Word of the Day – “etwa”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll take a look at the meaning of



Now you’re probably like “Emanuel, I think you forgot an ‘s’ there”
But no, I didn’t.
Etwa without the ‘s’ is a real word and it’s actually kind of common in daily life.
So let’s take a look…

Of course, etwa is related to etwas. But it’s not just a shortened version of it.
Most of you probably know and loooove the irking little irgend- and these words like irgendwo (somewhere), irgendwie (somehow) or irgendwann (“somewhen”)
Well, guess what… several hundred years ago, German had a second word like that: ed(des). Just like irgend-, it carried the notion of unspecific and you’d add it to the same words you’d combine with irgend-.  Edde(s)wer  meant someone, eddewo was somewhere and so on.
But the other languages were like “German, dude, this is super confusing. Do you really need two of those?!?!”
German was like “Yeah, absolutely. I thought about getting a third one.” but the other languages kept pushing and eventually, German was like “Ugh… fiiiiiine…. but I wanna keep two words.”.
The deal was struck and edde-, or et- to which it had been shortened, disappeared and only two words: etwas and etwa.
Etwas is pretty much the same it used to be hundreds of years ago: something.
Etwa, probably a blend of “etwo” and “etwann”, slowly got less and less specific until it was just that: unspecific. That’s the core idea of etwa, making it a translation for (round) about and a fancy synonym for ungefähr and circa.

  • Ich bin morgen für etwa 3 Stunden telefonisch nicht erreichbar.
  • I won’t be available by phone for about 3 hours tomorrow.”
  • Die Gurke in Scheiben von etwa 2 mm Dicke schneiden.
  • Cut the cucumber into slices that are about 2 mm thick.

Ungefähr is the more common choice but etwa does pop up here and there, especially in the combo in etwa, which also means (round) about and which is especially common in contexts that are NOT connected to numbers.

  • Das dauert in etwa 5 Stunden.
  • That takes about 5 hours.
  • So in etwa hat ein Wikingerdorf ausgesehen.
  • That’s roughly how a viking village looked like.
  • “… und dann, nachdem du den angeblichen Dieb, den du selber bezahlt hast, verjagt hast, fragt sie dich ob du noch mit zu ihr willst und das ist dein Plan?”
    So in etwa, ja.”
  • “… and then, after you chased away the thief, whom you paid, she will ask you if you want to come to her place and that’s your plan?”
    “Yeah, roughly like that./That’s roughly the idea.”

Now you’re probably like “Wait, so etwa and in etwa means the same?!?! Then why use in?”
That’s a great question and there’s a simple answer.
I just don’t know it.
Okay, seriously…  I don’t think there’s a logical explanation for why in etwa ended up an idiomatic phrase.
But it might have something to do with the fact that etwa has a couple of other meanings. And one of them is: for example.
Wait, what?! For friggin’ example??? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.

But with a bit of mind yoga, it actually does. You see, we just learned that etwa means roughly, round about. So, it is about approximation. And that’s kind of what an example is. A different kind of approximation, no doubt. But still, roughly 1 hour and an example for a grammar rule, they both give us an idea of the real deal. Meh, no idea if I’m making sense.
Anyway, let’s look at a couple of examples.

  • Der Wettbewerb ist hoch und Supermärkte sind ständig auf der Suche nach neuen Ideen, Kunden an sich zu binden. Rewe etwa bietet die Möglichkeit, an der Kasse Geld abzuheben.
  • The competition is strong and supermarkets are constantly searching for new ideas to retain customers. Rewe for instance/example offers customers the option to withdraw money/get cash at the check out counter.
    (Rewe is the name of a supermarket chain)
  • Viele im Team haben ein Koffeinproblem. Thomas etwa trinkt 10 Tassen Kaffee… vor der Mittagspause.
  • Many team members have a caffeine problem. Thomas for instance drinks 10 cups of coffee… before lunch break.

Now, this example-etwa is quite rare and nothing you’d use in daily talk.
That’s different for etwa  in its third use: as a marker of disbelief in yes or no questions.
And because it sounds even more theoretical than doing my tax return on time, let’s just look at examples right away.

  • “Thomas und Maria waren gestern Kindersachen shoppen.”
    “Was?!?! Is’ die etwa schwanger??”
  • “Thomas and Maria were shopping for kids clothes yesterday.”
    “What?!?! She isn’t pregnant is she?”/”Don’t tell me she is pregnant.”
  • “Heute ist der perfekte Tag für das Craft-Bier, das Maria mir zum Geburtstag geschenkt hat.”
    “Ähh… wegen dem Bier… ähh.”
    “Was ist damit?! Warte mal Du hast das doch nicht etwa ausgetrunken, oder?”
  • “Today is the perfect day for the craft beer Maria gave me for my birthday.”
    “Erm… about that beer… uh…”
    “What about it?! Wait…. you’re not trying to tell me you drank it, are you?”
  • Hast du etwa Angst?
  • Do you want to tell me you’re scared?/ Are you trying to tell me you’re scared?

There isn’t a one word translation for it but I hope you can see what etwa does. It expresses that the person asking would be really surprised or shocked if the answer was yes. And it’s super common in rhetorical questions that basically imply “No.”.  Does it connect to the etwa versions we’ve had before? Well, not really. The best I can come up with is making a connection through the idea of example. Like… you’re at a bar with a friend and he’s like “I’m gonna go home” and naturally you’d want to know why and you’d be like “You’re not tired, are you?” using a reason that you think is stupid as an example for reasons to go home.. uhm… yeah… I’m really pushing it here :). If this made any sense to you, then great, but if not, don’t worry about it.
Just take this disbelief-etwa as a separate meaning. But you definitely should add it to your active vocab because this etwa is incredibly common and it’s one of those little words that can really  “up the native”.

Now, we’re almost done but there’s one more thing we need to talk about. Because at some point, people felt like it was a genius idea to add the typical adjective-maker -ig to etwa, thus creating one of the weirdest looking German words ever: etwaig.
Man, that really doesn’t look like a German word at all. But it exists. The translation is usually potential but the core idea is the same as for the basic etwa – the notion of unspecific, unforeseeable.

  • Wir planen einen Tag mehr ein, um bei etwaigen Problemen einen Zeitpuffer zu haben.
  • We’ll plan an extra day, so as to have a time buffer in case of potential problems.
  • Bitte geben Sie eine Telefonnummer an, sodass wir Sie bei etwaigen Rückfragen kontaktieren können.
  • Please supply a phone number so we can contact you in case of potential questions.
  • Viele Einhörner fragen sich: betrifft mich eine etwaige Zinserhöhung der FED direkt?
  • Many unicorns ask themselves: does a potential increase of the interest rate by the FED affect me directly.

Meh… I’m not sure if I like it when unicorns think about this stuff. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m sure they shouldn’t even appear with etwaige in one sentence. Unicorns are born of magic and fantasy, etwaige is born of pontification and bureaucracy. And the only thing they have in common is that you won’t come across them in real life.
A shout out to my gag writers. They worked hard on this last one.

And that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of the little word etwa, which is NOT just etwas with an s missing and if you use it correctly, people might ask you “Bist du etwa Muttersprachler?” :)

As usual, 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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