German Prefixes Explained – “ent-” Part II

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 31, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to the second part of our look at the meaning of the prefix


In the first part (which you can find here), we learned that the core theme is removing but it can also lean toward out and for some verbs it even is about outward in a sense of emerging.
And honestly… if you’re just looking for practical information, that was all you need, because you can make sense of like 90% of all ent-verbs with it.

But hey… language learning shouldn’t all be about being practical and pragmatic and applicable. We’re not learning machines.
So today, we’ll indulge our inner nerd and look at the family and origin of ent- to get a few more insights. And also gather some material you can use on your next date to impress. Like…
“Did you know that ent- was etymologically related to antler?
“Uh… no. That’s so interesting.”
Absolute win. Also at parties.
And that’s not all because we’ll also see some more ent-verbs along the way, some of which are really really useful.
So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

Every “ent” has a beginning

Before we look for relatives in the past, let’s look for relatives in the present.
And we’ve actually met one of them in part one already, as a possible translation for ent-.
Can you guess what it is?
I mean the prefix un-. I mean… they almost sound the same, when you compare German ent- and English un-.
Which also exists in German, as you probably know, but in German it’s ONLY used to prefix adjectives and express the “lack” of them, basically. Like… freundlich (friendly) and  unfreundlich (unfriendly) for example.

But un- is not the only relative. There’s another really common one, and that one actually almost sounds like ent-. I am talking of course about end.
That’s right. Ent- is related to end and German Ende. And with a bit of mind yoga, this actually makes at least a semblance of sense. Like, something that ends is not there anymore going forward. It is “removed”.
Like… if we entkoffeinieren the coffee, that’s pretty much the “end of caffeine”. And the end of a fun productive morning, for that matter.
So that’s quite a surprising connection.
But the REAL kicker is the origin of the family. Because that’s the super mega hyper ancient Indo-European root *ant. And this root originally referred to this…

Our forehead.
Well, that was one of the meanings, but it could also more generally refer to what’s  in front, what’s ahead. Or let’s say, what’s facing us, to stay in line with the forehead image.
And what’s facing us, or what we’re facing can be our buddy at the bar. Or it can be our drunk, angry buddy at the bar, who thinks you’re hitting on his lover. Or back in the Indo-European days, it could be a saber tooth tiger, which would then pretty much be the end
Do you see where I am going with this?
There’s a natural connection between the idea of simply in front of us and the notion of confronting us. Being opposed or against.
We also see this double meaning in the the Greek and Latin version of the old *ant root – the word anti-. Which of course can be about countering and opposition, but it’s also the origin of words like anterior, anticipate or Antebellum,which are about a more neutral sense of what’s in front.

The Germanic languages had their own version of anti-, the prefix an(d)-.
And there’s actually one verb that still has it pretty much in its original form, because it got frozen in time for some reason.
I am talking about antworten. A word we use everyday and we never think about it much, but it’s actually a really special word.  The prefix ant- is inseparable, but unlike all the others, it is actually STRESSED and so it didn’t get its vowel-colors washed out like be-, ver- or ent- did.
And the meaning of it is pretty much this original sense of facing or opposing. Or countering, if you will.

  • Ich antworte dir.
  • I answer you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The Antwort is what’s on the opposite side of a question, it is the “words” that “face” the question (or in English, the swearing that faces a question – answer).
And there’s actually an ent-verb, too, that has preserved this older sense of facing: entsprechen.  Which is basically a figurative answering to requirement.

  • Die Suppe entspricht meinen Vorstellungen.
  • The soup meets (“responds to”) my expectations.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But for the most part, ent- and also un- slowly shifted toward the ideas of removing and out  that we’ve seen last time.

And now, you’re of course wondering:

“Wait, how does removing tie in with the origin?”

Good question, but it’s actually pretty easy if you think in terms of directions. Learning something is one direction, unlearning something, removing the featured “learned” is the opposing direction.
Coffee is one direction, entkoffeinieren, removing the caffeine, goes in the opposite direction.
Or to give you an example with anti. Aging goes in one direction, anti-aging, removing the aging, goes in the opposite direction.
Do you see the common theme?
In fact, I once tried to depict the essence of each non-separable prefix for a workshop and here’s what I ended up with for ent-:

We have removing in there, but also the notion of outward that we have in verbs like entwerfen or entstehen. And I tried to also capture the notion of opposite, at least as opposite direction.
I don’t know if it makes sense to you, though. Like… if it doesn’t intuitively click, then please forget it. It doesn’t mean that you don’t understand ent-. It just means that my weird drawing doesn’t work for you :).
But I hope the explanation did.

And man… so that was quite the ride after all.  I think we actually have a pretty good overview over ent- now, and we can make sense of the vast majority of ent-words now.
But let’s be honest – it wouldn’t be a real prefix if there weren’t at least a few verbs with it that need us to do some REALLY intensive mind bending to make sense of them. Ent- has some as well.

Two misfits

The first one is REALLY common. Actually, it might be the most used ent-word of all of them.
And I’m sure many of you have low-key been wondering about this while reading. I’m talking of course about entscheiden, the German word for to decide.
It belongs to the same family as unterscheiden and Abschied and also to shed and Scheiße and the core theme of the family is separation, splitting.
Now, the way I used to think of entscheiden was that if we have to make a decision, we’re kind of split between two options. And once we make the decision, we’re whole again. That would also explain why entscheiden very often comes with a self reference.

  • Ich habe mich entschieden.
  • I have decided/made a decision.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

You de-split yourself. That’s how I thought of it for a long time, and I was quite happy with my mind yoga. But now while preparing this post, I read that back a few hundred years, entscheiden was more about making a statement or proclaiming something. Like a judge for instance would “proclaim” their decision. So it looks like it’s actually based on the notion of outward.
Actually, I’m kind of curious if you had (or have) any theories as to the logic™, so if you do, then please please share them in the comments, however outlandish they may. We’re not doing science here, after all. We’re just trying to find ways to make stuff stick in our teflon memories.

Anyways, the other misfit I wanted to talk about is entflammen as an example. Flamme is a flame of course, and if we take the core theme of removing, that we learned last time, then entflammen should be to extinguish. You de-flame something, just like you decaffeinate the coffee.

The real meaning of entflammen, however, is pretty much the opposite, because it means that something goes up into flames.

  • Achtung: leicht entflammbar.
  • Caution: easily inflammable.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Seems like a contradiction, but it actually fits perfectly with what we’ve already learned. All we have to do is throw in some Ancient Greek philosophy.
You see, the old Greeks believed in the four basic elements: air, water, earth and fire. And all matter, everything that is, is made up from a mix of these four components. Just the ratios were different. That means that everything has some fire in it. And now what happens if a piece of wood burns? The fire that’s inside… goes out. Out into the world and removed from the fire. So actually, it does kind of get de-flamed.
Entflammen, so it turns out, is not a misfit at all. It totally does fit with the idea of removing. And the word entzünden, which is related to tinder and which we need for inflammation in a medical sense,  just follows this logic.

  • Mein Knie ist entzündet.
  • My knee is inflamed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And thus, we’ve actually come full circle to where we started and that’s where we’ll end our little tour.

So yeah… this was our look at the meaning of ent- and I really hope that you got a good impression of the prefix.
As usual, if you want to check how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


“You’ll tell them what?! Greek philosophy? The fire is already in the wood and we de-flame it? Is that… like… official?”
Steve, the producer of the Yourdailygerman show had put on his skeptical face. 

“Well no…. I don’t really know what’s official. But the show is tomorrow and that’s the best I got.” Emanuel said .”And it does makes sense, doesn’t it.” Emanuel said. 
“I don’t know, man. I guess. It’s just a gut feeling that you might be jumpin’ the shark with that. But hey, you’re the expert. If that’s how you want to play it, then we’ll do it that way. So I’ll see you tomorrow for the show then.”
“Yeah, at 12. Tell your boo I said hi.”

On the way home, Emanuel kept thinking about the script. Sure, that whole flame thing was a bit far-fetched. And entflammen wasn’t common at all, so maybe he should just leave it out altogether. But then again, his audience liked the crazy mind bending. And maybe some of them get inspired to make up their own crazy logic for things.
No, he said to himself, it was a good script and he wouldn’t change anything.

As usual, Emanuel went to that little bar in his neighborhood for his Feierabendbier. He really loved that bar. They had a vast selection of beer and they knew which one you needed. Their system was one of a kind. They’d ask the customer to spontaneously say three things: a number, a song and an animal.  And they’d pick just a beer for you, based on that. And the picks were good. So good, it bordered on scary.
Tonight, Laura was working the bar. She was from Ontario, but she was speaking a pretty good German.
“Hey Emanuel, wie geht’s?”

“Gut, gut. Ich brauche ein Feierabendbier. Morgen ist die Show.”
“Na dann… Zahl, Tier und Song bitte.”, she said.
“Uh...idk… 1995, ‘Dynamite’ von BTS und .. uh…  Hai” Emanuel said.
“Got it! Easy. Ich empfehle dir ein Belgisches Himbeer-Whisky-Bier.” Laura said.
“Ja, probier’ ich mal.”
And as he sat then it hit him. Not the drink, though that hit him too. It was, what she had said. Empfehlen. To recommend. The word echoed in his head. Empfehlen, empfehlen… emp  fehlen.  Emp, ent, emp, ent… fehlen. Could it be?
“Laura, can I get this to go?”, he asked. Feierabend was postponed.
Ten minutes later, Emanuel was sitting at his desk, doing what he hated most. Research. First, he drew up a short list.

  • empfehlen – to recommend
  • empfangen – to receive
  • empfinden – to feel

“Damn!”, he said. Those were all good words.
He opened another beer. And his etymological dictionary. It was as he had suspected.

emp|fangen, verb – “ent” (siehe dort) und Verb “fangen”.

Emp- was indeed a variation of ent-. The very prefix he had been working on for weeks.
His mind startet spinning. Empfangen meant to receive,
and it was mainly used for things that have been sent.  So in essence, it was a bit like the base verb fangen (to catch); just softer and with a bit of a twist. But what did the emp- do here? Removing, out, outward – neither of the ideas he had made any sense. Had he overlooked something?
He decided to look up ent- in the etymological dictionary again. He had looked at that before, but these etymological entries were always incredibly boring and full of abbreviations. And ent- just seemed so clear that he hadn’t bothered reading the whole thing. And so he hadn’t read the last little paragraph. And there it was.
Turns out the emp- wasn’t really a relative of ent- after all. At least not historically. Instead, it’s actually an unstressed version of the old Germanic prefix in-,
which in German went on to become ein-
Like for the other inseparable prefixes, its vowel quality got washed out over time and in- became en- and then Germans just added a “t” out of habit.
Except for verbs that started with a “p” or an “f”, where they’d make it emp- instead, because it was more natural to say.
Emanuel yawned. That was about as much etymology as he could stomach at a time. But he knew what he had to do.
“Plato, Aristotle… I’m sorry guys but you’ll have to go.” Emanuel took a sip for the philosophers of old, and started revising his script. 

Entflammen was, after all, pretty much the literal counterpart of inflame. Same for entzünden, which literally is “to en-tinder”.  He also added entzwei as a second example, which literally meant in two. But more importantly, he worked in the emp-words.

Empfangen was simply to catch with an added in, and that was not too far from to receive.
And empfinden, a somewhat poetic sounding version for to feel, was literally “finding inside”.
The only weird one was empfehlen. What could missing possibly have to do with recommending?
The answer to that was: nothing.
The fehlen in empfehlen has nothing to do with the verb fehlen. Instead, it is a relative of the word Fell, the German word for fur. And the original meaning of  empfehlen was something like to wrap in fur, for protection. From that, it slowly shifted toward the idea of entrusting someone with something.
“… and making a recommendation is kind of entrusting someone with information. Hell yeah, this is awesome.”, Emanuel said.
Full of beer joy, he closed his notebook, finished his beer and got ready for bed.
It would be a really good show.



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