Word of the Day – “Steuer”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: May 20, 2021

steuer-steuern-meaning-germHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of a word for something that many people are behind and against…. AT THE SAME TIME!!!
Ohhhhhh… so mysterious :).
“Well, actually…  I can just stand behind a tree and lean against it. No big deal.”
Shut up, inner critic. You’re ruining my intro.
“Just sayin’. It’s not all that myste…”
Well, how about this then: the word we’ll look at today has two totally different meanings and you have to pay one for the other. Is that mysterious enough for you?
“Hmmm.. yeah, that’s better. Although… “
Gee, whatever. Today, we’ll look at


Let’s start.

There’s das Steuer and die Steuer and For the first Steuer, we have direct English relatives.

  • Ich kann mir nicht merken, welche Seite Steuerbord und welche Backboard ist.
  • I can’t get into my head what side is starboard and which is port-side.

You probably guessed it. Starboard has nothing to do with the stars. It comes from the verb to steer, which is about the idea of giving direction, and that’s also the core of das Steuer. It is the device to “steer” with.

  • Scandal – mayor drunk behind the (steering) wheel again.
  • Skandal – Bürgermeister schon wieder betrunken hinterm Steuer.
  • Telefonieren am Steuer ist verboten, und kann teuer werden.
  • It’s forbidden to talk on the phone while driving, and can be costly.
  • Der neue Manager muss das Steuer herumreißen. (idiom)
  • The new manager has to do a full turnaround (in little time).

I guess we should mention that it’s not the right word for bikes. That would be der Lenker. And the verb lenken is the right word for turning the steering wheel in your car.

  • Ich lenke nach links.
  • I steer to the left.
    (I’ll add a link to the post on “lenken” below)

But there’s also the verb steuern. It’s much more common in daily speech than it’s brother to steer and it’s used in a rather broad sense of guiding, controlling and even just going in a direction.

  • Die Software steuert die Futterabgabe und das Melken der Kühe.
  • The software controls the feeding and milking of the cows.
  • Die Stadt steuert auf die Insolvenz zu. (infinitive is “auf etwas zusteuern”)
  • The town is moving toward insolvency.
  • Wohin steuert Europa?
  • Where is Europe headed?
  • Mit der App kann man ein Modelflugzeug via Handy fernsteuern.
  • With the app you can remote control a model plane using your cell phone.
  • Die Aufnahme ist übersteuert.
  • The recording is clipping.
    (literally, the volume control has been opened up too much)

So this was das Steuer.  And the other one? What does die Steuer mean? Well, it means … tax.
Das Steuer is a device for steering, die Steuer is a tax.  Hmmm… sounds like a random pairing, but think of the ever rising tax on tobacco. That’s the government trying to get the people to stop smoking.  Taxes as a means of soft-“steering” the people. That makes a lot of sense. But then again…was that really what monarchs had in mind? Like… were health concerns the reason why the king of France came up with the much hated tax on salt?

Proclaim to the realm: henceforth a tax shall be paid on salt,
for I am concerned about my subjects’ blood pressure. 

Hardly. He just thought it was a clever way to get cash. So as compelling as the connection of tax and steering is, it’s not how the words connect.
So how do they connect? Is there even a connection?
Yes, there is. Steuer is actually one of the many many offspring of the super ancient Indo-European roots *sta-. That’s where to stand and stehen come from and die Steuer was simply once a general word for something that was standing and that helps you stand, and it could be a pole, a pillar or more figurative support. Like … a tax. Money helping the ruler “stand”.
And what about das Steuer and steering? How does the idea of giving direction tie in? Well… here’s a picture.
Poling a raft or a boat. Using a large pole to move it and direct it. So essentially it went from standing, to pole, to pole used for steering a boat to steering. Quite a crazy evolution, right? Go ahead, put it on the list of stories to tell your crush on the first date. You’ll be steering right for third base.
Big promise.

Speaking of broken promises… let’s look how to say tax cuts and the other common tax words in German.

  • Alle Kandidaten versprechen, die Steuern zu senken.
  • All candidates promise to lower the taxes/tax cuts.
  • Ich muss meine Steuererklärung machen.
  • I have to do my tax return.
  • Die Mehrwertsteuer beträgt in Deutschland für die meisten Waren 19%, aber es gibt Ausnahmen.
  • In Germany , the sales tax (VAT) for most goods is 19%; but there are exceptions.
  • Der Schauspieler ist wegen Steuerhinterziehung angeklagt.
  • The actor is indicted for tax evasion.

And let’s not forget the two verbs that are based on die Steuer.

  • Muss man AirBnB-Einnahmen versteuern?
  • Do I have to declare/to pay tax on income from AirBnB? (yes, you damn well should)
    (the German verb is focused on the idea of stating the income in your tax return, not the actual paying)
  • Wegen der extrem schlechten Haushaltslage denkt die Regierung laut darüber nach, Whatsapp zu besteuern.
  • Because of the dire budgetary situation, government openly ponders raising a tax on Whatsapp.
  • Das neue Doppelbesteuerungsabkommen zwischen den beiden Ländern hat viele Vorteile.
  • The new double taxation treaty between the two countries has many benefits.

Jesus, Doppelbesteuerungsabkommen… this is humongous. By the way, do you know why the German language possesses such whales of words?
One theory says it’s because of, get this, taxes!
Back many many years, a king of Bavaria had a problem. He wanted to build the Disney cartoon castle but he needed loads of cash. So he came up with a brilliant idea… a tax on words. Not only would that create massive revenue, it would also shut down the incessant chatter at court, that gave him such a headache.
Or so he hoped.
But since the dawn of time, man has unleashed his full divine creativity when it comes to tax evasion. And just like the Brits would wall up their windows to evade the window tax, the German people came up with a work around. Compounds. Prefix verbs were first, but soon the “words” got longer and longer and little money was payed.
Crestfallen, the king secluded himself more and more, and the castle ended up the pathetic piece of crap that today is know as… Neuschwanstein.

I’m not a historian though, so I might be off here and there. By the way, what about my inner critic? Where has he been through all of this? Where are you when I REALLY need you, huh?!?!  You let me down, man! You let everyone down!!!
Anyway, that’s it for today. This was today’s episode of “History with Emanuel”, where some of it was actually true :).
Oh, and we learned something about tax and steering, too.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.  I hope you had fun.
Schöne Woche und bis nächstes Mal :).

further reading:

 Word of the Day – “lenken”

** vocab **

das Steuer – the steering device
die Steuerung – the control
die Systemsteuerung – the control panel (Windows computers)

steuern – control, guide, head in a direction
übersteuert – clipped, distorted (for recordings)
ansteuern – head for something

die Steuer – the tax
die Steuererklärung – the tax return
die Steuererhöhung – blow to our economy and the middle class, a crime even
die Mehrwertsteuer – the VAT
besteuern – put/levy a tax on something
versteuern – pay a tax on something

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