I wonder if it's really good German to talk about "Öffentlichkeit" the same way we talk about "the public" in English. I know it's done, but it seems wrong to my ear. It's true that "öffentlich" means "public" in the sense of "not private", and adding -keit changes an adjective to a noun, but I don't think it's exactly the same noun as the English "public". I would accept it as "publicness", in the sense of "the publicness of the disgrace of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford", but "the public" is something entirely different.

I read the German Wikipedia article on Öffentlichkeit and if I understand correctly, it is a genuine concept relating to the idea of a public arena where political and social ideas are debated. The same word also seems to describe that debate in itself, the way we might express in English the idea of "the public discourse". But that's very different from the American "man-in-the-street" idea of "the public".

What I'm wondering is, whether English is so predominant as the international language of the news media, that even powerful languages like German are not immune to the invasion of direct calques from English usage. I wonder what our German correspondents think. Is it good German to talk about the general public as "die Öffentlichkeit", or is it a calque from English that's made its way into the language as a result of external pressure e.g. translators at the news services needing a quick and handy phrase to use for an American idiom?

EDIT: here's the link to the German Wikipedia article: Öffentlichkeit


4 Answers 4


I have found „Die Kinder-Prostitution Berlins ; [der Jungfrauentribut Berlins] ; ungeschminkte Enthüllungen und Sittenbilder ; zugleich ein Mahn- und Warnungsruf an die Oeffentlichkeit von einem Eingeweihten“, Minde, 1896, so this use seems not to be new. The word „Öffentlichkeit“ itself is from the 18th century, according to Grimm's.

  • Not the answer I was looking for, but that's pretty convincing. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 1:41
  • 1
    @MartyGreen, I think that it is still interesting. Grimm lists only the meaning of “publicness” that you refer to in your question, so it is likely that the word acquired an additional meaning later. It just seems to have happened earlier than you suspected, but of course one would need more than one reference to show that.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 8:40
  • Well, it just seems like an implausible formation to go from the adjective "oeffentlich" meaning "openly" to a noun meaning "the general public". In English it went the opposite way...you had the latin "publicus" meaning "the public" (compare German "publikum") which became an adjective meaning "in public view", or "openly". So it makes sense to go from "the public" to "openly", but it doesn't make sense to go from "openly" to "the public". If you get what I mean. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 15:18

The word Öffentlichkeit means on the first level the public area accessible to and viewable by everybody (except people in jail/hospital/and so on). This is mostly used in the form in der Öffentlichkeit. This meaning has slightly changed due to the German concept of Privatheit whose antonym may be described by the term Öffentlichkeit.

On the second level Öffentlichkeit means the persons who have access to this area. This meaning is mostly the case, when Öffentlichkeit gets personified.

And on the third level Öffentlichkeit means the state of an action being observable by or in the Öffentlichkeit. Generic rules of word building would predict a term Öffentlichkeitheit for this meaning, but this an ugly word. So the term is again derived from the adjective öffentlich yielding Öffentlichkeit.

  • I don't think you've dealt with the more complicated meanings discussed in the Wikipedia article. I've edited my question to include the link so you can check it out. Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 3:11

This answer actually should be a comment on the answer of Toscho.
But it seems that I can't create comments yet.

@Marty Green:
I fear that you got a bit mislead by the Wikipedia article.
The article is well written and very interesting indeed but it's written from a more scientific point of view.
So it's true that one can refer to the public discourse by using the term Öffentlichkeit.

But we also use it to refer the people. In my opinion that's the main way we use that word.


Ude warf Seehofer am Mittwochabend (4. September 2013) im Bayerischen Fernsehen vor, die Öffentlichkeit mit der Forderung nach einer Pkw-Maut für Ausländer bewusst in die Irre zu führen. Autobild

Here you see that with die Öffentlichkeit they actually refer to the voters.

You find some other examples if you look in Wiktionary.

If you look at the "Öffentlichkeit und Recht" section in the Wikipedia article you will see that the term Öffentlichkeit actually meant a group of persons in the beginning of it's usage.

So obviously my English is far from perfect an and I fear I lack the skill to decide if that fits the public.
But I hope that I was able to show you that with Die Öffentlichkeit you often refer to the people. Like your "man-in-the-street" idea.

  • Yes, I don't doubt that it's used that way. But I wonder if it isn't really a calque from the American usage. The common usage just doesn't seem to derive in any logical way from the adjective "oeffentlich". Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 18:30

»Öffentlichkeit« is just fine as a word; let's note two things about it, though: it is longer to speak and write than »public«, and it is more abstract than »public«. The »man in the street« is not »Öffentlichkeit«, that's rather »der Mann auf der Straße« oder simply »die Leute«. »Öffentlichkeit« is like »making something public«, »revealed to the public«, »public debate«, etc, you get the meaning.

English today is certainly a very dominant language, and it does exert pressure, so to speak, on various domains of life, not by itself, but by institutions and media in various countries (among which is Germany), which readily accept English terminology (and sometimes even invent pseudo-English terminology) instead of using established words which do the job or simply translate properly as it was customary to do in the past.

There's a load of extremely poor translations from English these days. Don't want to be elitist or a snob, but sometimes you encounter very awkward and clumsy translations (not talking about machine translations here, which are mostly horrible, but excusably so) … translations that appear to be word by word, showing the translator is not sure of either language and is trying to play it safe by keeping it word-by-word, making for very unnatural language; and this has to do, I guess, with poor qualification, low pay, and lack of time. (I'm not a translator myself, but I do remember from past occupations things like pay per page and no quality control and translators complaining.)

Also many Germans are educated to think that if something's American it must be good and the way to go … :)

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