German is an adjective referring to anything from Germany. However, I recently stepped across this word germane meaning to be closely related.

Being interested, I looked up its history, and germane apparently came from the same original root as German comes from, the Latin germanus.

Can someone trace the etymology of these two words (German, germane) and show why they mean two different things?

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    @ThirdIdiot: I think it is the title. As it stands, it asks a trivial question: why do word x and word y not mean the same? Why are Orion and Cassiopeia not the same shape? There exist many words that are near-homonyms. Even so, if those people read the question they should understand that what you mean is reasonable. I don't quite understand the number of down-votes either, especially without comments. Perhaps you could change it to something like, Is there any connection between "germane" and "German", or are they completely unrelated? Commented May 28, 2011 at 1:31
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    How do you know they don't mean the same thing? Perhaps the Romans thought the proto-Germans were germane, and thus named them. Commented May 28, 2011 at 2:30
  • I was idly curious about this myself; I also wonder if the term cousin german is connected at all. Commented May 28, 2011 at 3:00
  • @BrianHooper: Yes, it is: I believe germane, germaine, and german used to be spelling variations of the same word. Commented May 28, 2011 at 6:22
  • +1. Also note that English did not use the adjective German before the 16th century. Before that, the adjective applied to anything German would be Almain (from Old French Aleman)or Dutch. Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 22:22

1 Answer 1


Alas, both words most probably do not come from the same root. So far as we know, their identical spelling is completely accidental. They were already spelled the same more than two thousand years ago by the Romans.

Our word German comes from Latin Germanus, first attested in Caesar, which was used to describe the Germanic tribes by the Romans. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), it may be of Celtic origin, as a name used by the Celts to designate their neighbours; but there appears to be no consensus yet.

The word germane comes from Latin germanus (adjective "related, relative", noun "brother") This comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, which means something like "give birth". Our word germ, from Latin germen, "sprout", is from the same root, as is genetic, through Greek genesis, "birth".

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    According to Wikipedia, citing Schulze Germany: A New History and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word used by Julius Caesar was derived from what the Gauls called the people east of the Rhine, probably meaning "neighbor".
    – chaos
    Commented May 28, 2011 at 0:23
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    @chaos: The OED offers that as a possibility, but refuses to commit to it: A view widely held is that it was the name given by the Gauls to their neighbours; the Celtic derivations suggested are from OIr. gair neighbour (Zeuss) and from Irish gairm battle-cry (Wachter, Grimm). According to Müllenhoff, Germani was originally the name of a group of Celtic peoples in north-eastern Gaul, was transferred from these to their Teutonic conquerors, and afterwards extended to all the Teutonic peoples.] Commented May 28, 2011 at 0:28

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