The meaning of “lösen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time with a look at a word that’s really helpful when you have problems:
Nah, I’m kidding of course. I’m talking about something that actually solves problems – the German word
Get ready for a look at



Lösen is the German word for to solve and not only are there some really useful related words and prefix versions for us to learn – it also has a really interesting family tree.
So let’s jump right in :)

The origin of the family is the mind-blowingly ancient Indo-European root *leu, which expressed a core idea of cutting off , setting free. And at least a core sense of separation or detachment is still visible in many of the offsprings today, like loose and the German translation lose…

  • Der Griff am Kühlschrank ist lose/locker.
  • The doorhandle of the fridge is loose.
    (locker, which doesn’t belong to the family,  is the more common translation)

… or the very common German los, which we’ve talked about in a separate article (link below)…

  • Thomas lässt sein Bierglas nicht los.
  • Thomas doesn’t let go of his glass of beer.
    (we’ve talked about “los” in a separate article, I’ll add the link below)

… or the just as important to lose and its German translation verlieren, which is also a member of the family.

  • “Warum hat Thomas einen Bikini an?”
    “Er hat eine Wette mit Maria verloren.”
  • “Why is Thomas wearing a bikini?”
    “He lost a bet with Maria.”
  • “Ich bin ein Einhorn. Die mächtigste Kreatur des Waldes.”
    “Für mich bist du ein Verlierer.
  • “I’m a unicorn. The mightiest creature of the forests.”
    “To me… you’re a loser.
  • Manche Menschen sehen die Pflicht eine Maske zu tragen als einen Verlust ihrer Grundrechte.
  • Some people view the obligation to wear a mask as a loss of their basic constitutional rights.

And also the verb lösen is used with that sense of detachment from time to time

  • “Warum fahrt der Wagen nicht los?”
    “Du musst die Handbremse lösen.”
  • “Why is the car not starting to go?”
    “You have to release the handbrake.”
  • Die Praktikanten müssen sich von der Vorstellung lösen, Geld zu bekommen.
  • The interns have to part with/let go of/free themselves of the expectation of receiving money.

But by far the main translation is definitely to solve, and that’s also what all the related words revolve around.

  • Wir müssen das Einhorn-Problem im Stadtpark lösen. Der ganze Bezirk stinkt nach Urin.
  • We have to solve the unicorn problem in the city park. The entire district smells of urine.
  • Zwei Jahre später: Das Einhornproblem im Stadtpark ist immer noch ungelöst.
  • Two years later: The unicorn problem at the city park is still unsolved.
  • Nicht jedes Rätsel hat eine Lösung.
  • Not every riddle has a solution/answer.
  • Fett ist nicht wasserlöslich.
  • Fat isn’t soluble in water.

Now, does to solve tie in with the core idea of the family, the notion of setting free. I think it does. Take an Aspirin for instance, one that you dissolve in water. It’s kind of constricted to its form and the water “frees” it, detaches it from itself.
And problems or obstacles of any sort… well… in a sense, problems are kind of like…  blocked energy, and solving them means to free the energy so it can flow.
My spirit animal phrased it much better on Instagram in my dream recently…

And yes, my spirit animal is a shoebill. And yes, we do communicate in my dream through Insta stories. He’s a modern spirit animal, you know.
Anyway, I know that the connection between the ideas of solving and setting free is not be super obvious, but I hope you can kind of see it. And it’s not like German came up with that twist. Because guess what… to solve also belongs to the family. It comes from the Latin branch and originally it was just a combination of a self reference “se” and the old Indo-European *leu-root. You can actually see it better for the noun solution… se – lu – tion.
And just to give you another mental anchor… also good old Ancient Greek had a strand from that family. And that’s where the word analysis comes from for example… analysis – solution – lösen… all the same family.

But enough with the history and old connections.
Let’s get back to practical German and take a look at the prefix versions of lösen.

The prefix versions of “lösen”

Auflösen is a bit more “complete” sounding than just lösen and it’s the number one translation for to dissolve,  in a sense of the thing kind of disappearing.
Note, that auflösen ALWAYS needs an object. So if we want to use it in a sense of a thing dissolving by itself, in German we MUST add a self-reference.

  • Der Einhorn-Herrscher löst die Versammlung der Waldtiere auf.
  • The new unicorn overlord dissolves the assembly of forest animals.
  • Lösen Sie die Tablette in warmem Wasser auf.
  • Dissolve the pill in warm water.
  • Die Tablette löst sich im Wasser auf.
  • The pill dissolves (itself) in water.
  • Gestern war mein Kasten Bier genau hier… und jetzt hat er sich in Luft aufgelöst.
  • Yesterday, my case of beer was right here… and now it disappeared into thin air.

Besides that, auflösen is also used in the context of riddles and quizzes. But unlike lösen, auflösen is ONLY about giving away a solution, not actually finding it.

  • Soll ich das Rätsel auflösen?
  • Should I give you the solution of the riddle?
  • Die (Auf)lösung findest du am Ende des Buches.
  • You can find the solution at the end of the book.

All right.
The next verb, ablösen, can be used in a rather literal sense of loosening something off of something. Like a sticker from a jar for instance

  • Den Aufkleber kann man einfach mit einem Föhn ablösen.
  • The sticker can be peeled off with a hair dryer.

But in daily life, you’ll usually hear abmachen or abkriegen for this stuff.
Still, ablösen is good to know because it’s the word for taking over some sort of shift from someone. And sich ablösen is a common translation for the idea of taking turns or alternating.

  • “30 Kilo Kartoffeln schälen? So habe ich mir das Praktikum bei Yourdailygerman nicht vorgestellt.”
    “Mimimimi… du musst nicht alles machen. Ein anderer Praktikant löst dich nachher ab.”
  • “Peeling 10 kilogramms of potatoes. That’s not how I imagined an internship at Yourdailygerman.”
    “Mimimi…. you don’t have to do all of it. Another intern will take over for you later.”
  • “Wann hast du denn Feierabend?”
    “Eigentlich jetzt, aber meine Ablösung ist noch nicht da.”
  • “When does your shift end?”
    “Normally now, but my relief isn’t here yet.”
  • Das Wetter is verrückt. Sonne und Regen lösen sich im Stundentakt ab.
  • The weather is crazy. Sun and rain take turns/alternate every hours.

This is actually super in line with the core idea of the whole family, because you do kind of  “set free” the person whose shift you’re taking.
And also the next verb, auslösen is super logical once you think about it. The best translation is to trigger something, and that does pretty much mean “setting it free”

  • Die Bewegung löst die Kamera aus.
  • The motion triggers the camera.
  • Marias Kommentar über Thomas’ Gewicht war nicht der eigentliche Grund für den Streit… nur der Auslöser.
  • Maria’s comment about Thomas’ weight wasn’t the actual reason for the argument… just the trigger.

Just to make sure though, since we’re living in the Age of the Outrage: auslösen absolutely doesn’t work in that context.

  • OMG, that tweet triggered me so hard.
  • Oh mein Gott, der Tweet hat mich so hart getriggert.

Yeah… I know #creative.
Anyway, not really important but worthy of an honorable mention is the verb einlösen, which is about redeeming a coupon or fulfilling a promise.

  • Maria hat ihr Versprechen eingelöst.
  • Maria has fulfilled her promise.

And last but not least we have the only non-separable prefix verb erlösen.
And this is a perfect example for how the er-version of a verb often covers the epic portion of an idea. The baseline meaning of erlösen is pretty much the core idea of the whole family: to set free.
But it’s seen from an epic, existential angle and so the translations are to deliver or to relieve.

  • Noch zwei Beispiele, dann seid ihr erlöst.
  • Two more examples, and then you’re relieved/free.
  • Die Elfen haben uns von der Herrschaft der Einhörner erlöst.
  • The elves delivered us from the reign of the unicorns.
  • Thomas fühlte eine große Erlösung, als seine Verstopfung endlich vorbei war.
  • Thomas felt a big relief when his congestion was finally over.

You can check out my absolutely epic article on er-  if you want more about that.
And in fact, you can do that right away, because we’re done for today :).
This was our little look at the meaning of lösen and its family.
As usual, if you want to recap the most important points and see how much you remember, you can try to lösen the little quiz I have prepared.
And of course if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


** vocab **

lose = loose, not fixed

lösen = to solve; to release (hand brake); to part with, detach oneself (sich lösen von)

die Lösung = the solution (also in a chemical sense)
ungelöst = unsolved
unlösbar = unsolvable
löslich = soluble (chemistry)

auflösen = to dissolve (needs self reference if something dissolves by itself); to solve (give the solution to a riddle)
die Auflösung = the solution (for a riddle or quiz question)
aufgelöst = distraught  (figurative)
sich in Luft auflösen = disappear into thin air (idiom)

auslösen = to trigger, to set of (NOT for fire arms and personal “triggerings”)
der Auslöser = the trigger; the shutter release (photography)

einlösen = redeem (coupons); fulfill (promises)

ablösen = to take over (shifts, tasks “Jemanden+Acc ablösen”); loosen off of a surface (rare); to alternate, to take turns (sich ablösen)

erlösen = to deliver (in the old sense of freeing); to relief (rather epic, for mundane contexts “erleichtern” is better)
die Erlösung = the relief, the deliverance
der Erlöser = the savior

verlieren = to lose 
der Verlierer = the loser
verloren = lost



further reading:

Word of the Day – “los”

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