Word of the Day – “lesen”

lesen-germanHello everyone,

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



Now you’re like “Hey … I think there’s a typo. You want to talk about lassen, right?”
No, I don’t… well… yes I do, but not today.
“But come on…we know what lesen  means. Lesen is boring.”
I know. It does sound like a boring word. Heck, reading itself is quite boring to begin with. So reading about reading must be super mega boring. But let’s not think of it as boring, let’s think of it as … uhm… relaxing. Soothing. And hey… even on a slow walk in the park one might find a most beautiful flower…. that’s from my new aphorism book by the way.
But seriously, last week we talked about a book and about etymology and lesen kinda sorta fits right in. So are you ready to dive right in at full bore?
I mean full speed?

The English word  to read is related to  riddle and reason as well as to the German  verb raten (I’ll add a link to the WotD – “raten” below). The core of this very old family is some sort of reasoning. The word to read fits right in there because in essence it describes the process of interpreting or making sense of weird signs… be it coffee ground, musical notes or the scribbles that your loved one referred to as a “shopping list”… gee, I got buller and mulk but I have no idea what “flonr” is.
The German lesen describes exactly the same thing… you can lesen a text just like you can lesen someones facial expression or the flight of birds. Reading and lesen really pretty much translate one to one. But the words are not related at all. But there are a few words here and there that are related to lesen.
Here now are a few examples for words related to lesen… maybe you can see some connection

lesson… lecture… lexicon…  legend… elite… elect… election…
elegant… select… collect… collection… neglect… negligee … legate
intellect … intelligent… legal … legislation … lex…  privilege…
delegate… legion… colleague… legacy… alleged

Daaaamn. Isn’t that crazy? All those are related to lesen.
Now, most of them come from Latin but the real origin is the super ancient root les/g which meant to collect, to pick up and which was mostly used in context with berries and stuff like that. In Latin, they had the verb legere which still had the old meaning of collecting and picking up. But now it wasn’t for berries anymore, but for all kinds of selections. Select, elect, collect, elegant and elite… all those come from the background of choosing. Even intelligent, which comes from the idea of “being able to discern between items”. And then Latin had the word lex. The Lex Caesar for example was was nothing other than a collection of laws or rules that Caesar had thought up. And this is where the word legal and many others come from.
A privi-lege is a “private right”. A delegate is someone equipped with some right to speak for you and so on.  But besides all those, legere had taken on another meaning… to read. And that’s where lecture and lesson come from.
Now, German also had this old les root in the meaning of collecting which then took on the meaning of reading. Maybe at first it referred to the picking up of runes… I don’t know for sure.Either way, while the English reading is about interpreting, the German lesen, as well as reading in most of the Romance languages are based on the idea of collecting… picking up the letters with your eyes if you will.
Now, this collecting-idea is actually still part of lesen and food advertising is especially fond of it… verlesen, erlesen auserlesen… they don’t use it as verbs but as ge-form adjectives and it’s always about how special and fancy something is.

  • Genießen Sie unsere erntefrischen Säfte aus handverlesensten Früchten unseres Gartens.
  • Enjoy our harvest-fresh juices made from the hand-selectedest fruits from our garden.
  • In unserem Restaurant erwarten Sie auserlesene Gerichte die Sie überraschen und begeistern.
  • At our restaurant, exquisite dishes await you, that will surprise you and inspire you. (I’ll just go with the literal translation here :)
  • Diese erlesenen Weine aus der Region passen perfekt zum Sommer.
  • These select wines from the region are perfect for summer time.

And speaking of wine… the word for harvesting grapes is still die Weinlese.
Besides these, there is also auflesen which is also used in a non marketing context as to pick up sometimes and Auslese which is one word for selection sometimes used in context of evolution, but overall I’d say they’re not very useful in your active vocab. It’s enough to understand them… or at least be aware that they don’t have anything to do with actual reading. So… passive pile, here they come :).
All right.
Now, the reading-lesen can be combined with many prefixed. Some are very similar to English, and some are not…. but context will make it clear most of the time.

  • Die Mutter liest ihrem Kind eine Geschichte vor.
  • The mother reads (out) a story to her child.
  • I think I’m not going to the lecture today… I don’t feel like it.
  • Ich glaub’ ich geh’ heute nicht zur Vorlesung… keinen Bock. (university context only)
  • I’ve read the book through in one night.
  • Ich habe das Buch in einer Nacht durchgelesen.
  • Ich muss den Stromzähler ablesen.
  • I have to read off the electricity meter.

Just a quick breath… and round two…

  • Hier klicken um ins Buch reinzulesen.
  • Click here to read a sample.
  • Bist du sicher? Ich glaube, da musst du nochmal nachlesen.
  • Are you sure? I think you have to read up on that again.
  • Ich lese mich in ein Thema ein.
    I read myself into a topic (lit.)
  • I thoroughly read up on a topic.
  • “Mann, der Thomas hat echt ein tiefes Verständnis von moderner Kunst.”
    “Ach, das hat er sich alles nur angelesen.”
  • “Wow, Thomas sure has a deep understanding of modern art”
    “Meh, he’s just read it all at himself.” (lit.) 
    “Meh, it’s all just book knowledge.”

Quite a variety and those are just some examples… there’s also überlesen (to over-read, to miss something of the writing) , querlesen (to skim, to diagonally read) and mitlesen (to read along)  or einlesen and auslesen which are used a lot in context of computers. And of course there has to be a ver-version. Yeah… besides the one we had earlier that was about selecting. Oh and because it’s ver, it doesn’t only add one notion to lesen but two verlesen has 3 meanings… the for-notion and the wrong-notion … I’ll add a link to a look at ver below.

  • Der Manager verliest sich während er das Protokol verliest.
  • The manager makes reading mistakes while reading out the minutes.

Besides verbs there are a few other words like lesenswert (worth reading) lesbar (readable) or Leseratte (book worm). Leseratte is weird actually… it doesn’t sound the least bit negative although it has rat in it. Well, I guess reading was really the thing in the last centuries. I for one am glad that we have video now. That’s much better. Lesen is just like… so like.. slowish, kinda… i guess.  Oh, someone just posted a Vine… haha, thats hillarius .. anyway where was i … ah right… outro. So…  this was our look at the German word lesen. It comes from a root that meant collecting/selecting berries and so basically describes our eyes collecting letters.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment. Es ist immer schön von euch zu lesen.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

further lesen:

5 2 votes
Article Rating

Newsletter for free?!

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Your Thoughts and Questions

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

Ich habe neulich den Roman “Der Vorleser” (aus?)gelesen. Als ich (mir) das Buch aus der deutschen Bibliothek ausgeliehen habe, hatte ich Angst, dass ich beim Lesen zahlreiche Wörter im Wörterbuch nachschauen müsste. Es war nicht der Fall. Das Buch liest sich leicht. Höchstwahrscheinlich dank seiner oft kurz abgefassten Sätze.

I also checked the book’s title in English (The Reader) and observed a loss in meaning due to the translation. I think I am growing some appreciation for the German prefixes after all :d

Adriano Marcato
Adriano Marcato
7 years ago

Nice! Also, one question occurred to me. During my studies here in the field of mechanical engineering I’ve come across the word “auslegung”, and I wonder if it is connected to the same root (*les/g), and it’s meaning has something to do with selection of appropriate parts for a project. And also there is “legierung”, which I would say is including a selected material inside another one (metal alloys).

7 years ago

Die Olivenlese wird hier in meiner Heimatregion noch per Hand durchgeführt, und diese veraltete Technik steigert drastisch die Erzeugungskosten. Die Oliven kann man ersatzweise erst durch einen Apparat von den Blättern befreien und schließlich durch ein Netz von dem Boden auflesen. Der Apparat sieht wie ein metallischer Besen aus und vibriert, aber wie er heißt weiß ich leider nicht- vielleicht sollte ich mich in ihn einlesen.

PS: Tausend Dank übrigens für deine vorherigen Korrekturen und Vorschläge und auch im Voraus für die Weiteren!

7 years ago

I’ll never read another German wine label (Spätlese, Auslese) without thinking about “reading” the wine label! Ha! Very interesting.

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

No, it’s the absolute truth — I never thought the “lese” part of the wine name had anything at all to do with the verb “lesen” which always I knew meant “to read.” I think it is because as you explain, the “select” and “elect” meanings of “lesen” aren’t at all related to the “to interpret” meaning of the English “to read”. Those associations aren’t at all readily apparent. I think in another article of yours, which I read sometime ago, you point out that “discover” and “recover” and lots of other words with prefixes whose root is “cover” are related to the root word, but most people would not make that connection unless it is pointed out to them, and then it does make sense. Now that I know “lesen” has the “select” idea as part of the word, spaet-lese and aus-lese when describing a wine does make sense. However, previously it never occurred to me that this ending was attached somehow to the verb “lesen”. That’s why I keep coming back here! ;-)))

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Hi Emanuel: I just went through some previous entries and I can’t find it, but in your explanation of one of the “verb” words of the day, (one of those where you list the word “and its prefixes”), you do some explaining about prefixes and show that we have some of the same conventions in English. You then use the “cover/recover/discover/ etc” words as examples to make your point. I can’t find it now, but it is somewhere here in this wealth of information you’ve written. So, again, it was not a specific post on the “covering-thing” but rather, that was the example you used to clarify the concept you were explaining, and it did make a lot of sense, which is why I remembered it. I tend to re-read many of these articles, so I’m sure I’ll come across it again eventually. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your as yet unpublished article mentioned above! Thanks, and keep ’em coming, please ;-)))

7 years ago

Ich freue mich dir zu lesen , im besonderes mit so schöne musik . Ahmad

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Vielen dank für deine Korrekturen.

7 years ago

Surprised you never mentioned “legible” in the list of related words. ;)

Also “sich etwas anlesen” ist meistens etwas negatives, im Gegensatz zu praktischer Erfahrung?

Vielleicht haben “lesen” und “read” immer noch etwas von ihren ursprünglichen unterschiedlichen Sinnen (sammeln/auswählen bzw. interpretieren): “read into” heißt quasi “eine Bedeutung in einem Text finden, die nicht eigentlich da zu finden ist, sondern aus dem Leser selbst entspringt” statt “(r)einlesen,” “overread” heißt “mehr Bedeutungen in einem Text suchen/finden, als es eigentlich gibt” (besonders indem man zu viel Aufmerksamkeit unwichtigen Details schenkt) statt “überlesen” usw.

7 years ago

Spelling correction. Caesar. As in Kaiser, ‘a’ is the first element of the diphthong. The way I was taught Latin we pronounced Caesar like Kaiser, too.
Thanks for another interesting and entertaining (even without the jazz interlude) post.

7 years ago

Words like handverlesensten are the reason I love German so much! Great article, thanks :)