Word of the Day – “gehen um”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day and today it’s time for another episode of:

Words – married and in love

In those specials we look at combinations of words that are used very frequently and that mean… well somewhat more than just the combination. Last time we looked at was für, a really potent couple… sem… uh.. sementically (oh god, that doesn’t sound right).
And here are our words for today:

  • gehen and  um


Those 2 words can be combined in not 1, not 2 but 3 different ways and we’ll look at all of them today. That way, you’ll learn to thoroughly hate German while I get to procrastinate the god damn drag that is explaining the word mal… oh mal

In a daze for days,
mulling over the malice
oh malleable mal. 

(this Haiku was brought to you by: Dictionary ®, Helping people show off since 1876)

Anyway… let’s get back to our actual topic. As we learned in our little April’s fools post, little words like an, aus or um can be combined with a verb in different ways. I can honestly not imagine how confusing those combinations must be for someone who is just starting to learn German. Unfortunately, there is no way around that and many of those combinations are really important words or constructions. When you start learning German, you may very well ignore cases for months and it still make good progress… but those combinations are vital and we have to deal with them.
Um can be combined with gehen in 3 different ways … as a preposition, as a separable prefix and … as a non-separable prefix…. yap. Sooooo confusing. Let’s start with the preposition version.

The verb gehen alone basically means to go. As many other basic everyday verbs it has some more abstract side meanings but all can be understood with the premise that something is moving.

  • Morgen um 9? Das geht.
  • Tomorrow at 9? That works.

Gehen can be combined with a lot of prepositions… in, auf, unter, über and so on

  • Ich gehe in die Bar.
  • I go (in)to the bar (lit.)
  • Ich gehe auf den Balkon.
  • I go on the balcony.
  • Ich gehe über die Brücke.
  • I go over the bridge.

Um is just one of many options here.Now, in English um stands for no ideas… … … thank you… in German, it stands for 2: mostly around and sometimes over (in sense if to tip over). In fact those 2 ideas can be boiled down to one core but that would be maybe a topic for some blog that explains German prefixes one at the time ;). So… in combination with gehen, we have the around-um. Here is a pretty literal example.

  • Ich gehe um den See.
  • I go around the lake.

But this isn’t so fascinating. I mean, going around things can be fun but it is not what makes the combination really useful. It’s the abstract meaning that does, the combination of gehen um and it… you know… this weird it that does all kinds of things, like rain or look or go.

  • It looks like it‘s going to rain.

What is this it? Can you show me it? It is just like an omnipresent entity that does stuff when it is not clear who else does it… like…
“Hey everyone, who is going to be hot tomorrow? Any volunteers? No one? Scarlett Johanson, how about you?”
But she is not there, and everyone else is just like “It should do it, it has the most experience.” And it is like “Okaaaay fine, I’ll be hot.”… I think you get my point :).
So what does it mean when it goes around something?
The best translation is probably to be about.

  • In dem Film geht es um große Roboter, die gegen Monster kämpfen.
  • Lincoln is about big robots fighting monsters.
    In the movie, it goes around big robots fighting monsters. (lit.)
  • In diesem Artikel geht es um die Kombination gehen um.
  • This article is about the combination gehen um.

Es geht um is THE best if not the only way to say it is about in German. We don’t really say

  • Das Buch ist über…

That works if your book is about chemistry or science, but especially in context of stories it sounds clumsy. Gehen um is the way to go… and it is funny to picture that… you have this weird entity it (which I imagine to be a cat) and it is circling around a subject in the middle to look at it from all sides…
And this combination is not limited to books or films…. whenever there is a point or subject matter, gehen um works fine.

  • Es geht nicht darum, was man sagt sondern wie man es sagt.
  • It’s not about what you say but how you say it.

Oh… if you’re confused about the darum… check out this post… anyway, one situation where I often hear and use it is when I talk to a customer service person on the phone.

  • “Luxus-Yacht Kunden Service, mein Name ist Schmidt, was kann ich für Sie tun?”
    “Ja, hallo Emanuel hier. Es geht um die Yacht, die ich letzte Woche gekauft habe.”
  • “Luxury yacht customer service line, my name is Smith, what can I do for you?”
    “Yeah, hi, Emanuel speaking. I’m calling about the yacht I purchased last week.”

Or if someone wants to know what the topic or matter is, they might use gehen um

  • Worum geht’s (geht es)? = Um was geht’s?
  • What’s the problem? How can I help you/ what is it you want to talk to me about.

This could be a person on a customer service line or your professor or your boss… even your partner, but generally es geht um sounds a bit official.
So… gehen um really is pretty useful and… there is more. It is also used when people talk about what’s at stake…:

  • Bei der nächsten Frage geht es um 10.000 Euro.
  • The next question is for 12.840,26 Dollar.
  • Im Finale geht es um den Weltmeistertitel.
  • The final is about who will be world champion.
  • Die Firma hat viele Kunden gewonnen. Jetzt geht es darum, sie zu halten.
  • The company has gained a lot of customers. What matters now is holding them.

And then finally, people sometimes add a mir to the whole thing. The meaning then shifts again… not much… just makes the whole matter more personal, if that makes sense. Here is a snippet from an argument I had with my girlfriend a few days ago.

  • Mir geht es nicht darum, dass du MAL auf deiner Yacht bist. Was mich stört ist, dass du IMMER auf deiner Yacht bist.
  • My problem is not that you are on your yacht SOMETIMES. What bothers me is that you are on your yacht ALL the time.

So… with a mir or a dir the gehen um combination kind of means something like matter to me, matter to you and so on.
So… it can have a variety of translations (can’t everything) but the basic idea is always that the omnipotent cat is circling the point or subject and it really is a often used phrasing. I mean… I guess you can live in Germany without using it that much but at least when you talk about movies or books there is NO way around it so bottom line… I’d say it is worth being part of your active vocabulary. Oh… I almost forgot to mention one special thing about the past of this construction… it is almost always using the real past of gehen. So it is

  • Beim Meeting ging es um das neue Design.

as opposed to the spoken past version:

  • Beim Meeting ist es um das neue Design gegangen.

This sounds really really wrong so stick with the written past ging there.
All right.
Now let’s move on to the other combinations of gehen and um.


Um can be used as a prefix for gehen and what’s special about um is that it can be separable as well as not separable … (if you don’t know what I am talking about, check out the basics of that here).
So… there is umGEHen with a strong emphasis on GEH and there is UMgehen with um being stressed… and of course both words mean something different. Let’s start with the non-separable version, so we’ll start with umGEHen.
This meaning is pretty straight forward as it basically means to go around with an extra layer added of to avoid.

  • Ich gehe um den See.
  • I go around the lake.
  • Ich umgehe den See.
  • I go on a path that will prevent me from getting anywhere near the lake, because I hate lakes.
  • I go somewhere avoiding the lake (I can’t think of a better translation)

One use of this umgehen is the word Umgehungsstrasse (bypass road) but the majority of situations in which this umgehen is used are abstract though… so you can umgehen a problem of sorts

  • Ich umgehe das Problem.
  • I work around the problem/ I avoid facing the problem.

So I’m not solving it, I just find a route on which I can proceed without encountering it. Now, again here’s something special about the past because we have to use haben here. Sure, we are talking about some kind of movement here, albeit in the abstract, but it seems as if the direct object (problem, Firewall,etc…) dominates the rule here. So it is

  • Ich habe das Problem umgangen.
  • I have avoided the problem.

And because it is a non-separable verb, we don’t have a ge in our ge-form here.
Now on to the last umgehen… the separable one.
The translation of that umgehen is … get ready for German at its finest… to treat, to handle.

umgehen as to handle

Well, it is really not obvious so let’s get ready for some “mind chi”. You see, there actually is kind of a side meaning to this umgehen: is to wander around. It is really rare these days and pretty much only ever used in combination with ghosts.

  • In diesem Schloss geht ein Geist um.
  • This castle is haunted.
    A ghost is roaming around in this castle (lit.)

However, while almost forgotten today, this meaning to go/ wander around might have been the original meaning of this umgehen. So… let’s keep this in mind for a second. Now, the contemporary umgehen, the one that means to treat, NEEDS the preposition mit in order to have that meaning. So it is umgehen mit. Here are 2 examples:

  • Ich gehe vorsichtig mit meinem Laptop um.
  • I handle/treat my laptop with care/carefully.

And now let’s combine our findings… umgehen meant to wander around and you do that with your laptop. And you do it in a certain way… carefully. Here is another example… you are walking around, doing your things and you have stress. Now you want to know what would be the best way to do what you do (walking around doing things) with this stress of yours… so you ask:

  • Wie gehe ich richtig mit Stress um?

A few centuries ago this might have translated to:

  • How can I run my daily errands well when I have stress.

And over time, the actual running around part of the meaning has disappeared and what’s left is the coping, the dealing with, the handling and today the same question means:

  • How can I handle/deal with stress the right way?

Oh god, I hope that makes sense… I don’t know if that’s what happened but it sounds plausible to me.
So… umgehen as a separable verb means to treat or to handle.

  • Der Freund von Marie schnarcht, aber sie hat gelernt, damit umzugehen.
  • Marie’s boyfriend is snoring, but she learned to deal with it.
  • Thomas kann nicht mit Kritik umgehen.
  • Thomas doesn’t take criticism very well.

So… umgehen can be to treat, to handle or to put up with… there is a challenge or something and you go around with that in a certain way. SO it is not to treat as in a doctor, it is not to handle in sense of to take care of… try to capture the idea rather than the translations. Here again an example that works well in the abstract  AND the literal meaning.

  • Marie kann nicht gut mit Geld umgehen.

This means that she spends too much or is always in debt… she can’t handle money very well… but we can also picture Marie running around with a sack of gold, and then she loses half of it and buys stuff she doesn’t need for the other half… she is not able to walk around with the money without loosing it.
All right… a quick word on past and then we’ll wrap up… the last umgehen forms its past using sein and the spoken past is fine.

  • Ich bin pfleglich mit deinem Buch umgegangen.
  • I treated your book with care.

So… this was our German word of the Day couple special and I hope you are ot scared of German now. It is really rare that there are 3 combinations of a basic verb and a little word. However, 2 combinations are really common, so hopefully this post was gave some insight into the different mechanics. The most important word or phrase to take home with you is definitely es geht um (it is about/ the topic is). It is used a lot and you really need it when you want to talk about books or movies, conferences or meetings. Here again are all 3 combinations we had back to back…

Um as preposition:

  • Es geht um dein Pferd.
  • It is about your horse.

Um as non-separable prefix:

  • Ich umgehe dein Pferd.
  • I go somewhere avoiding passing by your horse (because it hates me).

Um as a separable prefix:

  • Ich gehe gut mit deinem Pferd um.
  • I treat your horse well.

If you have any questions or you need to let off some steam about German and it’s prefix madness, please leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.


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