Word of the Day – “kehren”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: April 7, 2022

Hello everyone,

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



Here it comes, brace yourselves… kehren is to sweep with a broom.
Whoop whooooooooooop.
Now you’re like “I got a vacuum cleaner, so I don’t need this.” But before you head over to Facebook, let me tell you… there another side to kehren.
And there, we have it all…  sex, cars, Gods. And wearing your shirt inside out.
Are you ready to jump in? Then let’s goooo..

So yeah, the meaning of the bare kehren  is what you do with a broom. But it’s not used that much, actually. At least not in the Berlin region.
Now some of you, who have been here, might be like “Oh Yeah, THAT is obvious. Berlin is friggin’ dirty.”
But I do NOT agree. Sure, it’s not sterile, but there are no piles of trash on the street like what I’ve seen in New York, and in summer, I sometimes walk around barefoot for hours. So relaxing.
Anyways, the reason why kehren is not that common here is that German has a second verb… of course. And at least in the north, people use fegen more. But hey, actually let’s not put too much time into this.
Let’s just look at some examples from the exciting world of floor sweeping.

  • Die Spätschicht muss abends immer den Laden fegen.
  • The late shift has to sweep the store in the evening.
  • Beim Finale der Weltmeisterschaft sind die Strassen wie leergefegt.
  • For the final of the world championship, the streets are completely empty (“like they’re swept empty“).
  • Hat jemand den Handfeger und die Kehrschaufel/das Kehrblech gesehen?
  • Has anybody seen the hand broom and the dustpan?
  • Das Management hat versucht, die Probleme im Team unter den Teppich zu kehren.
  • The management tried to sweep the problems within the team under the rug.
  • Einen Schornsteinfeger zu küssen bringt Glück.
  • It’s brings luck to kiss a chimney sweep.

Wow, Schornstein. Kachunk. Sounds sooooooo German!

And the craziest part is that the main meaning of Schornstein is actually silk.

  • “Oh, dein neuer Schal ist soooo weich.”
    “Ja, der ist aus Schornstein…. Schornsteinschal.”
  • “Oh your new scarf is soooooo soft.”
    “Yeah, it’s made from silk… silk scarf.”

“Emanuel, Schornstein doesn’t mean Seide, I just looked it up. Could you stop wasting our time and tell us what kehren has to do with sex and cars?”
Okay okay, gee, you guys are so focused.

So, the reason why kehren is really useful is its second idea.

The flip-out side of “kehren”

And this might be one of the most iconic examples:

  • Hast du die Rückkehr der Jedi-Ritter gesehen?
  • Have you seen the return of the Jedi?

Yes, the second idea of kehren, the main idea, is turning. In contexts of  “inversion of direction of some sort”,  not mere rotation.
The bare kehren is pretty much never used in that sense, though. Maybe because German also has wenden and drehen.
It’s the nouns and prefix versions where the turning idea shines.
And it shines quite brightly, actually. Like… it’s pretty easy to spot :).

  • Nach fast 100.000 Jahren kehren Einhörner langsam nach Mitteleuropa zurück. 
  • After 100.000 years, unicorns are slowly returning to central Europe.
  • Maria hat mir den Rücken zugekehrt.
  • Maria has turned her back toward me.
    (it’s NOT used in the metaphorical sense of turning your back on someone)
  • Marias neuer Job ist echt gut bezahlt. Die Kehrseite der Medaille ist, dass sie immer erreichbar sein muss.
  • Maria’s new job is really well paid. The flip side of the coin is that she has to answer her phone all the time.
  • Die Eichhörnchenpartei fordert eine Kehrtwende in der Wildschweinpolitik.
  • The squirrel party demands a turn around of the boar policy.

Wait, Kehrtwende?! Isn’t that kind of like turn-turn?  Like… why double?
I’m looking at you, German!!
“Oh, no motive-reason. I just felt like it.”
Oh, okay. Well, do what your heart tells you.
Anyway, an especially noteworthy prefix version is umkehren.
This one REALLY focuses on the inversion of direction. It’s really common for actual travels, but also works in abstract contexts.

  • Sie fahren in die falsche Richtung. Bitte kehren sie um.
  • You’re driving in the wrong direction. Please turn around.
  • Die Bergsteiger wurden vom Wetter zur Umkehr gezwungen.
  • The mountaineers were forced to turn back (lit.: “turn-around”)
  • “Oh mein Gott,  ich bin ein Zebra!!!! Mach mich wieder normal.”
    “Tut mir leid, der Zauberspruch ist unumkehrbar.”
  • “Oh my god, I am a zebra!!! Make me normal again!”
    “I’m sorry, the magic spell is irreversible.”
  • “Warum wäschst du nie ab.”
    “Weil, du immer sauer bist.”
    “Nee!!! Umgekehrt wird ein Schuh draus. Ich bin immer sauer, weil du nie abwäschst.”
  • “Why do you never do the dishes?”
    “Because you’re always pissed.”
    “NO!!! You’ve got the cart before the horse (lit.: “Turned around  it becomes a shoe.”). I’m always pissed BECAUSE you never do the dishes.”

And from umgekehrt we actually only need to take a tiny step to understand why verkehrt is a synonym for falsch (wrong). Taken literally umgekehrt is literally “turned around”, verkehrt is based on the wrong-idea of ver and means “turned the wrong way”.

  • Du hast dein T-Shirt verkehrt rum/falsch rum  an.
  • You’re wearing your shirt inside out. (the wrong direction).
  •  Wir fahren in die verkehrte Richtung.
  • We’re driving in the wrong direction.

Generally, falsch is the more common choice for wrong though. For one thing, it’s shorter and has more punch. But it might also have something to do with the noun der Verkehr. This is UBER common and it has nothing to do with wrong.
Get ready for “Oh man, this language”-moment.
Verkehr is the German word for…. traffic.

  • Der Verkehr in der Stadt nimmt ab.
  • The traffic in the city is decreasing.
  • SEV ist kurz für Schienen-Ersatz-Verkehr.
  • SEV is short for railway replacement service (“traffic”).
  • Wenn eine Küchenparty eine Party in der Küche ist, warum ist Autoverkehr dann nicht Sex im Auto?
  • If kitchen party is a party in the kitchen, then why isn’t car traffic  sex in the car?

And if you’re now like “Wait, I don’t get the last one… what does car traffic have to do with sex?”… well, to a German, this example is “””funny”””, because Geschlechtsverkehra word that sounds like an STD, is the German equivalent for intercourse.

Now, the big question is of course WHY Verkehr means traffic. Well, we’ve learned that kehren has something to do with turning in a sense of direction. The ver- here is most likely about the idea of “for” and the inspiration for the meaning traffic was probably the zig-zagging that traffic involves. Going here, going there, to and fro, back and forth. Sure, not the most compelling explanation, I know.
But hey, traffic comes from friction, so it’s based on the idea of things rubbing against each other. That’s kind of random, too.

Anyway, so there we have it,  the full  scope of kehren-words – sex, cars, gods, mistakes and t-shirts worn inside out… oh, hold on. Actually, I think, we forgot the god-part. That’s the context for  bekehren which means to convert in a religious sense. You get “turned”.

  • Der König wurde vom Priester bekehrt.
  • The king was converted  by the priest.

So yeah, I think we have a pretty good overview over kehren now and the only question remaining is what all that has to do with the original idea of sweeping the floorwe started out with. And the surprising answer  is… nothing.
It’s simply two distinct words that ended up having the same spelling.
Admit it, a small part of you is actually disappointed. A part of you wanted me to say something crazy like “Sweeping can include somewhat of a turning motion and, in a way, you do reverse the direction of the dirt…”.
But don’t worry. It won’t be long till the Rückkehr of mind benders :).

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

** vocab ** 

fegen, kehren – to sweep the floor
der Schornsteinfeger – the chimney sweep

der Schornstein – the chimney
die Kehrschaufel – the dust pan

die Kehrtwende – the turn around (often for plans)
kehrt machen – turn around (in context of walking)
die Kehrseite der Medaille – the flipside of the coin

zurückkehren – return
die Rückkehr – the return
zukehren – turn toward (only in context of body parts, mainly back and front)

umkehren – reverse direction
die Umkehr – the turning back
unumkehrbar – irreversible
umgekehrt – the other way around (synonym for “anders herum”)

verkehrt – wrong (synonym for falsch)
verkehrt (he)rum – the wrong way around

der Verkehr – the traffic
[insert one billion compounds here]
der Geschlechtsverkehr – the intercourse

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