The meaning of “mal”

mal-pictureHello everyone,

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



And I want to debunk one myth right away. Mal is NOT just a shortened version of einmal. I mean, sometimes it is but at other times… well, it’s not. Like here:

Stuff like this is not unheard of in German and it shows that a native speaker of German does not automatically think einmal upon hearing mal. And if that isn’t enough proof then the history of the word will convince you because einmal is actually used to be 2 words… one of them being Mal. Now, I used  a capital m here because there is also a noun das Mal and that’s where it all began (click here)…

The history of mal

Now, English has a fair number of words with mal in them… such as malfunction or malbehaved or mall… of course a mall would have mal in it, it’s a mall, they have everything… uh… except uh… they were out of good jokes when I did the shopping for today’s ar… aaaaanyways. The mal-prefix as in malevolent or malicious actually comes from Latin so it has nothing to do with the German Mal. But there are relatives in English… like… meal and measure and mellow probably also moon.
I know what you’re thinking now. Me too, when I found that out I was just like … oh.
All these words come from the old Indo European stem *mē which meant to measure. By adding an l or a t, it became a noun meaning what is measured or the measure. Now, back then to measure was basically a measure of space… like… 6 steps to the right or something. That’s where the word meter comes from, pretty much.
But then came Einstein and used the word mal as a measure of time. And the Germans were like… “Huh? Why would you do that?” And Einstein replied “Because time and space are but parts of the same thing which we shall call space time continuum.” and the people were like “Hmmm, I don’t know… but this Einstein guy makes really good movies so I guess it can’t be all wrong…”. So people started … wait what? Oh Einstein wasn’t born until centuries later and his movies sucked, you say? Well, whatever, it’s all relative… so, people started using mal also for time. Or to be more precise, they used Mal  for a point in time while they kept using the word time itself, which comes from something like to divide by the way, for an extent (as in a “duration”). They had seen this idea of having 2 separate words for a point and an extent in the Latin based Roman languages (fois – temps in French or volta – tempo in Italian) and they wanted to sound educated I guess.
Whatever the reason may have been….the most important and most common point in time back then was probably the time for eating and that’s where the word meal comes from… it is the time for eating.
Now, not every Germanic tribe was equally enthusiastic about this time-space continuum thing. In fact, the Anglo-Saxons were pretty skeptical about this new trend coming from continental Europe… just as they are today with the whole EU thing. So… they had the old English word mæl, which meant point in time while time meant the extent, but then, one day, they proclaimed: “Fellow English men, from now on we shall say time whenever it is about time” and the people were like “By god, it is about time.”… the famous British humor.
So they only kept the word meal.The Germans on the other hand were IN LOVE with mal and used it all the… time. So much that they stopped using it for place because that would have been too much. And that’s where we are today…

Das Mal – the noun

We’ve seen that das Mal means a point in time and translates to the English time.

Of course this Mal is often combined with number:

And then there are these kind of examples.

  • 1 time, 2 times… (am I the only one who has to think of a Fugees songs right now?)

In olden days’ German this was phrased rather complicatedly using a preposition or the Genetics case.

  • Zeinemo māle (zu einem Male – to one time)  or eines Males
  • Ze zweien māle (zu zweien Malen) or zweier Male

From my perspective today it really seems like people back then were constantly stage acting but in fact the stage was constantly acting them… oh my, that made so no sense. Anyway, these combinations or expressions have always been soooo common it is no surprise that the whole thing has been… well, smoothed and reduced.
I mean, sure… there are some fixed combinations where the Genitive has survived..

The s in oftmals is a Genitive-s, not a plural as the translation might make you think. Other examples are:

So… in all these we can see a leftover of the old complicated German way of saying it but as for the rest people are like…preposition, pshhhh… screw that. Genitive? Genitive who?

And that’s not all… people, including me, don’t actually know how to correctly spell it:

  • vierzehnmal, 14mal, 14x, 14 Mal,vierzehn Mal,14-mal… here is the Google n-gram for it and mind you, we’re talking edited books here,not chat rooms


Quite some confusion there, it seems, especially in the early years of 2000. I wonder if that has something to do with the whole internet thing…. but anyway. I don’t know what’s the correct form and frankly I am too lazy to look up the rule. What I do know though is that for numbers lower than 12 it is best and correct to write them as one word… so einmal,  zweimal , dreimal, zehnmal … and , if you need special emphasis on mal,  it is also correct to write drei Mal or zehn Mal.

If you don’t know a specific, you can still use the same pattern.

And there is another word like this, which most of you will know which is also basically a mal-word… I am talking about …manchmal…. manchmal is a shortened version of an older zu manchen Male (at some points in time).

Two other noteworthy examples following the same pattern are the words x-mal and keinmal. X-mal stands for a rather high number,  a high enough number if you will…

Keinmal is … well, the opposite and while it isn’t a real word, or at least it is never used, it is part of one very very common expression used to excuse mistakes or things you shouldn’t do too often.

All right. So far we’ve learned that Mal is actually an old word for measure and nowadays it means point in time.
So far so good. But clearly, there’s something more to it. Otherwise learners wouldn’t be so confused by this word.
And that’s what we’ll explore in the second part :)

Continued in part 2