False Friends Explained – “irritieren vs. irritate”

irritating-irritierend-falsHello everyone,

and welcome to another eposide of False Friends Explained. In these posts we look at a pair of false friends and see why they are false, what to use instead and of course … who screwed up, English or German.
Today we’ll look at

irritieren vs irritate


And this pair is actually dangerous. Because it can lead to a serious misunderstanding, particularly on the English speaking side. Here’s an example…

German speaker: “Haha, those new glasses of yours still irritate me.”
English speaker: “Oh.. uhm… well, I’m sorry, I guess.  I can’t really do anything about it.”
German speaker: Hahaha… no need to be sorry. It’s just … my girlfriend has the exact same ones and that’s super irritating.

At this point the English speaker is most like thinking something along the lines of “What a passive aggressive idiot.” And the German speaker has no idea that he just left a super bad impression. So… what went wrong here?

Well, the English verb irritate is about making angry, annoyThe German irritieren on the other hand is super harmless and inoffensive. It means to make slightly confused…. oh, and I really have to disagree with what some dictionaries say. Dict.cc for instance suggests  to vex, to jar, to unsettle as translations. But those sound too strong, too serious. In daily life irritieren is used for for small, rather temporary confusions.

Germans use the word quite a bit. It has been getting more and more popular over the last decades and today, it’s almost as common as verwirren, the standard translation for to confuse.



(Google ngram of verwirren and irritierenoh, did you notice  the spike for  the verwirren-family (red line) around 1946? I love n-Grams for these little tell tales) 

Is there a difference to verwirren? Well, irritieren sounds a bit more momentary to me. A fly passing  by your screen once can irritieren you, but not really verwirren. And if the fly starts talking to you, you’ll be more than just irritiert.

In the first example, irritieren wouldn’t be strong enough, in the second one using verwirren would be over the top. Oh and in the right context, irritieren can express annoyance, though it’s but a hint.
Which brings us right to the Whodunnit? Who messed up the meaning, German or English.
Well… this time it’s German.
The origin of irritieren and irritate is the Latin word irritare and that meant to excite, to stimulate, to incite. These meanings are not too far from the idea of annoy, to upset, and both, German and English, imported the verb with this meaning.
The problem was that there was a Germanic verb that looked quite similar… irren (to err). And that really confused the German speakers and so the idea of  false, not knowing the way became the vague focus irritieren  while the notion of anger, nuisance faded and tadah… a new pair of false friends was born. Well, okay… sometimes the two versions meet up and have a beer together.

But in daily conversation, irritieren and irritate have very little to do with each other and the misunderstanding is so subtle yet serious that this pair is really worth learning consciously.
As a German native speaker you really should be aware that using irritated can easily end up offensive.
And as an English native speakers you should know that you can chill out if you hear irritiert (or  irritated with a German accent) – the person is usually NOT annoyed in any way, just a bit confused. Oh and if you are irritated and you want to express it in German… use something with ärgern or sauer.

And I think that’s it for today. As always if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


** translations **

irritieren – (momentarily) confuse, disturb concentration
irritiert – confused
irritierend – confusing

irritate – ärgern, sauer machen, reizen (for skin and organs)
irritated – sauer, verärgert, genervt
irritating – ärgerlich, nervig, reizend (for fabric or chemicals)

for members :)

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Nathan Robinson

I did notice the spike in the ngram, and it **irritierted** me… Was that in response to the political leaders of the day, or the other nations?


“I habe gelernt, dass es ein Irrtum zu glauben ist, dass “irritieren” und “irritate” die gleiche Bedeutung haben.”
(Wäre dieser Satz grammatisch korrekt? Wie kann man ein Nebensatz in einem anderen einsetzen?)


Kugelschreiber = ballpoint pen, not “ball pen”. A ball pen would be a … pen for balls, I guess.


Das zeigt auch, wie irritierend, oder besser gesagt irreführend der Duden sein kann.

Da steht ja ohne irgendeine Bemerkung als die zweite Wortbedeutung:

“2. a. in seinem Tun stören
b. ärgern, ärgerlich machen”

Man vermutet schon natürlich, das wäre ein veralteter Sinn des Wortes (daher sollte man auch bei n-Grams vorsichtig sein).

In einem Buch aus dem 19.Jhd habe ich gerade Folgendes gefunden (dank Google Books):

“i r r i t i e r e n in der falschen Anwendung als: i r r e m a c h e n … irritieren heißt vielmehr: erregen, reizen”

D.h. die heutige Hauptbedeutung galt damals als falsch (zumindest unter manchen Sprachgelehrten, was natürlich nicht viel über den eigentlichen Alltagssprachgebrauch aussagt).

Und trotz der Tatsache, dass heutzutage genau das Gegenteil der Fall ist, haben die Dudenautoren aus welchen auch immer Gründen den Sprachwandel einfach so außer Acht gelassen. Ohne Bemerkungen ist das schlechthin ein Fehleintrag.


Very useful – thanks! Good to know these things before they bite you!

Suggestion for a future article: umlegen. I just found my way there indirectly from your article on (an)ziehen and, oh, what a variety of meanings! My favourite has to be that in different contexts it means both “to take off” and “to put on”! (e.g. Take off (release) a safety-catch and put on (tie on/strap on) a shawl or belt!).

But it can also mean to knock down, fell (a tree), capsize ( boat), bring down (a mast), or any number of idiomatic ways of saying “kill” somebody (blow away, drop, knock off etc). Fair enough and obviously related. OR it can mean to move (town) or reschedule (meetings) or transfer (phone calls). OR it can mean to throw, turn or otherwise move a switch. OR it can mean to turn a piece of equipment on its side. OR it can mean to tuck a seam or hem. OR it can mean to lay, in a sexual sense! OR, it can mean to apportion costs or allocate fundings. Some of which I can see an obvious link to the sense of putting down or laying down, but not all!

Jo Alex Sousa Gomes

I really resent the fact that language borrowings take the place of native words to the point that sometimes not even a native one is left as an alternative as it happens so often in English for the known historical reasons and its use as an international language as well. I do prefer native words in any language or, at least, those cognates of the same linguistic branch, e.i. Germanic cognates for Germanic languages and Latin cognates for Latin languages, and so on (und so weiter).


Great post!

I think the closest I can get to an (American?) English expression that seems to cover a lot of the same ground as “irritieren” is “to throw someone off”. I think it’s sort of a distillation of various more complete expressions like “throw off course” or “throw off balance.” It would definitely fit a lot of the examples you use:

– Ich hab meine Wohnung komplett umgeräumt. Jetzt bin ich immer kurz irritiert, wenn ich nach Hause komme.
– I completely rearranged the furniture in my flat. Now I’m always thrown off for a second when I get home.

– Das Geräusch irritiert mich ein bisschen.
– That [noise] is throwing me off a bit.

– Kannst du aufhören, mit dem Kugelschreiber zu klicken? Das irritiert mich ein bisschen.
– Could you stop clicking your ball pen? It’s throwing me off.

The last two don’t work great if there’s no context – like, you have to be clearly trying to do something to be “thrown off” in the sense of being mentally disrupted/distracted. Of course, you can always use a more specific construction: “It’s throwing [me] off my concentration/focus/rhythm/groove/game.” (Or, of course, “It’s distracting.”) Any of those sound like they could potentially be translated with “Das irritiert mich.” The first example, with the meaning of momentary confusion, feels to me like a perfect match to “thrown off.”

nicht eigentlich ein Typ, sondern eine Katze
nicht eigentlich ein Typ, sondern eine Katze

Sind “ärgern” und “sauer machen” wirklich die einzige Wörter, die “irritate” nähern? “Ärgern” klingt mir zu stark, und “sauer” einfach nicht ganz korrekt, zumindest wenn “sauer” und “sour” sind gleich. Ich denke, dass in einen Comic, “ärgern” jemand mit voll rote Gesicht (der schreit usw.) sein würde, und “irritate” jemand mit nur ein kleines schwarze Gekritzel über dem Köpf sein würde. “Sour” ist mehr wie “resentful” oder “bitter” – ist “sauer” anders?


Und wie geht es mit den Ausdruck “jemanden nerven”?


Thanks for the great post! Recently I felt puzzled by the word ‘irritiert’ and how German use it, so I asked a German friend to explain its meaning to me. He gave me a series of situations that could have been either irritating or confusing, depending on how someone took them, so I was no clearer. Duden, as you know, gives both meanings. Finally clarity!
By the way, right at the end of your post, shouldn’t ‘ärgerlich’ be listed as a translation of ‘irritated’ rather than ‘irritating’?