Word of the Day – “der Kummer”

Hello everyone,

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

der Kummer


Kummer is related to the English stem cumber. Not the cool cumber from salads and sandwiches that we nerds know as  “Cu2MBER”.
I mean the bad cumber known from words like encumber or cumbersome.

The origin of Kummer and cumber is most likely an French word that was about blocking the path with stuff. And soon it also took on a bit of a notion of hardship that can come with a blocked path.

“Through the mountains?? That path is rather cumbersome, my Lord.”

Later this broadened into a more general idea of hindrance and nuisance and that is pretty much where the English cumber is today.
The German der Kummer on the other hand lost the whole notion of blocking and eventually it became a word for what you feel when faced with hardship. Woe, grievance, sorrow… all those and more are listed as translations but I think heartache is probably the best match.

  • Der Star ertränkt seinen Kummer in Alkohol.
  • The celebrity drowns his heartache/woe in alcohol.
  • Meine Wartenummer
    seh ich mit großem Kummer.
    Denn sie hat 4 Stellen,
    und wir sind aktuell
    bei Nummer 17.
  • My waiting number,
    I see it with changrin
    because it has 4 digits
    and we’re currently
    at 17.

The little poem is called “Das Bürgeramt” by the way :).
Now, Kummer by itself isn’t that common anymore and especially younger people don’t ever use it in daily life. But there’s a really important compound with it that is uber common, ESPECIALLY among younger people. I am talking about Liebeskummer –  is THE German word for what you feel when you’re lovesick.

  • Maria hat Liebeskummer. 
  • Maria is lovesick/lovelorn.  (lit.: has love-woe)
  • Schokolade hilft gegen Liebeskummer.
  • Chocolate helps against love-sickness.

And the second example brings us right to another Kummer-compound. It’s by far not as common as Liebeskummer, but it’s a really nice word. I’m talking about der Kummerspeck. Literally, we could translate that as “woe-bacon” and it’s essentially what you’ll get from emotional eating.

  • Maria geht ins Fitnessstudio um ihren Kummerspeck wegzukriegen.
  • Maria goes to the gym to get rid of her “fat gained through emotional overeating”.

There’s also Kummerfalte, which is a wrinkle in the face that you get from worrying too much and Kummerkasten, which is a cute name for a suggestion box but yeah… the word you’ll really need to add to your active vocabulary is Liebeskummer.

But that’s not the only reason why we’re talking about this. The real treasure are the related words, or more specifically… the verb.
Of course. It’s always the verb, isn’t it :).

kümmern and other related words

The verb for Kummer is kümmern. A few hundred years ago, the core idea was something like “to give Kummer”. And this meaning is actually still alive, though in a “weakened” version… like… giving a headache instead of a heartache.

  • Wen kümmert die Umwelt, wenn ein Flug nur 30 Euro kostet?
  • Who cares about the environment when a flight only costs 33 Dollars.
    Lit.: To whom does the environment give a headache/worry
  • Was kümmert es den Mond, wenn ihn der Hund anbellt. (old proverb, probably from Latin but still very up to date for the upper class)
  • What does the moon care, if a dog barks at it.
    Lit.: What bothers it the moon… 

This use is kind of rare though. The kümmern you’ll see in daily life is the one with a self reference – sich kümmern – And that means to take care.
How does that connect to what we learned so far?
Well, the meaning is actually not that far fetched. Do you have a guess?
Let’s say, there’s a problem. It’s not necessarily yours but as soon as you decide to take care of it, you kind of take the mental burden of it on yourself. You’ll have to think about it, find a solution for it, work it out. You encumber yourself with it. The only difference of that to sich kümmern is that the focus of sich kümmern is not the burden but instead of the actions you’re taking.
In other words, sich kümmern changed from making yourself worry to taking care –  which by the way is very much the same shift of ideas that happened with sorgen (I’ll add a link to the article on sorgen below).
The verb has lost the notion of worries pretty much completely and today it has a very active, often positive vibe to it.

  • Sie sagen uns einfach wo die Reise hingehen soll – wir kümmern uns um den Rest.
  • You just tell us where you want to journey to go – we take care of all the rest.
  • Während sie in Indonesien war, hat sich Thomas um die Katze von seiner Mitbewohnerin gekümmert.
  • While she was in Indonesia, Thomas looked after/took care of the cat of his flatmate.
  • “Weißt du schon, wo du in Barcelona  wohnst?”
    “Nee, darum wollte ich mich nächste Woche kümmern.”
  • “Do you know already where you’ll stay in Barcelone?”
    “Nope, I was gonna take care of that/look into that/worry about that next week.”
  • “Der Hummer macht mir Kummer.”
    “Ich kümmer mich darum.”
  • “The lobster is giving me a headache.”
    “I’m on it./I’ll take care of it.”

Yeah…  the last one doesn’t make any sense. I just thought it sounds nice :). As you can see from the examples, sich kümmern can be used in context of mere tasks as well as in a more personal sense of taking care of a living being.  It is super common in daily life and you’ll definitely see it sooner or later.
Now, there’s also a couple of prefix versions for kümmern. Bekümmern, which is pretty much about putting worry on someone but is not common at all  and if you ever see it, you’ll get it from context. The other one is verkümmern and this one  is about the idea of withering.  Seems a bit random at first but it makes sense. When you’re constantly full of worry and grief, that’ll be bad for your health and your charisma. Like… depressed people do not have the same energy as those who feel great. Verkümmern, with the away-ver just kind of take it to the extreme. You “woe away”, if you will. Or you could think of it as “getting into a state where other start worrying about you”.
Anyway, here’s an example.

  • Ohne Liebe verkümmert das Gehirn.
  • Without love, the brain withers/becomes stunted.
    (title of a scientific article about an experiment with rats)

This idea of small, low energy is also the core of kümmerlich, which means puny, scrubby.

  • Für so ein kümmerliches Gehalt geht der Manager nicht mal auf’s Klo.
  • For such a puny comp the manager won’t even go to the bathroom.

But it’s not very common either.
All right.
Of course, there’s more we could talk about. For instance the famous German Schnaps Kümmerling and whether it got its name because it is a small drink that takes care of our woes. Or if Benedict Cumberbatch really means  “blessed heap of grief”.
But the best stories are those that leave open ends (#BULLSHIT) and I think we’ve done enough for today :).
This was our look at the word der Kummer and the main takeaways are definitely der Liebeskummer and the verb sich kümmern.  As always, if you have any questions about this or if you want to try out some examples for me to correct, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

further reading:

Word of the Day – “sorgen”

** vocab **

der Kummer – the heartache
der Liebeskummer – the lovesickness
Liebeskummer haben – to be lovesick
der Kummerspeck – fat gained through emotional overeating
der Kummerkasten – the suggestion/complaint box

sich kümmern um – take care of (things and living beings, very active)
kümmerlich – puny
verkümmern – whither, get stunted
unbekümmert – mentally unencumbered 

die Gurke – the Cu2MBER

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5 years ago

In the proverb: Was kümmert es den Mond, wenn ihn der Hund anbellt. I don’t understand the grammar of the initial phrase, that is, besides the verb ,,kümmern” what parts of speech are Was and es. Clearly den Mond is in the accusative. Thanks for help

5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

At the risk of proving that fools rush in where experts fear to tread, I am wondering what it is about the “was” that is “a bit hard to figure out.” One of the meanings of “was” is the interrogative pronoun “why”. If it is thus translated, then the proverb itself translates as: “Why does the moon worry if the dog barks at it?” (Or perhaps more idiomatically: “Why should the moon worry if the dog barks at it.”) Am I missing something?

3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hi friend,
well, learning a language needs to take time. I remember there is a philosophical story which I read in French as a student:
– there was a intelligent provocative schoolboy as a Socrate who asked his teacher: “what for our studies? What we have studied about two and third is forgotten and the rest will be not used.” You know, the teacher knows that this boy is awesome he may be in his trap If he gives the boy a straight answer. Then he replies: “étudier, c’est pour le plaisir!”
Well, that’s a good answer which I have ever heard. “To study is just for fun!
Don’t set up your mind on learning a language. It’s just for fun! Then somehow your mind works well.
A humble suggestion given to you when you get engaged into learning new vocabularies, do not set up your mind to learn by heart 100 words a day, that’s really stressing the more you learn the quicker you forget all. When you forget it you are getting worried due to your attachments to the language you have done. Just be relaxed and happy with the word you are doing, then learn with its example like here, excellent! Be at the present moment when you are learning that word, your mind remembers it deeply and long, check with your eagerness to jump to learn new words while that word is not finished. Whatever languages you learn in that way it helps!
I got BA in French at university in 2004, and I quit using it 15 years ago now I really forget all. I got a certificate of C1 in German in 2008, then I came to Burma for my meditation practice, and now I also forget it all.
I come to understand that the boy’s question is right for us, one day we will forget all even our native language because of death. So I learn from that great lesson that I really want to learn something truly meaningful to my life: you know what? That’s meditation. I spend 10 years on meditation which is totally different from the way i would learn French or German. Meditation is a kind of mental activities which teach you to let go of your defilements whatsoever when you have your little defilements, your mind is calm and peaceful, it remains in silence. It does not matter about a language.
instead to learn a language is to get hold of or to grasp what you want to master. This wanting never comes to end. It gives rise to Sufferings.
Thank for your kindness and sharing with your knowledge from which I start to do German again.

Anybody here wants to do meditation, I am here for you free! I can help you gain your Insight knowledge. My email: antevasi@gmail.com

5 years ago

First off, I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate everything you do here for those of us learning German. As a resource, your website is unsurpassed. I’ve already seen in other comments a lot of very effusive praise, but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus just in case you needed to hear it again every now and then.

In any event, I had some questions concerning learning strategies. I’ve studied German in school for many years and even spent a few months in Berlin, but I feel as if I haven’t really been able to get over the hump of the “high intermediate” stage. I’d like to feel like I could turn on German radio and understand it without difficulty, or read a German book without needing to look up words all the time.

I’ve made some headway with grammar, and I feel I’ve gotten to the point where I can learn more through listening and reading than I can through grammar exercises in textbooks (which I never felt like I got that much out of anyway).

But my principle focus right now is vocabulary. Just the sheer magnitude of words there are to learn is daunting. very time I sit down to read an article or something of that nature, the number of words I have to look up is quite extensive. I’m wondering if you have any tips for how to learn and how to retain the amount of vocabulary necessary to become proficient in German.

I realize one can (and should) devote a lifetime to learning a foreign language, but it would be a huge bummer if it’s really only after ten, twenty years of learning that one becomes proficient enough to turn on the radio or read a book without it being laborious.

So, I guess my question then is whether you have any advice for how to learn a significant amount of vocabulary over the course of a shorter and more manageable time-span (a year or two). Would you rely just on reading and listening? Or would you suggest using flashcards in some way? I’ve seen some comments where you’ve seemed not to have anything against flashcards, but I would expect that you would be skeptical of the approach some learners adopt of learning 100 words a day, or something like that.

Anyway, I’m sorry this is so long, but this has been on my mind for awhile, and if you have any thoughts, I’d be grateful. Many, many thanks.

5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That’s really excellent advice, thank you for being so thorough.

5 years ago

Mein lieblings Ohrwurm mit “Liebeskummer”


Groovy daddy!

5 years ago
Reply to  aoind

An appropriately contrasting “Todeskummer”


5 years ago

Ja. Danke! Ich war ganz unsicher darueber.

5 years ago

I realize in the context of the phrases in this article “darum” is the da-form of “um das” or “um es”, but all of my German learning material always says “darum” means “That is why” or “Because of that”. What is the connection there. Do you just have to figure it out based on context?

5 years ago

Warum keine Korrekturen betreffend ,,Meines neueste lieblingswort” oder ,,problematic” oder Wortstellung (oben)? Schweigen heißt nicht Billigung?

5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Danke vielmals für diese klare und ausführliche Erklärung. Ihr Ansatz scheint mir ganz vernünftig—zwar fast unvermeidlich angesichts der Vielfältigkeit der vorkommenden Fehler–solange die Lernende verstehen, dass das Schweigen nicht Billigung bedeutet.

ein Roboter mit Liebeskummer
ein Roboter mit Liebeskummer
5 years ago

Heute sah ich mit großen Kummer deinen neuen Anti-Bot Standpunkt. Wir sollten uns auch um Bots kummern, Bots sind auch Menschen! Da ich bin so oft für ein Bot gehalten, sie muss sein.

5 years ago

Ich mag dieses Wort. Es klingt richtig zärtlich, nach meine Meinung. Ist auch irgendwo ironisch, dass du um so eines Wortes heute geschrieben hast… Lange Geschichte. Hoffentlich kommt das nächste Artikel schnell :) Pass gut auf!

5 years ago

Auf englisch heißt es ,,don’t count your chickens before they hatch” . Also, man soll darum nicht kümmern, was noch nicht passiert ist.

5 years ago

Gibts auch die Redewendung ,,kümmere dich nicht um ungelegte Eier “.

5 years ago

Meines neueste lieblingswort is nun Kummerspeck! (womit ich leide aber so klingt wenig problematic)