Word of the Day – “los”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: May 16, 2024

Hello everyone,

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



Los is part of a huge Germanic family called “the losers”. Don’t judge them by the name though. The word enriches your vocabulary greatly.  Heck, if you pick the right Los it can even make you a millionaire… but I’m getting way ahead of myself. More on the millionaire thing at the very very end of this show… and no, you can’t scroll down,  because this is a life stream :)

So, in English we have quite a number of words that are related to los: loose, lose, -less and lease are quite obvious but also to solve and solution belong to the family.
o solve and to loose can be translated to lösen, which is of course also part of the family.

  • Ich löse irgendein Problem.
  • I solve some problem.
  • I loosen the knot.
  • Ich löse den Knoten.

 To lose with one o, the one that has “lost” one o if you will, is verlieren.

  • Die Mannschaft verliert im Finale.
  • The team loses in the final.
  • Ich habe meine Lost-DVD verloren.
  • I lost my Lost DVD

Now, verloren sounds an awful lot like forlorn and now guess where the lorn comes from :). Exactly, same family.
So, all those many words share the same origin, an origin that is even older than God… dun dun dunnnnnn…. thunder roars, flashes … the Indo-European root leu- which meant something like to cut loose, to loosen, to cut apart. The connection to to solve is not immediately obvious but just think of a problem as some sort of restraint or restraining force. Solving it is liberating, freeing, so there’s the connection.
Anyway, so the underlying idea of los could be phrased as something like this:

“something is off of something, to which it was fixed before”.

Now let’s see if we can find that in the different uses of los.

los – the ending

Los as an ending works pretty much exactly like the English ending -less. You can add it to a noun to create an adjective that means “without that noun”.

  • Wasser ist von Natur aus farblos.
  • Water is colorless by nature.
  • Deine Suppe ist geschmacklos und dein Kleid auch.
  • Your soup is tasteless/devoid of any taste and so is your dress.
  • Der Millionär war mal obdachlos.
  • The millionaire was once homeless.
  • Thomas’ Bruder lebt von Arbeitslosengeld
  • Thomas’ brother gets unemployment pay (“money of the jobless”).

Now, what’s a little bit tricky is that there might be some adjustments necessary to the noun. Like… it is die Farbe but farblos or das Gesicht but gesichtslos. So is there a way to know what change to make? Yes, there is: the MtCC-System™. Here it is:

  • Make the correct change!

100% success guaranteed… … … *crickets chirping… okay seriously, I have no rule (let me know if you know of one) and I don’t actually think that there is any logic behind it. Just try to pick it up along the way. Making a mistake won’t hinder being understood.
So, can we add this -los to any noun? Well, not really. Geldlos is not an official word. But I would say, be bold and play around with it as much as you want. People will always understand you so it is a nice way to get conversation going when you sit in a bar with your new crush all topless.
Uh… I mean topic-less.
Movin’ on.

“Los” as a prefix

Los as a prefix has 2 related yet different meanings. Of freaking course. That’s how prefixes roll.
The first one takes the core idea of loose or cut apart literally.

  • Der Ritter schneidet die Prinzessin los.
  • The knight cuts loose the princess.
  • Ich mache den Hund los.
  • I make the dog loose.

There are a bunch of other that work similar (there is actually even loslösen) but BY FAR the most important one is loslassen. Lassen is to let and to leave so loslassen is to let loose, or let go… basically stop holding something.

  • Lass mich los!
  • Let go of me!
  • Thomas muss lernen, loszulassen.
  • Thomas has to learn to let go.

The more common prefix-los however is the abstract one.
There are plenty of common verbs with this like
losfahren, losgehen, loslaufen, losrennen and you can actually add it to LOTS of verb, if you want to. Loslachen? Why not.  Loschatten? Sure, let’s do it.
So what’s the meaning of this los? It’s the idea of starting .. maybe with a slight notion of the start being somewhat sudden. Losfahren basically means to start your journey by car or train, losgehen means to start going somewhere.

  • Ich fahre um 6 los.
  • I’ll leave at 6 /I’ll start at 6.
  • Wir müssen halb 7 losgehen, oder wir kommen zu spät.
  • We have to get going/head out/leave at half past 6 the latest, or we’ll be late.

As you can see, there is no real one-to-one translation to English … or at least I can’t think of one. Los just adds the idea of starting.

  • Thomas musste beim Meeting laut loslachen.
  • Thomas couldn’t do but burst out laughing at the meeting.
  • Der kleine Junge neben mir im Flugzeug hat mich angeguckt und dann auf einmal losgekotzt.
  • The little boy next to me on the plane looked at me and the suddenly started vomiting.

Now, does this concept of starting something match up in any way with our core idea? With some mind yoga it does…. if you leave your house to go to the opera (like we all do all the time because opera is so awful… I mean awesome) you can think of that as some kind of loosening of yourself from your home. And if you loslachen (start laughing) then you unleash the laughing. Yeah, unleashing the action is probably the best way to put it. Losfahren is unleashing the traveling, lo
Theoretically, you can add this los to pretty much any activity that you can start somewhat suddenly BUT it does NOT work with an object. You can’t say:

  • Ich gucke den Film los…. is wrong and doesn’t mean
  • I start watching the movie.

Why not? Because if there is a direct object like movie in this example, the los will be interpreted literally, like … you’re watching the film loose. That don’t make no sense.

Now, by far the most common verbs like this are losgehen und losfahren. And then, there is this really really rare word in German that you almost never get to see:  machen. Machen has a los-version too, but losmachen doesn’t mean start making …

  • Ich glaub’, ich mach‘ mal los.
  • I think I’ll head home/I’ll go.

Yeah, that’s right… machen is a movement now, too. Hooray. That means machen  may actually be the most generic thing on the planet… except for Disney princesses of course.
There is an interesting thing when it comes to losgehen or losmachen for rather short everyday journeys… like, say, going to a bar museum or going home from the bar panel discussion on sustainability. As soon as there is another verb in the sentence people tend to drop the verb of movement entirely… what do I mean by other verbs? For example German modal verbs…

  • Wollen wir los(gehen)?
  • Shall we go?
  • Ich muss los(gehen).
  • I have to go.
  • “Wo ist denn Thomas?”
    “Der is’ schon los(gegangen)… er hat gesagt, er wartet an der Ecke.”
  • “Oh, where is Thomas?”
    “He already left... he said, he’ll wait at the corner.”

These things are incredibly common in spoken casual German and if you use it you will definitely make your friends forget that you’re not a native speaker for a second.
So far we’ve seen -los as and ending and los- as a beginning, I mean, prefix.
Now let’s get to los as a stand alone word.

“los”, home alone

We’ve already seen los as a sort of stand alone word in those examples like

  • Wollen wir los?

The gehen is not said anymore. An extrem of this is the German version of the starting countdown “ready -steady -go”

  • Auf die Plätze – fertig – LOS!
  • on the places – ready – LOOSE!(lit.)
  • on your marks – get set – go

Unless you’re a sprinter, this isn’t something you are going to hear too often,
but the idea of los as a starting command or a word that expresses impatience has spread into everyday life….

  • Los, beeil dich!
  • Come one, hurry up!

This is pretty common, but what’s even more useful is los in combination with the verb sein.
Suppose your partner or colleague (or both)  is acting weird and gives you an attitude the whole time. Then you might want to find out why. A good question in German for that is this:

  • Was ist los?

Literally that means

  • What is loose?

but the sense is:

  • What is up/wrong?

I think you can also use this question if someone is in a really good mood, but most of the time it is used to asked why someone is so quiet or looks sad or something like this. And it totally does not work like the casual greeting:

  • What up?

Saying “Was is los?” as a greeting or for no reason might even be taken as a little bit offensive. It is really made to find out about something specific. Like for instance when they use it in headlines of magazines…

  • Was ist los mit Kim Kardashian?!

And under it you find this really really bad picture of her looking a bit fat. So “What’s up with Kim?” is not a good translation because it lacks this negative vibe.

  • What’s wrong with Kim?

Another variation of the “was ist los“-question is this:

  • Was ist los mit dir?
  • Was ist bloß mit dir los?
  • What is up/wrong with you?

Mothers ask that when their adolescent child is going Emo at the diner table. At least to me, this question only works for investigating somewhat negative behavior. If you ask that to someone who is jumping for joy… it kind of sounds as if you would disapprove of his or her being happy.

Anyway, the combination los and sein is not only great to find out about people… it is also used for places or parties and it means that stuff is happening… stuff is loose if you want.

  • In Berlin ist immer irgendwas los.
  • In Berlin, there is always something going on.
  • “Wie war die Party?”
    “Ach… voll langweilig… da war absolut nix los.”
  • “How was the party?”
    “Pfff… so boring… there was nothing going on?”

One quick thing before we move on. What about the adjective loose, as in a screw being loose. Is los the word for that? The answer is no.
German has a different word if you really need the adjective loose: the word is schmitzerinich… ok, just kidding… the word is lose; with a voiced s

  • Eine Schraube an meinem Fahrrad ist lose.
  • A screw on my bike is loose.

All right.
So… this was already a lot to digest but of course you’ve all read thus far because you want to find out how Los can make you a millionaire… well… you need the different, the totally different and unrelated one.

Capital “Los” – rare and useless

There is a noun das Los and according to my dictionary das Los means the lot. Lot is related to lottery and that’s actually kind of the key to the meaning,  because the core idea of lot and Los is fate or destiny.

  • Deutsch lernen müssen ist ein hartes Los.
  • Having to learn German is a hard fate/lot because German puts 3 verbs in a row that don’t make any sense to me :).

But the more common use, especially in German, is for a means or method of “assigning fate”. Uhm… what? Suppose you’ve had this really great party where a lot was “los” and the next day you find Mount Dishes in the kitchen. “Good thing we’ve got a dishwasher” you think but you soon realize that it is broken… damn. Who is going to clean all this. Of course, sharing the work is not an option so you and your flatmate let fate decide by drawing straws or (as the dictionary claims)  lots.

  • Wir ziehen Lose.
  • We draw lots.

In German, das Los is THE word for all kinds of lottery tickets and you’ll definitely see that.

  • Mami, können wir ein Los kaufen?
  • Mom, can we buy a raffle/tombola/lottery ticket?
  • Ich habe das große Los gezogen. (fixed idiom)
  • I won big time.

There is also a verb with this idea:  verlosen which is to give away by making a lottery/raffle.

  • Unter allen Teilnehmern verlosen wir 10 mal 1.000 Euro.
  • We “raffle out” 10 times 1.060 Dollars among all participants.
    (literal translation… can anyone help me how to say that in idiomatic English?)

All right. We’re almost done for today but one question remains.. how does this lottery-Los tie in with the loose-Los? I mean… losing in a lottery… that would make some sense, I guess.
But the reality is that the words are not related at all. Little is known about the origin of lot and das Los but it’s not the loose-family.

And that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of los. As an ending it’s like the English -less, as a prefix it expresses the idea of starting and in combination with sein it’s about the idea of to be going on, to be up or to be wrong.
It’s super useful and you should definitely start using it. Los! Do it now :).
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** vocab **

farblos = colorless
geschmacklos = tasteless
obdachlos = homeless
-los = -less (doesn’t work as universally as in English)
arbeitslos = unemployed
das Arbeitslosengeld = unemployment benefits
einfallslos = uncreative (“idea-less”)
losschneiden = cut loose
losmachen = head out, leave (very colloquial), make loose (for dogs)
loslassen = let go (as in “stop holding”)
losfahren = start the drive
losgehen = head out, start going somewhere
loslachen = start laughing
los = often an indication of going without the actual verb (usually comes in combo with modal verbs, like “Wollen wir los?”
Auf die Plätze, fertig, los. = ready, steady, go
Los! = Come on! Get going! (often in combination with a verb)
los sein = to be going on (events, also for general feelings)
Was ist los (mit) = What’s going on/What’s wrong? (NOT for casual small talk greetings)
lose = loose (for screws and other things that should be fixed)
das Los = the lot, the fate (sounds theatrical); the lottery ticket
das große Los ziehen = win big time
verlosen = give away (in the sense of holding a raffle)

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