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:



Now some may say: “Oh, that’s easy….” and you are right. Einfach can be easy but sometimes it is not… just like that one subject in school with the numbers and the + and the – and the lim[(x+y)^2/k*x(-3!)]… yeah… especially that lim-stuff sure turned out useful.
Now you’re like “hey Emanuel, is it really necessary to mention math while trying to teach German?”
A good question, since German is quite whattheheckilicous already.
Well, here is the brilliant plan behind it: 

Step 1)   making a play on words about einfach as being easy as a translation but not easy as a word in general

Step 2)  using math as an example for something that is not always easy, casually  mentioning that math is a school subject –

Step 3)  telling them that German translation for school subject is das Fach.

Step 4)  explaining that the original less abstract meaning of Fach is small compartment or shelf.

Step 5)   making a first example with Fach that will lead to a a surprising insight… the example should be something everyone can relate to, something about a shared flat and a fridge for instance.

Hmm… I guess it doesn’t really make sense to actually stick to this plan now .. I mean… you know it after all … so… here is the fridge example. Imagine you are the new one in a shared flat. The people are all really nice and they are showing you around and then you get to the kitchen and to the fridge and they say:

And there we have it… ein Fach :). Ok seriously though… the ending -fach is closely related to the shelf-Fach and as an ending it is used to kind of count. 500 years ago, German had the 2 endings – fach and – falt. -falt is related to the English -fold and used to mean the same… but -fach has kind of pushed -falt aside, so nowadays -fach means -fold and  -falt is rather rare… one example is Vielfalt which is diversity.
With  -fach meaning -fold, naturally there is a whole family of words… einfach, zweifach, dreifach, vierfach, fünffach….
Just as in English, where twofold is not used that much but double instead, German uses the word doppel(t)  but for the higher numbers the translation is straightforward.

Now, note that the fach-words are not translations of once, twice or…. my favorite …thrice. Or more generally  all x-times things will be x-mal-words in German …

and for comparison one -fold or -uple example again:

There are also 2 members of the -fach-family that do not have a specific number… vielfach and mehrfach. Vielfach can mean many times and also often

 Mehrfach could be translated as a number of times… it is less many times and more than a few times.

Alright… so the very core of einfach is the idea of one . And from there it has broadened its meaning more and more over the last 500 years. The first step was einfach in sense of not elaboratenot special or simply: simple.

You can also use it for a person but in German it has a little less negative as it can mean everything between simple as not the smartest kid on the block and modest… I actually think it is shifted more towards the latter.

The second extra meaning einfach kind of took over is the main meaning it has today… you can remember it like this maybe : if something fits in only one shelf or has just one aspect it is probably … not difficult.

Now, many of you probably know easy as the main translation of einfach.
It is correct but the word simple is actually much better.
Well, we have seen simple already in the first meaning of einfach…  but simple can mean all kinds of things from not elaborate to just. Just? Yeah just … the adverb simply and the word just have a part of meaning they share pretty much.

  • 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.

Sometimes simple sounds better, sometimes just is preferable but the content is the same. Now, why am I talking about this? Because einfach is also a translation for those words. German doesn’t make a distinction between adjectives and adverbs. So simple and simply both translate to einfach. So let’s translate the English examples using einfach.

Or some more:

and now easy and  simply back to back:

Hey… it is an example ok… it doesn’t need to be true :).
But seriously…. I can imagine that sentences like these can be confusing if you think of einfach as easy. But once you start to think of it as simple/simply you can understand every einfach you will ever see … I hope :).
This is actually pretty interesting. The word simple and the word einfach are not related at all. Einfach is Germanic, simple comes from Latin simplex. And now guess what simplex meant… it meant one-fold. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it ;). So while being not related, the 2 words have the exact same evolution… that is pretty fascinating I have to say.
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… it is einfach – einfacher – am einfachsten and as we started with math and you all like it soooo much, let’s finish with math.

I think we need no translation here. So… this was our Word of the Day einfach. It is known as easy but see it as simple and you get the whole scope of it.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.