Word of the Day – “leiten”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
And today, we’ll take a look at the meaning of


Leiten is the German brother of to lead. And they do share a common theme. But leiten does quite a few things that lead doesn’t do. Like giving us water and electricity, for example. Or setting up this Ikea rack Fälör. Or even giving us a nice start into a text, like right now.
So, are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s goooo.

So, the core idea of the family is of course the notion of guidance, leadership and it came from the simple act of walking or travelling in the front, showing the way. And while most modern day leading is actually done from a comfy chair, the vibe of “leading from the front” is still pretty present in the English to lead.
But the better match for that is actually the verb führen.  Führen has the same vibe as to lead and it’s often the translation. We’ll look at führen in a separate article at some point, so I don’t want to get too much into the nuances, but let’s look at a few examples.

  • Die Elfe führt mich durch den Einhornwald.
  • The Elf guides/leads me through the unicorn forest.
  • Merkel hat Deutschland durch einige große Krisen geführt.
  • Merkel has led Germany through some big crisis.
  • Zuviel Bier führt zu zuviel Bauch.
  • Too much beer leads to too much belly.
  • Die Führung durch die alte Fabrik ist sehr interessant.
  • The guided tour through the old factory is very interesting.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that leiten never translates to to lead or guide. It’ just important that you remember that it doesn’t have this vibe of actively leading the way. Leiten has more of a vibe of giving a way/directions.
Like…  much of today’s “desk”-leading would actually better called leiten than führen. And you can find it in that sense here and there. In the business world in particular,  führen and leiten are equally common and which one is used often comes down to what’s idiomatic in a certain context.

  • Der Geschäftsführer leitet ein Unternehmen und übernimmt die Geschäftsführung.
  • The manager leads the business and is in charge of leading the operations of the business.

Tried my best with the translation there, but I don’t really know business English. Oh and no…  didn’t make that sentence up.
It’s actually literally the first sentence of a definition of Geschäftsführer from “Gruenderszene.de” a very BIG German website for founders and founding.
Brace yourself silicon valley, the German Gründers are coming. And they’ll bore you to death.

Seriously though, so the core idea of leiten is not really leadership, it’s a sense of giving a way.
And that’s a makes it much easier to understand and remember what might be the most important use of the verb and its related nouns: to conduct, in the sense of conducting liquids or electricity.

  • Metalle leiten gut Strom.
  • Metals conduct electricity well.
  • Halbleiter sind für Computer essentiell.
  • Semi-conductors are essential for computers.
  • Wenn es in Berlin stark regnet, werden die Abwässer in die Spree geleitet.
  • When it rains heavily in Berlin, the sewage is being channeled into the Spree.
  • Das Leitungswasser in Berlin hat eine echt gute Qualität.
  • The tap water in Berlin has a high quality.
    (literally “conduit water”)

By the way, the verb to conduct is actually closer to leading than you might realize . It’s a combination of the prefix co(n) and the Latin verb ducere. And now guess what that meant… exactly: to lead. And there are other prefix versions of it like to reduce (“lead back“) or produce (“lead/bring forth”) or seduce (“lead to sex“). Meh… okay, not sure about the last one.
But yeah, if you’ve read my articles about prefix verbs way back when 2020 was still normal…  duce /duct is a great example for how English has a bunch of prefix verbs hidden in plain sight (I’ll leave a link to the article below, if you want to check that out).

And speaking of prefix verbs… of course leiten also has a few really nice ones, so let’s take a look.

Prefix versions of “leiten”

So far, we’ve learned that the core notion of leiten is a sense of giving a way, a direction. And this totally fits the prefix versions as well.

  • Wegen der Baustelle wird der Verkehr umgeleitet.
  • Because of the construction site, the traffic is being redirected.
  • Ich hab’ dir die E-Mail weitergeleitet.
  • I forwarded you the email.
  • Viele Länder leiten langsam das Ende des Lockdowns ein.
  • Many countries are introducing an end to lockdown.
    (another prefix verion of “duce” :)
  • Aus deinem Gesicht leite ich eine gewisse Unzufriedenheit ab.
  • From your face, I deduce a certain dissatisfaction.

And here are some examples for related nouns.

  • Das war eine gute Überleitung.
  • That was a good transition.
    (only for switching topics!!)
  • Eine gute Einleitung ist sehr wichtig.
  • A good introduction is very important.
    (only for texts and topic, NOT for introducing people)
  • “Thomas ist soooo kompliziert.”
    “Ach ja… warum gibt es keine Bedienungsanleitung für Männer.”
  • “Thomas is soooo complicated.”
    “Oh well… why isn’t there a user manual for men.”
  • “Was ist das auf dem Dach?”
    “Das ist mein neuer Designer-Blitzableiter aus Mahagoni-Holz.”
    “Äh… sorry, ich will nicht negativ sein, aber… “
  • “What’s that on the roof?”
    “That’s my new designer lightning rod made from mahogany wood.”
    “Uhm… I don’t want to be negative but… ”
    (Lit.: “flash away-conducter”)

Now, the contexts in these obviously vary quite a bit. But I hope you can see that in all of them, there is  sense of a path being offered, a direction. Traffic is directed elsewhere, the reader is directed into the text or to a different topic, the lightning is directed down into the ground.
There’s really only one prefix version that’s kind of surprising. And it’s not surprising because of the meaning. It is surprising that it’s actually a prefix version of leiten. I am talking about begleiten, the German word for to accompany.

Begleiten looks like it’s the be-version of gleiten, which is the German version of to glide. But that’s not what’s really going on. Begleiten is actually the be-version of geleiten,  which itself is the ge-version of leiten. Geleiten used to be more or less a synonym for leiten in a sense of guiding, bringing but it sounds quite theatrical nowadays and I only ever see it in the phrase freies Geleit (safe conduct).
Beg(e)leiten on the other hand, which had an emphasis on guiding “in person”, became the German word for to accompany and is still very much around today.

  • Der Hund hat uns beim Wandern fast einen Tag begleitet.
  • The dog kept us company/came with us at hiking for almost a day.
  • Der Wein ist eine ausgezeichnete Begleitung zu dem Steak.
  • The wine excellently accompaniment the steak.
    (lit.: “is excellent company”)
  • Seit der Nacht im Zauberwald ist eine unsichtbares Einhorn namens Bob mein ständiger Begleiter.
  • Ever since the night in the magical forest, an invisible unicorn with the name Bob is my constant companion.

What… what do you say, Bob? No, I have not told them about the German word for ladder… yes… yes, I know it’s die Leiter, but that comes from the Indo-European root  *klei, which is also where climate and climax are from and which was about leaning. So it’s got nothing to do with leiten.
And no, I also haven’t told them that leiten is related to leid. I already talked about that in the article on leiden. Could you shut up now, Bob, and let me finish? And stop nagging, we’ll go to the park so you can graze as soon as I’m done.
Gee, so annoying.
Anyway guys. I think that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of leiten and its family. And the main takeaway is that leiten DOESN’T have this leadership vibe that the English to lead has. Now, there are a lot more cool leiten-words out there, and I’ll add some of them to the vocabulary, so if you have a question about any of them or if you come across one that I forgot… let me know in the comments. Same goes for other questions of course, and if you want to check how much you remember, as usual, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
I hope you liked it, have a great week and see you next time.


further reading:

Thinking about Prefix Verbs – A General Overview
Word of the Day – “leiden”

** vocab **

leiten = guide, leade, conduct (core idea is “showing way”, not about leading from the front)
der Leiter = the director, the manager (“die Leiterin” for women, sounds a bit bureaucratic)
die Leitung = cable, conduit
das Leitungswasser = the tap water
aus der Leitung = from the tap
der Halbleiter = the semi conductor
die Leitplanke = the guarding rail
das Leitmotiv = the leitmotif (music)
der Leitfaden = the guideline (informal)

überleiten = to transition (only in texts, if for things and people you’d say “übergehen”)
die Überleitung = transition (only in texts, if for things and people you’d say “übergehen”)

einleiten =  to introduce (rare!)
die Einleitung = the introduction (only for texts, not getting to know someone)

anleiten = give step by step instructions (not very commonly used, “zeigen” and “vormachen” are more common)
die Anleitung = the manual
die Bedienungsanleitung = the user manual

ableiten (aus, von) = to deduce, to derive, derivate (math); “lead away” (for electricity or substances)
die Ableitung = the derivative (math)
der Blitzableiter = the lightning rod

umleiten = redirect (traffic, travelling entities)
die Umleitung = redirection, re-routing, route diversion (traffic)

weiterleiten = to forward, to pass on (only for emails and information)

freies Geleit = safe conduct

begleiten = to accompany
die Begleitung = the company (person/thing accompanying someone/something)
die Begleiterscheinung = the side effect, accompanying effect

die Leiter = the ladder

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