Word of the Day – “fehlen”

fehlen-pictureHello everyone,

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



If you’re learning German, then you’ve made a mistake.
Wait, that’s a weird phrasing. Learning German is not a mistake of course.
What I mean is that I’m pretty sure you’ve made mistakes in German, and you might also know that the German word for mistake is der Fehler.
So it would make a lot of sense if fehlen just meant to fail. 
But…. that’s not quite what it is.
So let’s take a look….

The verb fehlen is indeed the German version of the English word to fail. The origin of both is the French verb faillir and Brits imported it (or got fed it by French invaders) pretty much without making any changes. Just like the French faillir, to fail covers the ideas of erring, making a mistake and more broadly to not succeed and also to let down.

Now, the Germans imported the word too. It happened during the age of knights and at first they used it for a very specific action of medieval tournaments: missing your opponent or another target with the lance.
But the word caught on and was soon used more broadly. First, for missing physical targets in general, but soon people also used it for missing abstract goals… like, say, getting Accusative right. An idea pretty similar to fail. That’s when the word Fehler came up and this notion of missing a goal still is the basis for many of the words that have fehl in them.

  • Niemand ist unfehlbar.
  • Nobody is infallible.
  • Du hast gedacht, ich bestehe den Test nicht, aber weit gefehlt! Ich hab’ ‘ne 1+.
  • You thought I wasn’t going to pass the test but… far from it! I got an A+.
    (literally: “missed it by far”)
  • George Clooney als Batman war eine krasse Fehlbesetzung.
  • George Clooney as Batman was horribly miscast
  • Zwischenrufe sind im Theater fehl am Platz.
  • Heckling is out of place at the theater.

In fact, also falsch, which is the German word for wrong, is an offspring of fehlen  (as is false by the way).
So it could be one happy consistent family of words. If it wasn’t for fehlen itself.
Because that verb means something quite different.

“fehlen” – to not be there

Fehlen has shifted away from the idea of actively missing a goal, toward the idea of being missing.

  • Im Kühlschrank fehlt ein Bier.
  • There is one beer missing in the fridge.

I  mean…  there’s still missing involved, but it’s a completely different angle.  So the question is how this shift happened.
And the answer is… it didn’t. Not in German at least, because the sense of not being
French has the very common phrasing il faut, which means something like one has to

  • Il faut discuter.
  • We have to discuss/one has to discuss.

Well, this phrasing is actually a form of faillir and the original sense was the idea that something is missing or lacking.

  • Il faut discuter.
  • “Discussion is missing/lacking” (hence, we must do it)

Now, I’m sure some of you are like “Emanuel pleeeeease, don’t use French to explain German… that is like helping me carry a piano up the stairs by sitting on top of it and giving breathing advice.”
And that’s a valid complaint, indeed.
But don’t worry, I have a second way to make to connect the dots Take the following phrasing with to fail, the famous line Darth Vader says to Cpt. Kirk at the end of Fast and Furious 6:

  • You have failed me for the last time.

Here, the two ideas kind of blend together. Failing someone is kind of doing them wrong, and at the same time it’s also not being there for them.
Here’s a more obvious example:

  • “I was hoping Superman would come and save us when our boat was sinking and sharks coming toward us. But he didn’t show up. He failed us.”

Here, Superman fails the people by literally not being there. So that’s awfully close to the actual meaning of fehlen.

  • There is not enough salt in this soup. Salt fails me… again!!

This sounds silly in English, but all we have to do is remove the notion of “let-down” and focus on the notion of not being there and we almost have the German fehlen.

  • Da ist nicht genug Salz in der Suppe. Salz fehlt mir.

And if we now add a bit of emotion, then we’re pretty much there. That’s why German fehlen is used as a translation for to miss.

  • Meine Katze fehlt mir.

The literal translation of that is

  • “My cat is missing to/from me.”

and the actual sense is:

  • I miss my cat.

So, now that we’ve explored why how the German fehlen changed from the idea of mistake to the idea of being missing, let’s take a closer look at how it is used. Because there’s lots of potential Fehler there :).

how to use “fehlen”

The reason why people make a lot of mistakes with using fehlen is that they think of it as to miss. But you need to realize the following:

fehlen does NOT translate to to miss directly!


Not in the sense of not getting something… that would be verpassen.

  • I miss the bus.
  • Ich fehle den Bus...what??? This is not even understandable
  • Ich verpasse den bus.

And also not in sense of not hitting a target. Yes, fehlen did have that meaning back in the day. But it does NOT have it anymore.
It has passed it on to its prefix version verfehlen.

  • I miss the target.
  • Ich fehle das Ziel…. is wrong…and again barely understandable
  • Ich verfehle das Ziel.

And fehlen ALSO does not mean to miss in the sense of being sad that something is not there.

  • I miss my cat
  • Ich fehle meine Katze.... is super wrong

In German, you have to swap it around and say that your cat “is missing to you“. THAT is what fehlen means. The person having the feeling is the object (Dative) while in English it’s the other way around.

  • I miss my cat.
  • Mir fehlt meine Katze.
    Meine Katze fehlt mir.

So, once again… think of fehlen as to be missing. And it can be used with or without “emotional charge”. So it’s really common in the sense of something being lacking…

  • Maria hat heute im Unterricht gefehlt.
  • Maria was missing in class today.
  • “Wie ist die Suppe?”
    “Ganz gut… aber es fehlt ein bisschen Geschmack.”
  • “How’s the soup.”
    “It’s all right… but a little bit of taste  is missing .”
  • Mist, mir fehlen 30 Cent für einen Döner.
  • Crap. I am 30 cent short of a kebap.
    (lit.: “30 cents are missing to me”)
  • Diesem Film fehlt eine gute Story.
  • “To this movie a good story is lacking.” (lit.)
  • This movie lacks a good story.

And it can express the emotional side as well…

  • Thomas (to him) fehlt seine Frau (she)
  • Thomas (he) misses his Misses (her).

Oh God, I hope the example isn’t too confusing. Again, the colors are:  who does it (subject)  and who it is done to (object).  The two structures you should keep in mind are:

  • [X] fehlt.
  • [X] is not present.

  • [x] fehlt mir (dir/ihm…).
  • “[x] is not present for me (you/him…)” (lit.)
  • I (you, he…) miss/lack/am short of [x].

Or to put it another way…  

  • Ich fehle…

that means that YOU are not present.

  • Mir fehlt…

that means that something else is not present FOR YOU, either in a neutral sense or with a tear running down the cheek :).
Did I mention that fehlen is never straight up translates to to miss?
I did? Good:). Try to anchor that in your mind!

Now, we’re almost done for the day, but before we wrap up, I want to go over a few of the common phrasings because they’re just so common and useful.

common phrasings with “fehlen”

And first up, we have the adjective fehlend, which means missing.

  • Die Elfen haben die fehlende Stück des Amuletts gefunden.
  • The elves have found the missing piece of the amulet.
  • Missing link finally found… according to Google it’s on Bing.
  • Fehlendes Glied endlich gefunden… meh… doesn’t translate that well

And did I mention that feh… okay okay I’ll stop.
Next up, we have the fehlen as it used by a doctor to ask for your symptoms.

  • Was fehlt Ihnen denn?

And there’s a more widespread colloquial version, too.

  • Fehlt dir was?
  • Are you all right?

Next, we have a very common idiom with fehlen…. imagine you have a really bad day, your hair looks awful, the milk you put in your coffee was rotten but you realize it too late, your car has a flat tire, your computer crashed and all your data is lost, one of your children has the flue and need to see a doctor and then you get a call from work telling you that this project you though was due next month is now due… now… that is the perfect time to say

  • Das fehlt mir gerade noch!
  • Oh that was just what was missing. (lit)

This is pure irony and it actually means

  • Oh that is the last thing I needed now.

And then lastly, we have already talked about the compound nouns that have fehl in them and I said that most of them use the wrong-idea… so they come from Fehler. But some come from fehlen.

  • Ich habe 4 Fehltage.
  • I have 4 days of absence.
  • Der Fehlbetrag wird immer größer.
  • The missing amount grows ever bigger.

So if you see a word with Fehl and the wrong-idea doesn’t really make sense… try the missing-idea.

And I think that’s it for today. Hooray.
This was our look at the meaning and use of fehlen. And the main thing to remember is… yeah… you know it :).

If you want to check how much you remember, you can test yourself with the missing quiz … I mean, you can’t because it’s missing. But I’m on it.  Summer 2020 is gonna be the time. I can feel it.
Anyway, of course, if you think that there is something that fehls or if you find any Fehler or if you just have question or suggestions go ahead and leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


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