Word of the Day – “fähig”

faehig-meaningHello everyone,

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



Fähig is a nice word. It’s easily overlooked but you can actually do a lot with it, heck it can help you do ANYTHING. But it’s kind of a weird word, too, because it’s  ig, which is one of the standard endings to create and adjective from something, added to  fäh. And fäh is … well…  a very stupid sounding syllable. Fäh.  Fäääääääääh. So inelegant. What does it mean? Well, I had no idea and I had to look up where it comes from. I would never have guessed THAT origin but once you know it the words makes a lot of sense. Drumroll please…  brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… 

fähig comes from fangen.
“Wait, the same as in anfangen?”
The very same. But … let’s just forget that for today. Fangen is related to the English word fang (which is a special tooth) and comes from the ancient Indo European root *pag which was about fixate, making firm, bond together…. the same root that evolved into words like pact or peace by the way. In fangen, the old meaning is still very visible; fangen means to catch. And fähig, which was more like fängig back in the day, was an adjective that expressed that you’re able to catch or hold something. Over time, as the ng changed to h, so did the meaning. It slowly this got the more general sense of being up for a certain task which led to the meaning it has today…. able, capable. And by the way, able comes from Latin habere which was about holding and capable comes from Latin capere which is about grasping, seizing. So, even though the words are not related to fähig, they have taken the same path.
Now, I think capable is actually the better match simply because able is so common. Fähig is not rare or anything but for the “every day being able to do something” it sounds a bit too stiff.
Anyway, time for some examples…

  • Du hast Bier weggeschüttet??? Ich hätte nicht gedacht, dass du zu so etwas fähig bist.
  • You poured away beer??? I would never have though that you’re capable of such a thing.
  • Bis Computer fähig sind, wirklich gute Übersetzungen zu produzieren, wird es noch Jahrzehnte dauern.
  • It’ll take decades before computers are able to produce high quality translations.
  • Es ist erstaunlich, wozu Bienen mit ihrem Minigehirn fähig sind.
  • It is astounding what bees are capable of/can do with their mini brains.

When used in context with people it actually sounds a little bit negative. Like the first example. But that’s totally not the case for the noun die Fähigkeit means ability, skill capability.

  • Schimpansen besitzen die kognitiven Fähigkeiten zum Kochen.
  • Chimpanzees have the cognitive skills for cooking.
    (head line of a really fascinating article about how chimpanzees
    kind of cook their food…. if your German is good enough, you can
    read it here )
  • Was an Thomas wirklich beeindruckt, ist seine Fähigkeit, andere mitzureißen.
  • What’s really impressive about Thomas is his ability to carry people along/excite them.
  • Zu einem deutschen Lebenslauf gehört normalerweise der Punkt “Besondere Kenntnisse und Fähigkeiten“. Dort sind unter anderem Angaben zu Fremdsprachen, Computerkenntnissen und Führerschein.
  • One part of a German CV usually the a section  called “(Special/Other) Skills“. Among other things, you can find information about foreign languages, computer skills and the drivers licence.

All right. Now, nobody is perfect and nobody can do everything. So sometimes we’ll have to  put fähig into the negative. We can use nicht, but just like in English we can do that by adding a prefix… un.

  • Hilfe, ich bin unfähig Entscheidungen zu treffen.
  • Help, I’m unable to make decisions.

And I have to say… I don’t know how it is for incapable or unable but unfähig has somewhat of a negative touch. In fact, people use it quite a bit just by itself in sense of  very  incompetent.

  • Der Neue ist einfach unfähig. (nice way to say he’s an idiot)
  • The new guy is simply incompetent.
  • Was mich an meinem Mitbewohner am meisten stört, ist seine Unfähigkeit, sich in andere reinzuversetzen.
  • What I dislike the most about my roommate is his inability to put himself in someone else’s shoes.
  • Maria bittet ihren Arzt um eine Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung.
  • Maria asks her doctor for a sick certificate.

Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung… my god. She’ll probably be back at good health before the doctor is done writing that thing. That’s probably why in daily life the thing is called Krankschreibung which literally translates to “sick writing“. Speaking of which … have you read “Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell” from the My Little Pony series? Hold on, I’ll read some:
All of Equestria had been celebrating since the joyous wedding of Shining Armor and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Cadance, as she was called, was one of the most loving mares in all of ponydom. […] She wasn’t just anypony. She was a young Unicorn pony with a violet-hued hide, a beautiful purple-and-pink-striped mane, big pony boobs and  incredible raw abilities... what? I wouldn’t be able to make this up. It’s a rea… oh, the word of the day… right, right. I’m sorry. For some reason I’m unfähig to concentrate today. Good thing we’re pretty much done. Just two more quick things.
Just like able, fähig can be attached to words. But the result is not really the same. A word with an able-ending usually tells us what you can do with something – readable, likeable, drinkable. Some words with -fähig do that, too.

  • Die neue Samt-Butter™ – extra streichfähig. (this really is a word)
  • The new Velvet butter™ – extra spreadable.
  • Die Verpackung ist zu 100% recyclingfähig.
  • The packaging can be completely recycled.

But more often they talk about what something can do, not what you can do with something

  • Marias Hund ist extrem lernfähig.
  • Maria’s dog learns very quickly.
  • Ist mein W-Lan Router IPv6-fähig?
  • Is my router IPv6-ready/comatible?
  • Das Gesetz ist so, wie es jetzt ist, nicht mehrheitsfähig.
  • The law, as it is now, will not be able to get a majority.

Oh and of course it works with -unfähig as well.

  • Die Firma ist zahlungsunfähig.
  • The company is insolvent.
  • Mr. Pony war für einen Moment bewegungsunfähig.
  • For a moment, Mr. Pony was paralyzed/unable to move.

These two endings are very common (on dict.cc there are 300 entries … I’ll add some useful ones in the vocab list below) but it’s not as easy and straight-forward to create new words with -fähig. You can try and play around of course but you might not be understood.
Last but not least there is the beautiful befähigen –  a verb, so noble in sound and feeling, Goethe made a whole poem for it.


Ich befähige
Er und sie und es
Alle befähigen, des Befähigens Willen.
Drum Befähig’ auch du!

Yap. This is of course pure bullshit :). Befähigen is a clunky, dry and super bureaucratic sounding word for to enable, empower, capacitate and I don’t think I’ve ever used it. But people do from time to time, so here’s an example

  • Mein Studium hat mich vor allem dazu befähigt, mir selber Wissen anzueignen.
  • My studies mainly enabled me /taught me to acquire knowledge on my own.

And I think that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of the weird sounding word fähig… or as I say it: fääääähig. Not the most useful word of all time but definitely worth knowing and it’s one of the ones that are kind of below the radar of books.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time…. with a little surprise.

** vocab **  

fähig – capable
die Fähigkeit – the skill, the ability
unfähig – inept, unskilled
zahlungsunfähig – insolvent
saugfähig – absorbant
berufsunfähig – unfit for work (official term)
geschäftsfähig – contractually competent (official term, can legally make contracts)
wettbewerbsfähig – competitive (for business, able to be competition)
bewegungsunfähig – paralyzed
unzurechnungsfähig – legally insane, certifiable (official term for “doesn’t know what he’s doing”)

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1 year ago

Hola! Another amazing post!!! But there’s one thing I’m still quite confused about. nämlich … we as foreigners or language learners, if I want to say to improve my language skills. We shouldn’t say “Sprachfähigkeit, Hörfähigkeit … “, right? Sounds a bit like baby learn how to speak or patients try to listen again?

If that’s the case, how can we describe “to improve my language skills / listening / reading …”?

Cristian D'Aloisio
6 years ago

There’s a metallic box on the street to donate second-hand shoes to poor people, with the following text printed
“Bitte nur paarige tragfähige Schuhe, Danke!”

For the adjective “tragfähig” some people I know told me that it is not correct, maybe it would be more correct “tragbar”.
But I can see “tragfähige Schuhe” in several other cases, just searching the Internet.

Please can you tell me if “tragfähige Schuhe” is correct? And what exactly is the meaning?

* if you write your answer also in German it would be very useful for me :-)

Thanks for your reply.

7 years ago

Thanks again for a great post! My friends used also the word begabt for capable and I also read the word imstande whichI think means the same. What is the difference among fähig, begabt und imstande? Thanks :)

7 years ago

Gah, when my German-tongue-in-training pronounces W-Lan (VEE-lan), my English computer-literate brain ist unfähig of thinking of anything but VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network), which is also a thing. I can listen to W-Lan on dict.cc, but how would you pronounce VLAN? flan? ffff-lan?

7 years ago

I just found your blog and have subscribed–it’s super helpful and the explanations and etymology are fantastic–vielen, vielen Dank!

7 years ago

In deine zweite Nutzung von “unter anderem”, hast du sie als “mainly” uebersetzt. Das scheint … seltsam?

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Was the phrasing of my comment OK? Should it have been “In deiner zweiten Nutzung …”, or perhaps ganz anders?

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel


I used to be "Gustav" in high school German
I used to be "Gustav" in high school German
7 years ago

Hi, I just found this blog while looking for a good explanation for “gleich.” Just wanted to say your blog is terrific, and I’ll see if I can make a habit of keeping up with the word of the day.

7 years ago

In Swedish the word “fangen” simply contracted to “få”!

7 years ago

Hey, just a quick question

Maria bittet ihren Arzt um eine Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung.
Maria asks her boss for a sick certificate.

Should that be Maria asks her doctor for a medical certificate – not boss?

Also for the first example, beer should be tipped/poured “out” not “away”.

Thanks for the articles as always.

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I would use “pour out” (analogous to “throw out”) for putting it down the sink or whatever – “pour away” is perfectly understandable, but I think most native speakers would hear “pour out” as disposal, or at least not pouring for drinking (one can also “pour out” a libation/drink offering). If you’re putting it into a glass, I’d just use “pour.”

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Pour away is correct and normal for GB English. You’re right, pour out would be into glasses.

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Interesting. I’m the original anonymous (I need to get myself a name if I’m going to keep popping up in the comments) and I speak Australian English. I’d actually use “tip out”, rather than “pour out” to indicate getting rid of something, but I’d still use “pour out” over “pour away” (pour away sounds like a serious “foreign-ism” to me – I got what you meant completely, but it made me smile a bit. Interesting to see that it is used in Britain). Like Berlingrabers, I would use “pour” alone to indicate pouring a drink, and I would use the context of the sentence to understand “pour out” as disposing of (the beer).

Thinking about it a little, the only other place I would use pour out would be to indicate pouring something with a bit of care among a lot of glasses, or taking a careful measure of something – a bit like a less formal/scientific “measure out”:
I measure out the acid for the solution.
Can you please pour out five drinks (from that single bottle of soft drink)
Hmm… We have a litre bottle of milk, and that recipe calls for 800ml. Pour out 200ml (into another container) and we’ll tip the rest of the bottle into the mix.

So yeah, for me “pour out” is either pouring a specific measure with care, or disposing of something. However, I’d use “tip” over “pour” anyway in most cases of disposing of something – probably because “pour out” indicates some kind of care to me, where “tip out” does not. Pouring out a beer in the sink makes me think of aiming the liquid directly down the plug hole and gently pouring it to avoid mess or splash-back. Tipping beer out is just upending it the bottle in the sink – splash-back be damned.

(Sorry for the essay. Not trying to argue or convince you to change it our anything, I just think its interesting how different people understand different words).

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Interesting – I never would have guessed that was particularly American. If it’s going into glasses, seems like you’re pouring IN, not out… ;)

Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson
7 years ago

Unten, zahlungsfähig bedeutet ‘solvent’.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ron Magnuson

Fortunately I could flip up a few paragraphs and confirm that zahlungsunfähig was insolvent. But at first scan it was a bit confusing.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ron Magnuson

“Insolvent” is “zahlungsunfähig”?

“Skill tree” is not a term I’m familiar with. It seems (Thank you, Google.) to be used mostly in video gaming. Is that the same for “Fähigkeitsbaum”?

7 years ago
Reply to  Ruth

“skill tree” is more often transleted as “Fertigkeitsbaum” (or Fertigkeitenbaum). The meaning of “Fertigkeit” and “Fähigkeit” is slightly different.

7 years ago

Thank you,

Could you please explain the grammar behind the sentence “Was mich an meinem Mitbewohner am meisten stört, ist seine Unfähigkeit, sich in andere reinzuversetzen”?

I’m only asking about the “in andere”. Given it needs to be Akkusativ, have you assumed it’s “eine andere Person” and therefore used “andere”?

If it were a man, would you have written “in einen anderen”?


7 years ago


The link in the email to ‘Read more of this post’ is slightly wrong… the day part should be ’23’ and not ’03’






Jacob Kaplan
Jacob Kaplan
7 years ago

Can’t be found.


7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Great post, as usual.
I think what the commenter meant, is that if you click the “continue reading” link from the notification email, you get to a page that says, “nothing found”. However, it does link to your blog, so it’s only a question of clicking on the “home” button to get to this page.