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 just so you know… this is gonna be a two part article. I originally wanted to do it in one, but that ended up being like 4.000 words.
I was like “Mal, come on! I can’t use 4.000 words just to explain you. That’s absurd.”
And mal was just like: “I am mal, bitch!”
And here we are.
And I want to debunk a common misconception right away. Many sources that say about mal that it’s merely a shortened version of einmal. That is not necessarily wrong, but it is a bit misleading because of the number. Because einmal, just like its translation once, don’t always have a focus on the actual number of instances.

Case in point: the classic fairy tale opening.

Yes, there was only one iteration of that princess and these events, but that’s NOT the focus of once here. The focus here is that it happened at some point in time. And einmal can have this general idea, mal alone pretty much NEVER is about the number.

So mal is NOT “just” a short version of einmal.
And this also ties in perfectly with the origin of the word, which is where we’ll really begin our journey…


If we look for words with mal in English, we’ll actually find words like malfunction, malevolent, malicious or malbehaved.
This mal-prefix has nothing to do with the German Mal. But English DOES have relatives. The most similar one is meal but also measure, meter,mellow and moonare probably related. Yeah, I was quite surprised, too.
The origin of the family is the super mega hyper turbo ancient Indo European stem which carried the idea of measure. And one of the oldest and most univeral ways of measuring was watching the moon with its phases. That’s the origin of the word moon (der Mond) and also the word month(der Monat) which has relatives in all Indo-European based languages – mese in Italian, mesyats in Russian, and so on. We always have this me-base.

Now, the Germanic tribes also had a word maelor mol or something (depending on the tribe) which carried the general idea of “something measured”. This could be a cup or a distance but the most common use was the sense of fixed point/instance in time. The Brits did have their version of that in Old English but they weren’t really the biggest fans. They LOVED the word time, and so they used their version of mal for just one very specific fixed time… the time for eating. That’s where the word meal comes from, which is das Mahl in German. Or die Mahlzeit.
The Germans on the other hand were completely smitten with Mal and used it all the time.
And that’s where we are today… das Mal means time in the sense of fixed instance in time.

And then of course there are these kinds of examples:

  • one time, two times…

In the old days’ German, these 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

But these combinations or expressions were so common that it is no surprise that the whole thing has been… well, smoothed and reduced.
Sure, some very common combinations got sort of frozen in time and we can still see the Genitive.

You might have thought this is a plural s. But it’s not. The plural of Mal is Male. The s is from Genitive. I mean, not like that matters, but I just wanted to point that out. Here are a few more examples.

But for the most part, people just reduced it to to einmal, zweimal, dreimal or… well… 14 Mal.

Or is it 14-mal? or vierzehnmal? I’m not sure actually. And I’m not the only one, as this usage statistic shows. It shows the usage for various ways of spelling 14 Mal in BOOKS (not chats, mind you) and clearly Germans don’t seem to know how to correctly spell it.


Looks like there was a kind of consensus for a while, but with the arrival of the 2000s, it went out the window. 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.

Now of course we can’t move on without also mentioning manchmal, which is the German word for sometimes.

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…

Keinmalis … 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 Malis actually an old word for measure and nowadays it means point/instance in time.
And that’s the foundation to understanding why Germans use time so much. Which is what we’ll talk about in the next episode called “Mal – Endgame”.
If you want to check how much you remember so far, just take the super short quiz I have prepared for you.
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.

Continued in part 2

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