How is the city of Mozart related to a ballpark favorite? And how did the names of these cities end up as common and productive English words? It's all because of Americans' love for an ethnic food that's so much a part of our diet that we might not even realize it's ethnic: namely, German cuisine.

First, a very brief lesson in German grammar. To form the adjectival form of a city in German, you add the ending -er. Thus in German, Berliner is the adjectival form of the city Berlin ("of or relating to Berlin"); Leipziger is the adjective for Leipzig.

Now consider the good old all-American hot dog, also known as the frankfurter. This term derives from the German Frankfurter Wurst, or translated into English, a sausage (Wurst) in the style made in Frankfurt. Frankfurter sausages came to America with our many German immigrants and became an American favorite. We adapted the sausage and the word, but as we like to do in English, we played a bit with the term. Not only did we chop the noun (Wurst) off from the adjective (Frankfurter), we shortened frankfurter to just frank, as in franks 'n' beans.

Another name for a frank is a wiener. Wien is the German name for the city we know in English as Vienna. The denizens of Vienna enjoy a type a type of sausage that they call Wienerwurst, or Vienna sausage. (According to some sources, the Wienerwurst was actually brought to Vienna by a butcher from Frankfurt.) A Vienna sausage resembles a frankfurter, and the terms wiener and frank have become synonymous in English. (To add some slight confusion, we make a distinction between a wiener and a Vienna sausage, which is a small smoked sausage that's usually sold in a can.)  As with frankfurter, we can't resist playing with the word wiener, and we use the term weenie not just as a familiar term for wiener, but in all sorts of metaphoric, usually negative, ways. (Speaking of franks and wieners, last year Ben Zimmer delved into the history of the term hot dog.)

And then there's that American mainstay, the hamburger. You can probably guess now that our term derives from Hamburg, the German city. As it still true today, the hamburger (the Hamburg steak) was originally a way to use lower-grade meat, by chopping it up. Linguistically speaking, hamburger has been particularly productive in English. In German, Burg means "fortress"; Hamburg was originally a walled city, the Hanseatic city mentioned above. But when hamburger wended its way into English, we reanalyzed its constituent parts from Hamburg+er into ham+burger, mashing together burg and -er into a useful morpheme that now essentially just means "patty in a bun": cheeseburger, fish burger, veggie burger, and so on.

A stroll around the supermarket shows us other foods named for cities or areas. Braunschweiger, a type of liverwurst, is named for the city of Braunschweig. In the cheese aisle, we can get Muenster from the city of Münster, Emmentaler from the Emme valley – or Tal – in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the famously pungent Limburger, from the duchy of Limburg. These names have not achieved the status of generic English words, but you can see the -er suffix at work in their names.

Dessert? Some people might know that a Berliner is a type of donut that has no hole but is filled with jam or cream. Linzer torte, a type of tart with nuts in the dough, comes to us from the city of Linz in Austria. The best-known German cake might be the Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, known in English as a Black Forest (cherry) cake. It's possible that this name does not come directly from the region—Schwarzwald is German for "black forest"—but from Schwarzwälder Kirsch, which refers to the cherry liqueur (Kirsch is "cherry") from that part of Germany, and which is an essential ingredient in that confection.

In the cooler you'll find more cities. The American beer industry was largely built by German brewers (for example, the companies Schlitz, Hamm's, Anheuser, Busch, Coors, and Miller were all founded by Germans). The brand name Budweiser was intended to suggest that it was a beer in the style of the Bohemian city České Budějovice, or Budweis in German. You'll also find the adjectivally inspired brands Paulaner (named for a monastery devoted to Francis of Paola), Bitburger (from Bitburg), and Jupiler (from the Belgian city Jupille-sur-Meuse). More generically, the term pilsner to mean any pale lager-style beer derives from the Bohemian city Plzeň, or Pilsen in German.

It's handy to be able to spot the names of German-speaking cities in words that end with -er. Alas, it doesn't work in every case. A lager-style beer does not refer to a city, but to the beer's long brewing process—lagern means "to store" in German. The type of wine known as Gewürztraminer derives from the name of a grape, not of a place. And a Kaiser roll refers not to a place, but to a person, supposedly Emperor (Kaiser) Franz Joseph I.

So the next time you bite into a cheeseburger or roast a weenie, think about the journey that those words have made from their home cities to your kitchen. And of course, we can thank our German immigrant forebears for sharing their cuisine with us.


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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at several software companies, including Microsoft, and currently works in Amazon's cloud computing division. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 9th 2012, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
It's not fair -- after devouring your tasty article, I'm now facing a long work day while salivating at the thought of a hamburger with Muenster cheese on a Kaiser role, washed down with a cold glass of Gewürztraminer!
Saturday August 11th 2012, 6:02 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
Yes the German language is specifically prone to put emphasis on the origin (geographic) many foods and also in general like Zurcher Zeitung (we have the New Yorker) etc. There is a lot of emphasis and pride in ones origin (proud to be a Berliner), uniqueness. The ending -er is also linked to activities, professions and finds its way into names (Müller). In fact there is the notion that you have to go to the actual place to get the real thing, i.e. to the Black Forest for the cake because there is nothing like it. Thus I am a Zürcher only by name on paper as I am not living there. Mind you the paper would give me a foot in the door with the locals. Growing up in this mindset I am reminded of the words of a farmer I visited 60km away from my birth place: "I get the visit hired foreigners now" I pointed out that I was from the same country yet another region. "to me you are a foreigner" he said.
Thus I love to be a Canadian, part of a mix, and accepted as I am . Yet I am always anxious and a little bit fearful when visiting the US as an alien.

Ruedi Müller
Saturday August 25th 2012, 11:06 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Wow! I even didn't know anything about German naming and their immigrant cousins.
I am not a German fan and tasted none of the those food items ever in my lifetime. Thus, I do not if there is any difference in those food stuffs with German name compared to named after any other city. But to comment on the article as a whole is appreciative.

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