The meaning of “einfach”

Hi everyone,

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



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.

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