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…

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. 

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.

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

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.

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.

Here are some more examples…

And here we have both meanings back to back.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

for members :)

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Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson

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.

sjuniperj

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

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.

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?

Clairette
Clairette

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.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Do you have to swear?!!!

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren

One ‘shelf’, several ‘shelves’.

demoneyes136
demoneyes136

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

(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.” )

MichaelVG
MichaelVG

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”?

Samsubahree
Samsubahree

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.