Dear Word Detective: I am an exchange student, living in the US right now. I’m from Germany, and when I felt sick today, my host brother and I wondered whether there is a connection between “German” and “germs.” I know that the name “Germany” and all its other forms are very old and go back to Latin “Germania” or something. But does “germ” come from there? Are all German people “germian”? — Katharina Holst.
If by “germian” you mean “germy” in the sense of “carrying germs” or “infested with dangerous microbial organisms,” good heavens, no. You must be thinking of spinach. From what I’ve heard, Germany is one of the cleanest countries on earth, and most of the people of German descent I’ve known have been fastidiously neat and clean. Then again, I’m not sure that the current American craze for turning our homes (and hands) into germ-free zones with antimicrobial agents is such a good idea. The germs that eventually evolve to survive that stuff are going to be very hardy and in a very bad mood. I’d rather have the sniffles right now than face billions of tiny little ticked-off Rottweilers in a few years.
The root of “German” and “Germany” is the Latin “Germanus,” which was first (as far as we know) used in print by Julius Caesar for the peoples of central and northern Europe in his accounts of his conquests in the area. The root of “Germanus” is unknown, but it does not appear to have come from any Germanic language. One theory suggests that the word “German” was actually derived from a word in one of the languages of the neighboring Gauls, perhaps related to either the Old Irish “gair” (“neighbor”) or “gairim” (“to shout”).
The root of “germ,” on the other hand, is a different Latin word, “germen,” meaning the sprout or bud of a plant, which also gave us “germinate.” “Germ” first appeared in English in the 17th century with the sense of “sprout” or “seed.” A related Latin root, “germanus” (“akin” or “genuine”) gave us the modern English “germane,” in which the sense of “closely connected” was developed into its current meaning of “relevant.” Interestingly, the original form of “germane” in English was “german” (small “g”) which survives only in the fairly obscure forms “brother-german” and “sister-german,” meaning “full sibling.”
In any case, “germs” were good and positive things in English (a sense still found in “a germ of an idea” and “wheat germ”) until the 19th century, when the “germ theory of disease” took hold, leading to germicides, antibiotics and, recently, mass fear of shopping-cart handles.