German word of the day: Eigentlich

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
German word of the day: Eigentlich
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

This seemingly simple German word can end up altering your understanding of reality.


Why do I need to know Eigentlich?

Because it's both a commonly used adjective and adverb in German which adds nuance to a sentence and can impact its meaning significantly. It sounds like this.

What does it mean?

Eigentlich, which sounds like this. is a versatile word that can be a bit tricky to translate directly into English, but if you look it up in a dictionary, you'll usually find "actual" and "actually" listed as its English equivalents.

While the English word "actual" comes from the same family as the word "active", the root of eigentlich is related to the word eigen, which translates to "own" or "proper", they both express the same theme: of something being "real" or "true".

When used as an adjective, "actual" is a very good translation of eigentlich, and can be used like this: 

Die eigentliche Ursache für das Problem wurde endlich entdeckt.

The actual cause of the problem was finally discovered.

When it comes to the adjectival form of the word, however, things get a little bit more complicated.

Most commonly, the word is used to mean "actually", or "really", but unlike the English word "actually", which often indicated a positive sense of surprise, there is often an implied negative subtext, or an implied "but". 

For example:

Eigentlich wollte ich ins Kino gehen

Actually, I wanted to go to the cinema

Sie behauptet, es sei einfach, aber es ist eigentlich ziemlich schwer

She claims it's easy, but it's actually quite difficult

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For the best summary of what the word Eigentlich means, listen to the song Eigentlich by the German acapella group Alte Bekannte, which claims das Wörtchen eigentlich macht alles kaputt ("the little word 'eigentlich' ruins everything") and goes on to list various scenarios in which people use 'actually' to indicate something negative, for example:

Wenn eine Frau sagt, sie würde "eigentlich"
Ja gern mal mit dir essen gehen
Dann wirst du diese Frau
In deinem Leben nie mehr wiedersehen
Sagt dein Chef, er fände dich ja "eigentlich" top
Dann gehe nach Hause und such dir sofort einen neuen Job.

When a woman says, she would "actually"

Like to go out to eat with you sometime

Then you will never see this woman 

In your life again 

If your boss says, he finds you "actually" great 

Then go home and immediately look for a new job


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Ash 2023/08/28 11:58
Sounds like its like saying 'Alas' in English.

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