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, Computerkentnissen 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 Befähigt 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”)