Word of the Day – “bloß”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: October 31, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day, this time with a quick and naughty look at the meaning of

bloß

It’s not a word you see every day, but sooner or later every learner comes across it and finds out that it’s a translation for only. Which then of course raises a question about nur, the main translation for only.

That’s what we’ll find out today if there’s a difference between bloß and nur and when to use which. And we’ll also explore the family of bloß a bit, because… I mean… why not.

So let’s jump right in.

The origin of bloß is the decently old Germanic root *blautaz which carried a sense of weak, timid, soft. There are some theories about the connections beyond that, with some etymologists saying there’s a connection to the family of fluid and others saying there’s a tie to the family of ball.
But it’s not certain and we’re not doing science here anyway, so we’ll just take weak, soft as a starting point.
In bloß, this shifted toward a sense of lacking cover or being exposed. This is actually still the core of the related words of bloß, as we’ll see later, but also bloß itself still carries this idea.

  • “Ich habe die Nuss mit bloßen Händen geknackt.”
    “Wow!”
  • “I cracked this nut with my bare hands.”
    “Wow.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And if we look closely, we can already see the idea of only shine through here. Like… I cracked the nut with nothing but my hands. ONLY my hands.

Here’s a another example:

  • Der bloße Wille hat Maria die letzten Kilometer des Marathons getragen.
  • Her pure will has carried Maria for the last kilometers of the marathon.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

People started using bloß in contexts of pure or nothing but and from there it’s really just a very small step to the sense of only that it has today.

  • “Kommst du zu meiner Party?”
    “Ja, ich muss bloß kurz vorher nach Hause.”
  • “Are you going to come to my party?”
    “Yeah, I just have to go home first real quick.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “THOMAS! Was machst du an meinem Handy?!”
    “Äh, nichts besonderes. Ich wollte bloß gucken, ob du mich betrügst.”
    “Achsoo, okay kein Pro… Moment mal!!”
  • “THOMAS! What are you doing on my phone?”
    “Uhm, nothing special. I just, only wanted to check if you’re cheating on me.”
    “Ah, okay, no probl… wait a second!!”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Was ist denn mit dir und Maria?”
    “Nichts. Wir sind bloß Freunde.”
  • “What’s up with you and Maria?”
    “Nothing. We’re only, just friends.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Actually, now that I’m making these examples, I feel like just is actually the better translation. Maybe because it has more of a vibe of “pure”. But the core idea is definitely only.
And the big question is of course – could we use nur in these examples. And the answer is:

It depends on a lot of  factors.

No, I’m kidding actually.
The  answer is yes, absolutely. In this sense of only the words nur and bloß virtually mean the same and the only difference is that nur is WAY more common, so bloß is kind of less idiomatic.

If I HAD to name some difference, I’d say that bloß tends to be used “more” in contexts that are a bit “defensive”. Like downplaying something. And I feel like bloß sounds a bit weird in the context of quantities. Like…

  • Das kostet bloß/nur 10 Euro.

I’d very much prefer nur in this example. But that might well just be my personal preference and I’m sure other native speakers do use bloß in that way.
You can put nur in all of the examples above and nothing would change, neither meaning nor tone. So you can pretty much just use nur for only and be fine.

That said, there are a couple of uses for bloß where it’s more idiomatic than nur. The first one is as sort of emotional expression of desperation.

  • Die Prüfung ist in einem Monat – wie soll ich das bloß schaffen?
  • The exam is in one month – how on earth am I supposed to pull that off?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

It’s actually really hard to translate because it doesn’t really express a meaning here. It’s more like marking the question as rhetorical and also expressing your emotions of despair.
If you’re wondering where this meaning comes from… I think there’s some logic because there is a sense of being “exposed” here, having to tackle a really daunting challenge and feeling “weak”. Here’s another example:

  • Die Deadline ist morgen, und ich habe noch nicht mal angefangen – was mach ich bloß?
  • The deadline is tomorrow and I haven’t even started yet – oh man, what am I going to do?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Interestingly, nur can also express this, so we could swap that in and have the same effect. But bloß is way more idiomatic for these expressions.

And then, there’s a use for bloß where nur doesn’t work at all:

  • Bloß gut, dass Maria nicht auf der Party war.
  • Thank god, Maria wasn’t at that party.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Erzähl Maria bloß nichts von der Sache mit Thomas.
  • Whatever you do, don’t tell Maria about the thing with Thomas.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Like in the questions, the main purpose of bloß here is to intensify the thing and express some sort of emotional involvement. Like… the second example is not just a neutral piece of advice – you’re kind of “worried” about what would happen if Maria knew about the thing with Thomas.

Now, both these uses of bloß sound a tiny little bit old fashioned, or at least high register. So I’m not sure if they’re worth adding them to your active vocabulary. I mean, if you can pull it of, then great, but do not overuse this bloß. Your German will definitely sound more idiomatic without ANY bloß than with too much of it.

All right!
So that was bloß and nur and the difference between the two… or lack thereof.

Now, before we wrap up, let’s explore the family a bit.

Words related to “bloß”

And here, we actually circle back to the original notion of “weak” and “being exposed” that came before the sense of only. Because all the related words are either about a lack of cover or more concretely, a lack of clothes.
Like for example the noun die Blöße…

  • Maria hat sich bei der Putzplanverhandlung keine Blöße gegeben. (fixed expression)
  • Maria didn’t show any weakness at the cleaning schedule negotiations.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Oh Gott… Madame.” sagte der Stallbursche als er seine Gräfin nackt am Strand entdeckte.
    “Was macht Ihr hier, Heinrich?” fragte sie und versuchte hastig ihre Blöße zu bedecken während ihre Augen auf den durchtrainierten Muskeln hängenblieben, die sich gegen Heinrichs Hemd drückten, als wollten sie es zum Reißen bringen.
  • “Oh my… my lady.” the stable boy said, startled, when he noticed his Countess on the beach naked.
    “What are you doing here, Heinrich?” she asked, hastily trying to cover her nakedness as her eyes got captivated by the trained muscles that squeezed against Heinrich’s shirt as if they wanted to make it burst.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This is from my upcoming German learning novel “Heinrich und die Leidenschaft der Gräfin.” by the way – the hottest German learning stuff ever.

But seriously, there’s also the verb entblößen, which can be about actually exposing a body part but also about exposing a weak spot.

  • Thomas hat beim Oktoberfest mit entblößtem Po auf dem Tisch getanzt.
  • Thomas danced on the table at the Oktoberfest with his butt naked, exposed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Corona-Pandemie hat die Probleme vieler Gesundheitssysteme entblößt.
  • The pandemic exposed the problems of many health systems.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And the notion of “exposure” also the core theme of bloßstellen, which lives between exposing and shaming. Like… imagine you tell your friend a secret about you and they then purposefully tell that at a party with you present. It’s not really about discovering and it’s not really active shaming. It’s a “putting on the spot” in a context of vulnerability. Not sure if that’s the best way to describe it, but I hope you get the idea.

  • Mein Chef hat mich beim Meeting vor allen Mitarbeitern bloßgestellt.
  • My boss showed me up/ put me on the spot/ shamed me at the meeting in front of all the employees.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

None of these words are all that common though, so don’t worry too much about when to use them. Until you’re C1, it’s enough if you just understand them when you see them and know that the core theme is “being exposed“.

And I think that’s it for today.
Hooray!
This was our quick look at the meaning of bloß and how it’s different from nur.
As always, if you want to check how much you remember you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.

I hope you liked it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Oh, by the way… another translation for only besides nur is erst. And those two are NOT synonyms. If you want to learn more about that one, here’s the article for it:

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