Word of the Day – “gönnen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. Roughly 100 years ago, Wilhelm Busch (a hyper famous German poet) wrote this.

Wir mögen keinem gerne gönnen,
dass er was kann, was wir nicht können.

 

It’s a nice rhyme, but also a bit of truth about human nature.
Today we’ll find out why, because we’ll have a look at the meaning of

gönnen

 

And as similar as it looks and sounds to können – being able to gönnen can be REAL challenge because it means overcoming one of the strongest adversaries out there … and no nerds, I don’t mean Thanos.
I’m talking about our ego.

When you look up gönnen in a dictionary you get stuff like to grant or to not begrudge but they don’t really capture the core of it. Gönnen is essentially the super opposite to to envy. To “anti-envy”.
So it’s not just saying “I don’t mind that someone has this and that.”
It’s more like ““It’s GOOD/FAIR that the person has that, even if I don’t.”
Here’s an example

  • Ich gönne meinem Kollegen die Gehaltserhöhung.
  • I‘m fully okay with my colleagues pay raise. /My colleague’s pay raise is well deserved.

This sounds super genuine and giving, even if you didn’t get a raise. Like… you would have given him the raise, had it been up to you.
Maybe you can tell… I’m really struggling to capture gönnen in English but I hope you got an idea. And if not, maybe the negative helps.

  • Ich gönne dem Schauspieler den Erfolg nicht.
  • In my opinion, the actor doesn’t deserve this success. I wish he didn’t have it.

As you can see, the negative doesn’t sound as strong as flat out saying “I’m envious”, just as the non negated version is not as strong as “I feel happy for”. But Germans are a bit more “neutral” about expressing their feelings anyway, so (nicht) gönnen is used a lot to express how you feel about someone else getting something. And sometimes actually also for actively giving … usually in contexts of permission.

  • Der Trainer gönnt den Spielern eine Pause.
  • The trainer gives the players a break.

And this brings us to gönnen with a self reference. Because gönnen yourself is always about giving yourself something. It works for any kind of treat, material and non-material and it is supper common… uh… I mean super common :).

  • Der Athlet gönnt sich keine Trainingspause.
  • The athlete doesn’t give/allow himself a work-out break.
  • Ich hab’ mir heute mal Sushi gegönnt.
  • I treated myself to/indulged in some Sushi today.
  • Nach dem Erfolg des Romans gönnt sich der Autor erst mal eine Auszeit.
  • After the success of the novel, the author treats himself to/allows himself/takes a time-out.

Now some of you might be wondering where the word comes from and if there are any relative in the English language. Well, it used to exist in old English but that has disappeared long ago. It does have a brother in Swedish (unna) but overall, not much is known about the origin of the word.
Either way, Germans always have been quite fond of it. In fact it has even made it’s way into slang and… and I know this will sound crazy… a German meme.
But before we get to that, let’s look at the related words.
Now you’re like “Oh… prefix versions, here they come.”
But no, not this time.
The only prefix version gönnen has is vergönnen and we can’t talk about this unless we want to get fined by the who-cares-police.

The word that does matter is the noun die Gunst. In practice, the most common translation is favor but the core idea is basically the feeling someone has who gönnen you something – some sort of goodwill or something.

  • Der Ritter des schwarzen Einhorns steht in der Gunst des Königs.
  • The knight of the black unicorn is in favor with the king.
  • Das Gericht hat zu seinen Gunsten entschieden.
  • The court ruled in his favor.
  • Ich habe die Gunst der Stunde genutzt und sie geküsst. (common idiom)
  • I seized the moment and kissed her.
    Lit.: “the favor/goodwill of the hour”

  • Missgunst ist ein Synonym für Neid.
  • Missgunst is a synonym for envy.

Now, all these examples were more or less fixed phrasings and the noun Gunst itself isn’t all that common in daily life anymore. Still, you’ll see it everyday dozens of times – as part of the very very common adjective günstig.
Yup, I was surprised, too, when I found out about this connection :)
If you’ve been to Germany or you’ve watched German ads, you most certainly know that günstig means cheap.
Now, that makes sense. Something that is günstig is that something “means us well”. And günstig is not limited to money but can also express the idea of convenient or favorable.

  • Wo kann man in Berlin gut und günstig essen?
  • Where can you eat well for a reasonable price in Berlin?
  • Das günstigste Angebot ist nicht immer das beste.
  • The cheapest offer is not always the best.
  • “Hey, können wir kurz telefonieren?”
    “Grad ist (es) ungünstig. Bin im Meeting.”
  • “Hey can I call you real quick?”
    “It’s inconvenient right now. I’m at a meeting.”

  • Weil der Wind günstig steht, kommt der Pirat pünktlich nach Hause.
  • Because the winds are in his favor, the pirate makes it home on time.

There’s also a bunch of word that are based on günstig so let’s look at a few examples for those, too. They probably seem a bit all over the place, but I think with the idea of favorable, meaning well in mind they all make sense.

  • Aschenputtels Stiefschwestern sind missgünstige Biester.
  • Cinderella’s step sisters are envious beasts.
  • Mit der Berlin Card erhalten Sie zahlreiche Vergünstigungen in Museen und anderen Sehenswürdigkeiten.
  • With the Berlin Welcome card, you get plenty of discounts in museums and other sights.
  • Hohe Luftfeuchtigkeit in der Wohnung begünstigt die Bildung von Schimmel.
  • High humidity at home promotes/facilitates the formation of mold.

But I think I hear the sirens of the wo cares police in the distance again so let’s get to what you’re all waiting for… the slang :).
And that is simply the phrase

  • Gönn dir!

It’s obviously the sich gönnen that we learned earlier, only that the object is missing. If I had to come up with a translation I’d say it’s “Indulge bro’/sis’, because YOLO.” … that’s kind of the vibe.
But I think examples will make it more clear :)

  • “Ich glaub’ ich trink heute mal einen Cocktail.”
    “Ja Mann… gönn dir. “
  • “I think I’ll actually have a cocktail today.”
    “Yeah, dude… YOLO/you deserve it.”

  • “Morgen hab’ ich Geburtstag.”
    “Echt? Feierst du?”
    “Ja klar, mit Limousine und so.”
    “Korrekt. Gönn dir hart.”
  • “Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
    “Really? You partying?”
    “Yeah, with a limo/sedan and all.”
    “Hell yeah. Go all out, man.”

Okay, this last one, Gönn dir hart, has a REALLY STRONG teenage-y ring to it and unless your under 20 you should stay away from it.
But compared to other slang tropes, Gönn dir is pretty big and broadly accepted at the moment. There are whole songs with that title and it’s mainstream enough for ad agencies to start using it. Media Markt, a big electronics retailer, has a “Gönn-dir-Dienstag” for their online store (click here to check that out) and the Sparkasse posted the this on their Facebook page a year ago

“Ein Leben lang Gönnung für jeden”
(here’s the direct link)

It means something along the lines of

  • “YOLO is easy – if you have a good bank, like pension/provision-wise”
  • “Life-long indulging/YOLO for everyone…”

And in case you’re wondering … “Gönnung” is not a word and “vong” CERTAINLY isn’t. They’re clearly trying hard here to get street cred. Ugh… when the cringe gets too strong :).
Anyway, so yeah… “Gönn dir” still is clearly identifiable as teenage slang, but it’s mainstream enough to use it with your buddies even if you’re past 25 (30 in Berlin ;).

And I think that’s it for today. This was our look at the German word gönnen.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. Oh and if you want you can give it a shot and try to translate the poem from the beginning. Here it is again:

Wir mögen keinem gerne gönnen,
dass er was kann, was wir nicht können.

And if you’re like Nah, I’ve done enough learning for the day.” … well, then just do what Leo says :)

(Click here for variations of the “Gönn dir”-meme on image search)

Perfect picture for the phrase.
(Click here for variations of the “Gönn dir”-meme on image search)
I hope you liked it and see you next week.

** vocab **

gönnen – to anti-envy, unemotional version of “being happy for someone”
die Gunst – the favor (in sense of a person or situation being well meaning toward you)
die Missgunst – the envy (synonym for der Neid)
günstig – cheap, favorable
ungünstig – inconvenient
die Vergünstigung – the discount
die Begünstigung – being favorable for someone/something

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