Word of the Day – “gemein”

Hello everyone,

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


When you come across the word gemein in a text, for instance in the context of behavior, and you look it up in a dictionary, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. You’ll get the translation mean (adjective) and if you ignore the ge-, which German is such a big fan of, the two actually look fairly similar. Nothing to see here.
For a second, you might wonder what mean behavior has to do with meanwhile and meantime. And by all means. And meaning.
But nah, it’s probably nothing.
English is full of weird similar spellings, you tell yourself. And you read on, ever so merrily. Until a few sentences later, you come across gemeinsam. And as you remember that it means together, it dawns on you… there’s more to gemein than it seems.
Much more in fact. Like… mindblowingly more.
So let’s jump right in :)

At the start of it all was the super mega hyper ancient Indo-European root mei- and this root had the core idea of move and change or exchange – something that is still pretty well preserved in the Slavic branch of family. Like… the Bulgarian word for to change for example is сменям (“smenjam”) and it’s similar in Russian and other Slavic languages.
Now, if you’ve read my mini series on prefix verbs, then you might remember that prefixes are actually a really old idea and already the Indo-Europeans used them. One of their prefixes, or syllables, was ko-.
This ko- carried a sense of together, and in combination with the root mei- it carried the idea of something being exchanged within the tribe… like a common tool, for example.
And you might have picked up on where this is going – this Indo-European “word” then made its way into Latin, where it became the word common and into the Germanic languages where it was some version of “ga-maini”.

And if you’re now like “Wait a second, does that mean that the German ge-prefix is related to the Latin based co(m)-??” then you hit the nail on the head!
The ge- was a “normal” prefix once, expressing a notion of together, assembly. And if you think of the English phrase “Things are coming together.” you can already kind of see how it shifted toward becoming a marking for the past tense. It’s a notion of culmination, completion.
But hey… I’ll talk more about that in the article on ge- and the book about non-separable prefixes that I am working on. Which is like low-key making crazy progress, by the way… whatever that means :)

Anyway, so the word common and the Germanic ancestors of “ga-maini” carried the idea of “together, shared within a group”. And actually, every now and then you can still see that meaning in active use.

But the related words are WAY more common, like gemeinsam for example.

Or the nouns die Gemeinschaftand die Gemeinde, which cover different aspects of community (Gemeinde being the political or religious unit).

Or of course the word allgemein, which literally means something like “common to all” and which has a few variations of its own, all revolving around an idea of general.

And now the big question is what about gemein itself and the word mean?
How did they get so… well… mean?

Well, we’ve learned that the original idea was common, together but soon people started using the words also in a sense of normal, not special. We can actually see this stage even today, for instance in animal names. Die gemeine Stubenfliege for example is not the mean room fly, but the normal room fly. And there’s also the word ungemein which until today means “not normal, not average” and it’s used as an intensifier… like sehr, just way more distinguished and pretty rare these days.

This normal-gemein(and mean) was also used for normal people; in the sense of “commoner”. And the aristocracy and upper class soon added a snobbish, negative vibe to that and the words shifted first toward simple, then poor and uneducated and eventually without manners and rough. And from there, it’s but a very small step to the gemein and mean we know today.

So to paraphrase: the sentence “Das war gemein.” originally simply meant “That was what commoners do.” and under the influence of the decadent aristocracy, that slowly shifted toward poor and rough.
This development kind of occurred in German and English in parallel and today, the connection to common is completely forgotten. Like…I’m pretty sure about 80% of Germans never actually noticed that gemein and gemeinsam are awfully similar.
And I’m pretty sure it’s similar for the English mean. And because we have a little time left, let’s take a look at that real quick.

What about the other English mean?

So English is actually quite messy because there are several versions of mean.

  1. the adjective mean
  2. the statistical mean, as in mean value
  3. the part mean, as in meanwhile or meantime
  4. the verb to mean
  5. the noun mean, in the sense of way

I’ll give you a second, so you can make your guesses about the relations now.

So… we’ve already learned the story of the adjective mean and since it once used to have a sense of normal, average it would make a lot of sense if the statistical mean also belonged to that family. But nope! The statistical mean actually belongs to the family of medium, middle. Makes sense, too, I think. And this is also the origin of the words meanwhile and meantime, which both refer to the time in between things… the time in the “middle”.
And actually, this middle-mean is ALSO the origin of meaning number five – the mean as in means to an end. This connection is not very obvious but if you think of a means to an end as an intermediary, a middle-man, you can kind of see it. It’s the same in German, actually, and you can check out my article on Mittelif you want to learn more. I’ll put the link below.
So that leaves us with the verb to mean. And that indeed has its own family. The origin is the anciently ancient Indo-European root *mei(n)- which already back pretty much had the same meaning the family has today: to mean, to have an opinion.
Which in my opinion as we all know was the actual main driver of human evolution – having an opinion. Pfshhh… tools. Lots of animals use tools. But having an opinion… that’s what WE do. Humans. Heck yeah!! Tremble, nature, for we have OPINIONS!!!

And I have an opinion to share now: I think we’re done for the day :).
This was our little look at the meaning of gemeinand its surprising family. As usual, if you want to recap a bit and see how much you remember, you can take 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 **

gemein = mean (evil)
die Gemeinheit = the mean deed
gemeinsam = together
etwas gemein haben = have something in common (fancy sounding, rare)
die Gemeinsamkeit = the commonality
das Gemeinwohl = the common good
die Gemeinde = community (politics, church)
die Gemeinschaft = the community
das Gemeinschaftsgefühl = feeling of community
die Wohngemeinschaft = the flat share (WG for short)
verallgemeinern = to generalize
die Verallgemeinerung = the generalization
im Allgemeinen = generally
die Allgemeinheit = the general population

ungemein = very (“uncommonly”, not used much)

further reading:

Word of the Day – “das Mittel”

Article Rating

for members :)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments