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

gemein

 

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.

  • Es gibt drei Dinge, die Einhörner mit Faschisten gemein haben.
  • There are three things that unicorns have in common with fascists.

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

  • “Alter… mach dir keine Sorgen. Gemeinsam schaffen wir das!”
    “Äh… ich mach mir keine Sorgen. Ich schaffe das Bier auch alleine. Hol dir eins, wenn du eins willst.”
  • “Bro… don’t worry. Together we’ll make it.”
    “Uhm… I’m not worried. I can finish that beer alone. Get one if you want one.”
  • Thomas und Maria haben viel gemeinsam.
  • Thomas and Maria have a lot in common.
  • Es gibt viele Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen Deutsch und Englisch.
  • There are lots of commonalities between German and English.

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

  • Maria will nicht mehr in einer WG wohnen (Wohngemeinschaft)
  • Maria doesn’t want to live in a shared flat anymore. (lit.: “living-community”)
  • Das ist der Gemeinschaftskühlschrank. Hier kann jeder nehmen, was er will.
  • This is the community fridge. Here, everyone can take whatever they want.
  • Die Gemeinde ist sehr hart vom Virus getroffen.
  • The community has been hit hard by the virus.
    (“Gemeinde” sounds a bit formal/political)

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.

  • “Was sagst du zu asiatischem Essen?”
    “Für heute, so als Dinner, meinst du?”
    “Nee, ganz allgemein.”
  • “What do you say about Asian food?
    “For today, like for dinner, you mean?”
    “No, just in general/generally.
  • Im Allgemeinen ist das Wetter in Italien gut.
  • In general, the weather in Italy is good.
  • Maria hasst es, dass Thomas immer alles verallgemeinert.
  • Maria hates it that Thomas always generalizes everything.

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.

  • Guter Service ist uns ungemein wichtig.
  • Good service is very  important to us.

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.

  • Das hast du zu Maria gesagt?! Das war gemein von dir.
  • You said THAT to Maria?! That was mean of you.
  • 6 Euro für ein Bier?! Was für eine Gemeinheit.
  • 6 Euro for a beer?! What a villainy/disgrace.
    (Gemeinheit has like 1.000 translations on dict.cc,  but the core idea is the act of being mean)

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 Mittel if 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 gemein and 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”

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saintonge
saintonge
1 year ago

Very interesting. Where is the post on the prefix “ge”?

Zoha
Zoha
1 year ago

Since there were so many wonderful words in this article and I knew I would forget all of them immediately, here is my attempt to put them all together so I will remember the Kontext. :D

I have no idea what I’m doing so please feel free to correct it!

Im Allgemeinen, unserer Who-Gemeinschaft arbeitet gemeinsam. Aber der Grinch hat kein Gemeinschaftsgefühl, weil er gemein ist. Er ist nicht gemein zu Eins. Er verallgemeinert Gemeinheit, er hasst Alles und jedermann. Er wacht gemein auf im Morgen Aber im Abend es ist anders. Er is supergemein. Heute hat er Gemeinschaftskühlschrank geschlossen mit ein groses Vorhängeschloss. Oh! Was für eine Gemeinheit! Ich hoffe der Grinch und wir können etwas gemein funden. Gemeinsam wir können Freunde. Vielleicht.

Zoha
Zoha
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I’m weirdly excited that supergemein works.
But thank you I appreciate it! I’ll make the necessary corrections.
for 3 I was trying to say… he isn’t mean to/about one specific thing. How could I phrase that better?
YES oh nooo that I’ve missed a word FOR NO REASON. Would it be ‘Gemeinsam wir können Freunde bekommen?
Thank youuuu I will pester you with more stories soon.

Zoha
Zoha
1 year ago
Reply to  Zoha

können wir I mean!
ignore me I’m going to melt in shame.

Teo
Teo
1 year ago

What a great article! Very illuminating

Kayla-P
Kayla-P
1 year ago

This article is awesome. I can really see the relationships between and the evolution of the words. Two questions: if etwas gemein haben is rare/fancy, how would I say it non-fancily? To be able to talk about ‘having something in common’ would be pretty useful. Also, more importantly, what are the three things unicorns have in common with fascists??

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago

That shift in meaning from “normal, lower-class” toward something more in the realm of “unpleasant” is pretty common with a number of words in English. “Vulgar” is another one – Jerome’s Latin Bible translation was called the Vulgate (or Vulgata) because it was in the common language, i.e. “vulgar” Latin. Now most people would hear “vulgar” as almost a synonym for “obscene.”

I’m not sure if it’s an English thing, but we do generally seem to have a phenomenon of words with a specific, technical, or at least relatively value-neutral meaning turning into insults over time and having to be replaced…

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Maybe, yeah. I mean, as I understand it, that’s why we lost “thou/thee” as a singular “you” – it came to be always heard as insulting, so everybody had to be addressed as “you.”

But there are also words like “imbecile,” “moron,” and “idiot” – there was a time when all of those were actually specific, technical terms for varying degrees of mental disability.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed that too. “Mean” is interesting because it can also be used in a positive way.

She makes a mean steak.
He’s lean and mean (athlete).

Maybe someone decided to use an insult ironically and it stuck.

krita
krita
1 year ago

I absolutely adore your humour so much, been wondering how gemein works for a while now.
Also, thank you everyone who donated to help others who can’t afford the membership– it’s helping me quite bit to get closer to B1. :)x

Francesca
Francesca
1 year ago

Emanuel, thank you for the clever article. With regart to ‘zusammen’ did I understand correcly that it is used with objects and not people? Could you please write a couple of examples? I am puzzled because I see it used in connection with people, like ‘Hallo zusammen’. What do I not get?? Thank you

anon
anon
1 year ago

Hi! Vielen dank für die Spende
Ich freue mich auf deutsch lernen 
I’m new so please correct me on my German haha :)
Once again, thank you. I’m so grateful to be able to join this community!

Shebly
Shebly
1 year ago

Thank u for donation

willmh
willmh
1 year ago

ich habe nur am dritten Quiz Versuch gemerkt, dass du “multiple answers” an der letzten Frage geschrieben hast! XD

The English word “meander” came to mind. It looks like it may have a connection to the English “mean”, but wandering without purpose seems distant. Unless maybe it implied crossing the mean (the path) back and forth repeatedly? Any findings there from your etymology research for the article?

Wie immer, tolles Lesen und danke!

Angela Sachs
Angela Sachs
1 year ago

Thanks… another great article. Next time the dog barks at the postman I can say, “Hey! Jess! Nicht so gemain!” or better still, “Was fur eine Gemeinheit machst du?!”

shauser31416
shauser31416
1 year ago

BTW, that “book” that you are writing… Once that is published you will instantly be famous and fabulously wealthy. Will you still talk to us?

shauser31416
shauser31416
1 year ago

Emmanuel, this is one of your best ever! A little light went on when you hinted that “ge-” and “co-” are equivalent. Then everything else you said just fell into place.

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago

Lots of fun things to think about this week. I had no idea ge- and co- are related, but I think I can see the parallels now that you mention it.

I really was thinking about the difference between gemeinsam and zusammen, so the last question on the quiz was helpful. I came across beisammen recently, in the context of two people sitting together. Is this one also used only for people?

I’m kind of stoked for the article about ge- :)

Dr_Nick
Dr_Nick
1 year ago

“mean”, in English retains the meaning (or should I say connotation?) of poverty, although it is not commonly used in everyday English these days. A “mean hovel” or “mean meal” for example. I do love your excursions into etymology: thank you.

berlingrabers
berlingrabers
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That meaning is definitely antiquated by now, but you’d see it in older literature for sure (19th century and older).

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago

Hiya,

Let’s correct some typos:
“for instance in context of behavior” (for instance in the context of behavior)
“you it dawns on you” (the first “you” is surplus)
“you can kind of already kind of see” (the first “kind” is also surplus)
“Maria doesn’t want to love in a shared flat anymore” (is it “love” really that she doesn’t want? lol – this typo made me laugh!)

And that’s it for typos. Only got one question wrong, and that’s good, because I’m feeling so sad on account of how the whole world is being gemein to us all that I’m hardly able to concentrate on learning German… or on anything else, for that matter…

Danke für deine Hilfe dabei, (und, ich bin sicher, viele andere Leute) durch diese schwere Zeit zu machen (please feel free to correct my pitiful attempt at German).

Bis bald!

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for the explanation on the German, I actually thought (obviously wrongly) that durch’machen was a separable verb!

Yep, you could keep the first “kind” instead of the second; “kind of already sort of” does sound, in fact, silly ;)

Elsa
Elsa
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks for the explanation :)

The most idiomatic in English, IMO, would be “Thanks for helping us get through this”, although your option isn’t wrong, but “to” sounds surplus, at least to my ears…

coleussanctus
coleussanctus
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

“Kind of sort of (already) see” would sound A-OK to me. I think I use it more without “already,” though.

Jinksy
Jinksy
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

You can kind of already see… :)

Veena
Veena
1 year ago

Sehr gut erklärt. Vielen Dank

Dance with Shadows
Dance with Shadows
1 year ago

Emanuel, do we now not get the opportunity to save a pdf copy of the article?

pmccann
pmccann
1 year ago

Patience, grasshopper: zuerst kommen die Korrekturen, dann erscheint den Knopf für das PDF.

Poyma
Poyma
1 year ago

I can totally see where the snobby-sounding ” ugh, that’s soooo common”, (said with great disdain) is similar to gemein. In the introduction, “cinemans” is cracking me up and putting a smile on my face, using muscles that I thought had completely atrophied due to disuse.
Thanks Emanuel!

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago

Ein Wort mit verschieden Verwendungen und Sinnen . Es kann Adverb oder Adjectiv sein . Das is nicht so ein gemeiner Begriff als Man es vorstellen könnte !
Vielen Dank Emmanuel für diesen nützlichen Artikel .

Ahmad Mazaheri
Ahmad Mazaheri
1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ich meinte dass das ist ein nicht ördinaires Wort . Es hat viele Gesichter/e oder Facade .
Schönen Tag .