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Is Fahrenheit a real word in German? Does it come from a concept or from a name?

  • 14
    "Erfahrenheit" is an old German word for "Erfahrung" (experience) that is not used any more. It is not related to Fahrenheit. – Takkat Dec 15 '11 at 7:27
  • @Takkat, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary it is. See my answer for the link. – A. Donda Jul 20 '15 at 18:11
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The German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was the eponym for the temperature scale still used today. This is an excerpt from his famous publication on the freezing point of water:

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Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit: Experimente und Beobachtungen über das Gefrieren des Wassers im Vacuum. Phil. Transact. London. Vol. XXXIII, 1724, S. 78–84

47

As the other answers have already pointed out, "Fahrenheit" is simply the name of the physicist who invented that temperature scale.

However, since the German language makes good use of word compositions, one could try to construct something from its only possible parts, "Fahren" and "Heit".

"Fahren" is an infinitive form of a verb and can be translated to "to drive".

"Heit" is only used as a word suffix DE: link is in German only in Standard German, often describing a condition specified by its prefixed word. For example, "Schönheit" will describe the condition of being "schön", i.e. beautiful. You will find "-heit" mostly in conjunction with an adverb, sometimes also a noun, but not a verb such as "fahren". In English, a related suffix would be "-ness" (as in happiness) or "-hood" (as in childhood).

So no, even if you would decompose it syntactically, the word "Fahrenheit" wouldn't make much sense.

The closest nonsensical English translation would be something like "drive-hood" or "drive-ness".


If we want to know more about that family name, we'd have to turn to onomastics - something I don't have much experience with, so take everything said below with a large barrel of salt.

A quick search leads to a possible explanation:

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit's family roots seem to be in the Hildesheim or Rostock area - both places in Northern Germany where variants of Low German were spoken.

In this light, "Fahren" could be derived from "varen", which could be Low German for "vor dem"DE, translated to "in front of the".

"Heit" might be an old or Low German spelling of "Heide"DE, which translates to "heath" or "moor".

So maybe the family lived at a place near a moor or heath, and that's where their name came from.

  • 9
    +1 for driveness :D – Takkat Dec 15 '11 at 10:02
  • To add to the excellent answer: Other connotation are "Gefahr" and "Fährnis" meaning "danger" or "adventure" and "Fahrendes Volk" meaning "wandering people" – TaW Mar 12 '15 at 18:22
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No, Fahrenheit is just a proper name - not even a very common in Germany. Daniel Fahrenheit was Prussian physicist who proposed the temperature scale in 1714. It's worth mentioning that the Celsius scala is the official one in Germany though.

The only meaning you'll find in a dictionary is - like in English - the Grad (degrees) Fahrenheit.

  • 2
    +1 for mentioning Celsius (who was a Swede, by the way). – fzwo Dec 15 '11 at 11:56
  • Thank you for your nice answer to the question about the word Fahrenheit which is just a proper noun in German. I am interested that Celsius was a Swede. Thank you again! – user5991 Apr 9 '14 at 19:39
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    Kind of ironic we Americans still use Fahrenheit when even the Germans themselves have long since abandoned it in favor of the clearly superior Celsius. – Dan May 31 '17 at 19:56
  • @Dan In what way is Celsius superior? It is an equally arbitrary temperature scale whose only benefit is to easily tell when water will freeze or boil (but you can remember the corresponding Fahrenheit values and then this becomes a non-issue). The only temperature scale which is somewhat superior (if only slightly because still somewhat arbitrary) is the Kelvin scale. – Jan Aug 11 '17 at 5:30
2

As others have pointed out, "Fahrenheit" is a proper name. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, that is

An abstract surname meaning literally "experience."

This suggests that the name is a short form of "Erfahrenheit" which would be more precisely translated as "the state of being experienced".

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    +1 for giving a reference, but without seeing that somewhere else I remain somewhat sceptical. – Carsten S Jan 22 '16 at 9:53
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    As a German native speaker I contest that statement. You cannot shorten "Erfahrenheit" to "Fahrenheit". The "er-" in "erfahren" is essential. The "erfahren" in "Erfahrenheit" is an adjective meaning "experienced". "Fahren" alone is a verb meaning "to drive" or "to travel". The suffix "-heit" is not used with verbs, only with adjectives. – Tilman Schmidt Jan 29 '17 at 16:32
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Fahrenheit, Celsius, Réaumur and Kelvin were all physicists whose names have been used to name a temperature scale. None of these words has any meaning in German, except as their use in naming temperatures, like

Eis schmilzt bei null Grad Celsius oder 32 Grad Fahrenheit.

Any attempts to pull the word Fahrenheit apart and trying to give it any meaning based on the parts is nonsense.

  • The answer by A. Donda shows it is not nonsense. – TecBrat Oct 19 '15 at 14:58
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    You mean the quote from "Online Etymology" which describes itself as "Etymonline is a can-opener, an imaginary labyrinth with real minotaurs in it,"? There are references, and there are references. – gnasher729 Jan 28 '16 at 0:35
  • Some Doctor's names given to technical terminology fit so well, like Hertz: one beat per second--roughly the Ruhepuls. And Erfahrungswerte are the basis for the Fahrenheit-Skala. I wonder whether doctor's honours would count today as legal reason for renaming. For sure, such names could be those rare coincidences that are to be expected, and it would be more likely if a work related predisposition runs in the family, e.g. Messerschmitt or Smith (and Wesson) building weapons from metal. When titles where handed down for long, it might cause semantic drift, even. So "named for Mr X" is a cop out – vectory yesterday
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Fahren means to drive and heit is a suffix that makes an adjective a noun.

E.g. schön=beautiful and schoenheit=beauty. So Fahrenheit means loosely interpreted the state of driving.

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    but fahren is not an adjective. :-) – splattne Dec 6 '12 at 8:40
  • Also the suffix -en of "fahren" would be dropped in the composition (as in "fahrbar") so the result would be "Fahrheit". (Which would still be a non-word.) – Tilman Schmidt Jan 29 '17 at 16:39
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As stated before, the literal translation of "Fahren" being "to drive" and the suffix "heit" being "the state of" would literally give the direct translation as "Driver" (ex. the actress Minnie Driver)

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    Not sure if this is not much closer to a comment than an answer. Also, I think the transition Fahrenheit → driver is too far-fetched. – Jan Oct 26 '15 at 12:44
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I'd translate Fahrenheit as "homelessness." Fahren, to drive, or, loosely, to be "on the road." -heit, state of being. So, the state of being on the road, which, if considered as a permanent state, is not having a home.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • 2
    Is there any reference that shows that the word has been used with that meaning? – Carsten S Jan 22 '16 at 9:51

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