Word of the Day- “einfach”

Hi everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of:

einfach

 

Now some may say: “Oh, that’s easy….”
And you are right.
Einfach can be easy. But not always.
Dun dun dunnn.
So let’s see what’s going on.

And we’ll actually start with a little room tour. Imagine you’re looking for a room and the people give you a little house tour. And in the kitchen they show you the fridge and they say…

  • Das ist unser Kühlschrank… jeder kriegt ein Fach.

This means that everyone get’s one shelf in the fridge. Because the noun das Fach can actually mean shelf. And in context of school, it’s the word for subject. Math for instance is a Fach. And I know what some of you are thinking right now. “Damn right, math is a fuck.”
And it’s a very compelling similarity.
But that’s not actually the origin. Fach comes from an old Germanic root that was about compartementalized space. At first, it was used by craftsman and fishermen, but it slowly took on figurative meanings as well. Like the Fach as in school subject or the Fach in Fachmann, which is is a word for expert – someone who knows this “compartment” of skills.
How does that relate to einfach, though?
Well, in English, we have words like twofold or threefold. It’s kind of rare now but it was a really really common way of counting instances. How many folds of something do we have, how many layers, how many instances. It’s a bit of mind yoga, but I think it makes sense.
Now, German has the exact same with the ending -falt. The word Vielfalt for instance means variety, multitude to this day.
And at some point people started using -fach the exact same way. It had a sense of compartment, so that’s not too far fetched. And -fach actually got way more popular and we still use it to count “items” today.

  • “Möchtest du einen einfachen Espresso oder einen doppelten.”
    “Ich bin sehr müde, daher möchte ich einen Dreifachen (Espresso).”
  • “Do you want a single or a double espresso?”
    “I am very tired, so I would like a triple. ”
  • Ich brauche einen vierfachen Whisky.
  • I need a quadruple whisky.

Now, just to make sure, though… the -fach ending kind of only works for stuff that can be “stacked”.
For events that are repeated, using “x mal” is the safer bet.

  • Der 6-fache/6-malige Olympiasieger gewinnt Gold.
  • The 6-fold olympic champions wins gold.

    (here, both sound okay, because the wins don’t go away, the medals do kind of “stack up” but at the same time, we have multiple instances of the same thing)

  • Ich habe dich zweimal angerufen.
  • I called you twice.
  • Meine Miete ist zweimal so hoch wie deine.
  • My rent is twice as high as yours.

Maybe it’s best to think of the -fach ending as layers.

  • I pay double of what you pay.
  • Ich bezahle das zweifache/doppelte wie du.

Here, we pay “two layers” of the base, if that makes sense.
And this notion of layers is the perfect key to the meaning einfach has today. Because based on that, einfach then basically means “one layered” and that’s really not that far from the idea of not sophisticated, not complicated. Or in other words… easy, simple.

  • Das ist ein einfaches Essen.
  • This is a simple/plain dish.
  • Diese Aufgabe ist einfach.
  • This task is easy.
  • Ich habe eine einfache Frage.
  • I have an easy question.
  • Er ist kein General sondern ein einfacher Soldat.
  • He is no general but a simple/ mere soldier.
  • Thomas ist ein einfacher Mensch.
  • Thomas is a modest/ordinary person.

Actually, I’d say simple is the better match for einfach. Yes, einfach can mean not difficult, but all the other notions of easy like easy-going or taking it easy or easing into something are NOT covered by einfach. Easy has a core of lightness, einfach has simplicity.

And thinking of einfach as simple, also makes it clear why it’s also really commonly used in sense of just.
Because just can be a synonym for simply.

  • This is simply a bad idea.
  • This is just a bad idea.
  • Just call me when you’re done.
  • Simply call me when you’re done.

There might be small differences in tone, but I think overall just and simply are synonymous in these examples. And in German, they’d both be translated with einfach.

  • Das ist einfach eine dumme Idee.
  • Ruf mich einfach an, wenn du fertig bist.

Here are some more examples…

  • Du kannst jetzt nicht einfach gehen.
  • You can’t just(simply) leave now.
  • “Geht es dir nicht gut? Hast du Corona?”
    “Ne, ich bin einfach nur super müde”
  • “Are you not feeling ok? Do you have Corona?”
    “No, I am just(simply) incredibly tired.”

  • Halt einfach den Mund.
  • Just shut up.

And here we have both meanings back to back.

  • Deutsch ist einfach unglaublich.
  • German is just incredible/unbelievable.
  • Deutsch ist unglaublich einfach.
  • German is incredibly easy/simple.

And that’s a fact.
I think, these might be confusing if you think of einfach as easy. But there’s no problem if you think of it as simple.
And you know what else einfach and simple have in common?
They’re LITERAL translations, and cousins.
The word simple comes from Latin simplex. And simplex is a combination of sim and plex. Sim comes from the incredibly ancient Indo-European root sem that was about one-ness and we also have it in words like similar or single. And -plex comes from the equally ancient root pel… which just so happens to be the root that fold and Fach come from.
Yeah… you can find out a lot when you’re stuck at home with nothing to do :). If you want to know more, just try looking up the origin of homo sapiens. You’ll be surprised.

Anyway… berfore we wrap up, let’s have a look at some words that are based of of einfach.
Die Einfachheit is the corresponding noun and it means… simplicity.
It is not really a word you need much but German has one fixed expression with it that is kind of common… der Einfachheit halber.

  • Der Einfachheit halber steht bei der Übung für die Fälle in Klammern hinter dem Wort, ob es der, die oder das ist.
  • For the sake of simplicity, in the exercise about the cases, it is written behind each word, whether it is der die or das.

Sorry… I couldn’t come up with an more simple example.
There is also the verb vereinfachen and you will be not surprised to hear that it is …. to simplify.

  • Wenn man Kindern Physik erklären will, muss man viel vereinfachen.
  • If you want to explain physics to kids, you have to simplify a lot.
  • Ich habe die Übung vereinfacht, denn sie war zu schwer.
  • I have simplified the exercise, because it was too hard.

So… one last thing I want to mention seems to be a quite special case but I think it is a possible source of mistakes.
So if you speak in imperative form, so if you give orders to someone,in German you cannot start a sentence with einfach, as you would start an English sentence with simply or just. The verb has to come first for those sentences.

  • Simply press the button and microwave will do the rest.
  • Drück einfach den Knopf und die Mikrowelle macht den Rest.
  • Just call me once you get home.
  • Ruf mich einfach an, sobald du zuhause bist.

Aaaand… one even laster thing: the comparison forms.Here they are:

  • 1 + 1 + 1 ist einfach.
  • 1 + 1 ist einfacher.
  • 1 ist am einfachsten.

Try pronouncing the last one. It’s humbling.
Anyway, that’s it for today. This was our Word of the Day einfach and the main takeaway is that it can mean easy, but the better translation for einfach is simple.
If you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

5 15 votes
Article Rating

Liked the article?

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
32 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Einfach orangensaft

mucharabu
mucharabu
1 year ago

Thank you for this!
I learnt einfach as easy, but kept hearing people using it in conversation and seeing it on ads and stuff. Knowing that it carries more meaning than just this hopefully will get my gears turning in the right directions when I hear/see “einfach” again.

Samsubahree
Samsubahree
3 years ago

Finally! I’ve been trying to understand this word for days. The translation on dictionaries is pretty straightforward which it translates to just and easy. But I still had a hard to time to differentiate that until the word ‘simple’ you mention here.

I think it would be great too if you could have mentioned the word ‘Eben’ which literally means just. Some of us who use English regularly tend to use just in too many sentences that sometimes it doesn’t make sense much in German haha.

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago

From the post:

Ich habe dich mehrfach gebeten, nicht mit vollem Mund zu sprechen.
I have asked you a number of times, not to speak with your mouth full.

Any difference here from “mehrmals”?

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ahso, genau deswegen hab ich gefragt–bisher hab ich nur “mehrmals” gehört. Danke!

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago

Really useful as always – thanks! I’ve spent about 40 years thinking of “einfach” as “easy” and now suddenly I know better!

And it’s not just because “simply” so beautifully covers its other usage of “just”. It really is because “easy” is the wrong translation. The sense of “easy” is – now I think about it! – “without needing much effort”. The sense of “einfach”, as you’ve said, is of simplicity or uncomplicatedness. Now usually simple things are also easy (if not always, as I think Clausewitz famously said) so the translation kind of works, but only kind of.

And with a flash of the blindingly obvious, I then notice that dict.cc doesn’t translate “einfach” as “easily”. Nor does Google Translate. And that’s because “easily” really does mean “without needing to make much effort” and so “einfach” just doesn’t fit and one uses “leicht” or “problemlos” or “mühelos” or the like. So absolutely, stop thinking of “einfach” as “easy” because it isn’t!

(I think for “Thomas ist ein einfacher Mensch” I might well say “uncomplicated”. “Modest” would I think give a sense closer to “bescheiden”, and “ordinary” makes him sound “gewöhnlich” or “normal”. I think it’s a bit like “simple is easy” in that uncomplicated men are often humble and unassuming and ordinary too! “Uncomplicated” is also a fairly neutral-of-itself thing to say of a person in English – it could as easily be complimentary as derogatory depending whether you’re implying lack of pretension/deviousness or lack of subtlety!)

demoneyes136
demoneyes136
5 years ago
Reply to  demoneyes136

(Clausewitz: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Which it now occurs to me to also look up in the original German and what he actually said was indeed “Es ist alles im Kriege sehr einfach, aber das Einfachste ist schwierig.” )

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren
5 years ago

One ‘shelf’, several ‘shelves’.

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Do you have to swear?!!!

Scott Stratton
Scott Stratton
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Absolutely 100% true for most sub-groups of Americans. The older I get the more I think 90% of the angst some people have over swearing is entirely due to the fact that they have always felt angst about people swearing. It usually doesn’t matter at all. Just variations of meaning; not too mention the fact that you can say some pretty horrible things, hurt people, incite violence, etc. all without swearing. It’s so arbitrary and ad hoc what is “swearing” and what isn’t, IMO.

Clairette
Clairette
7 years ago

In English you’d say ‘How’s it going?’ or even, at a pinch, ‘How’s it going for you?’ which is pretty well ‘Wie geht es dir?’

I’ve only just discovered this blog. It’s soooo helpful. Thanks.

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)

I understand it. I’m just kind of confused by the use of the word “go” in there. And some German word order still blows my mind up. Thanks for the clarification though.

It’s because essentially there’s conjugation and declension right? So the meaning of each word it clear because of the permutation and the language doesn’t have to rely on word order, right?

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)

Ich habe eine einfache Frage nicht, ich denke..

The direct translation of this sentence

“Geht es dir nicht gut? Bist du krank?”

Seems pretty insane to me. I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “Does it not go well for you?” but looks more like “Go it you not good?” which no one would ever say in English. Even the paraphrasing is super awkward. Any illumination we can provide for this one?

Vielen dank im voraus.

Scott Stratton
Scott Stratton
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It’s not super common in English anymore (or at least in the US where I live), but is still correct, to say things like:

“You are doing well?” with that lilt of the voice at the end that means you are asking a question even though its a sentence. Also things like “Going well, I hope? or “Going well, for you, I take it?” and very rare now but I find it sometimes just seems to fit the occasion: “Going quite well for you, no?”

Super interesting blog. I took 3-4 years of German in HS and college and loved it. But never having gotten to travel there I’ve lost most of it over the intervening 25 years; of course, I couldn’t have actually spoken it very well at all in a real situation, but I had gotten reasonably good at reading “high” German. Anyway, have been thinking lately about trying to learn it again and I stumbled on this blog entry through a series of unlikely and unrelated to language coincidences. So it must be a sign from Fortuna that I should do this.

Thanks for interesting read!

sjuniperj
9 years ago

Einfach Spass zu Lesen :) Thanks for reminding me how fun language is!! Since stumbling upon your blog, I am delighted to say that I really enjoy your writing. ~ Sarah

Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson
9 years ago

We use Fach in classical vocal music to describe a particular category of music or a type of singer. For example if a tenor sings a dramatic repertoire that is characterized by heavy singing over a long period of time, he is said to sing the Fach of a Heldentenor, a heroic tenor.
This is just one small example of how connected the German and English languages are.
Thank you for expanding of the meaning of this word and its various permutations.

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)
Reply to  Emanuel

This reminds me of a unique phrasing I saw in an English translation of a Hesse book. The character was said to be a “simples gatherer”.

Joshua O'Neill (@CarpentersKeys)
Reply to  Emanuel

It’s from one of the short stories at the end of The Glass Bead Game written by the character Magister Ludi in his early years. It’s called the Rainmaker, and yes, it’s about gathering plants. Simples are plants in general, I think, used for medicine etc rather than a specific one.

The reason I think the two meanings would be related is since the author goes to some pains to describe how the Rainmaker was the only person in the village who had a particular skill or “profession”. I’d be interested to read the German translation (actually that’s one of the impetus for my learning German to begin with).

Love that story btw, one of my favorite pieces by Hesse. Really, it stands on it’s own but is also a clear derivative of the characters’ life.