German kids widely use a mixture of German and English (Denglish). I'm a German boomer, and strongly dislike my daughter's (24) usage of Denglish. Normally she simply uses correctly translated English words mixed into German sentences.

Yesterday she told me about some guy with whom she's acquainted (about her age) who's also an insurance agent. He tried to sell her insurance, she was pondering the offer when she found out that the guy had the same surname as one of the presidents of the insurance company. She said in German "Das fand ich sketchy". I asked what she wanted to express with "sketchy", and she explained a feeling of uneasiness. There are many words she could have used in German, like "seltsam", "fischig", "komisch" and so on. None of these words translates to "sketchy", a short proper translation would be "spooky". When I pointed this out, she claimed that "sketchy" and "spooky" can be used as synonyms by modern American youth, with "sketchy" being somewhat less threatening. Is she right?


4 Answers 4


Sketchy* means [in this respect] dishonest or disreputable, rather than its usual 'not highly detailed'.

Spooky doesn't really cover it in either usage, 'scary' or 'easily scared', but 'fishy' [fischig] does.

If something doesn't quite feel true or honest, it smells fishy.

Even in the notoriously unreliable & random Urban Dictionary I couldn't find anything that would let me equate sketchy with spooky.

Playing fast and loose with Google Translate, to remain colloquial, the British equivalent of the US 'sketchy' might be 'dodgy', which google translates to zwielichtig, which then translates back to 'shady', which is close.

*From my built-in Apple dictionary…

sketchy | ˈskɛtʃi |

adjective (sketchier, sketchiest)

  1. not thorough or detailed: the information they had was sketchy.
    • (of a picture) resembling a sketch; consisting of outline without much detail: a sketchy pencil drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec.
  2. North American informal - dishonest or disreputable: once the story does come out, the fact that you tried to hide it will seem sketchy | a sketchy neighbourhood.
  • 6
    Yeah, sketchy is generally applied to people, meaning dishonest or suspicious; while spooky would normally be used of places, buildings, etc, which have an atmosphere of something ghostly or supernaturally dangerous. I have heard "spooky" used insultingly of people who dress in black and are generally gothy (e.g. "spooky bitch"), but in that case it doesn't mean dishonest or suspicious, just different.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 9, 2023 at 9:53
  • 6
    I would have thought sketchy was closer to dubious in English, so words like fragwürdig in German
    – Henry
    Nov 9, 2023 at 11:53
  • 10
    @StuartF 'Sketchy' is also used w/ regard to things and places e.g. "a sketchy website" or "sketchy wiring". A building might be called 'sketchy' if it appears structurally unsound or, a house might be 'sketchy' if there are people coming and going at all hours of the day.
    – JimmyJames
    Nov 9, 2023 at 17:00
  • 7
    To me the key is as @StuartF mentions: 'suspicious'. If you know there's something wrong, it's not sketchy, it's just a scam or otherwise bad. 'Sketchy' implies that you don't really know for sure.
    – JimmyJames
    Nov 9, 2023 at 17:06
  • 6
    I agree with BrEnglish "sketchy" being close to dubious or dodgy, especially in this context. In other contexts it could mean risky or dangerous - "I had to drive home through that snowstorm last week and it was pretty sketchy at times"
    – AdamV
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:20

These words as used are from two different subcultural usages.

sketchy comes from the concept of a plan not being explained to the speaker completely. The speaker implicitly assumes that because they do not know the details, they are somehow fraudulent, unethical or otherwise wrong. The link provided (M-W) seems to show that this word has been pushed forward to mean questionable. This has been a very common word in American English vernacular, and it is (or was) often shortened to sketch. Lately other words, especially sus (for suspect) seem to have replaced this to a large degree.

spooky originally meant more literally frightening from a less conscious sense; think horror movies. The usage in this context is more common in non-American English vernacular. I am a native American English speaker so I can't comment on how it has weathered the dawn of TikTok.


You've both got a point.

Both something spooky, and something sketchy can provoke uneasiness. But they're not synonyms, and it's a different sort of uneasiness. The former is the spine-tingling uneasiness of a haunted house or a not-too-shocking horror movie. The latter is more the feeling that you might be about to be ripped off, robbed, or suffer some other realistic loss or harm.

My German is rather rusty, but I'd say that komisch in particular isn't a great match to either, but closer to sketchy as it's the right sort of strangeness.

To me, and admittedly this is from a British perspective, spooky doesn't work here (neither does creepy which is a synonym when talking about a place, but not about a person). Sketchy and dodgy both describe a suspicious deal quite well.


Tetsujin's answer is correct, but it occurs to me that perhaps your daughter was thinking of the term 'spooked' when she said 'spooky'. It's completely understandable that these terms could be confused because they are related but the meanings are distinct.

spook (verb):

to make frightened or frantic : SCARE especially : to startle into violent activity (such as stampeding)

In this context, she was 'spooked' when she found this information. You might encounter this usage in crime dramas where e.g. someone says the target of an undercover investigation was 'spooked' by an overly aggressive attempt to catch them in an illegal act, causing that target to become suspicious.

It makes logical sense that someone who 'spooked' you would be called 'spooky', but isn't typically how these words are used in relation to each other. I can imagine that in a punny kind of way, though.

... And when I checked spooky, it seems that spooky can have a related usage, but it's for the person/thing that is spooked, as opposed to the person/thing doing the spooking. An example (2) given there is:

Dealing with Louisa when she was having an attack was very much like dealing with a spooky horse.

In this case, they mean a horse that is easily spooked. That usage is not familiar to my ear, however.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.