Word of the Day – “die Not”

not-noetig-meaningHello everyone,

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

die Not


And no, Not is not not.
Not  is the German brother of English the need. But it’s much, much stronger. Like… if you’re in need, well, you just need something and that can be more or less urgent. But if you’re in Not you basically need rescuing…. and no… Not is not an awkward conversation with that colleague who’s trying to hit on you. It’s real distress.

Not by itself usually means a dire situation, often used in contexts where people lack the basic needs like food and clean water.

I guess because life was rather hard for the majority of the people a few centuries ago, it’s no wonder that there are plenty of phrasings and expressions with Not that are all pretty common today.

And there are many more. But not as many as there are compounds with Not, and in compounds Not is THE word for  emergency.

So… we’ve seen that the translation varies but I think we can see the core idea of ‘strong need’ in all of them.
Now, of course there are quite a few related words and those are super usef… oh, hold on, I see we have a call here… Christie from Scotland, welcome to the show.
“Hi Emanuel. Thanks for taking my call. “
Sure thing, what can I do for you?
“I have a question about a compound with Not I saw in a newspaper today.”
Which one?
“Notdurft… the complete headline was ‘Frau nutzt Einkaufskorb für ihre Notdurft’ and if I understood the article correctly, a drunk woman took a shit into her shopping basket at Aldi….”
Hahaha… that’s accurate. It does mean that.  It can refer to the action of pooing as well as the result.
“Well… I can see the connection to urgent need I guess but I’m wondering about the -durft? Does that have anything to dürfen?”
Great question! And yes, it does. Today, dürfen is about permission but back a few hundred years ago it was the verb for to need. And not only in German. Old English had  ðearf which meant need, necessity but it actually also had niedðearf, which also was about need, necessity... just a stronger version. But need pushed ðearf  out completely.
“Wait… how did dürfen end up with the whole permission idea in German then? I don’t really see a connection there.”
Yeah, it’s not so obvious. The permission thing crept in through negative statements first. Like… imagine a mom at the supermarket telling her kid “No, you don’t need that candy bar.” with a very resolute voice. She clearly tries to deny permission without actually saying it. That’s how the idea came in … as a euphemistic way to deny permission. And then it caught on and the old meaning was eventually forgotten.
“Ah I see…  so and Notdurft has kept the old meaning of need.”
Exactly… but it narrowed down to the need to pee and poo.
“Cool… and what about notdürftig? I think I saw that in the same article… does that mean shitty?”
Haha, no… notdürftig is about strong necessity on a more general level. Originally, notdürftig meant needy, but today it has shifted toward needy of improvement. It’s kind of about the fact that something is an emergency fix….

so actually it kind of does mean shitty but it doesn’t sound negative because it’s used for quick fixes.
“Cool, thanks so much for answering my questions.”
Oh, thank YOU for bringing up Notdurft and notdürftig. I would have forgotten that completely. Thanks, and stay tuned for the other related words now.
“I will, byeeee.”

nötig, notwendig and an unnecessary verb

Not itself is a good word to know but as usual it’s the related words that REALLY make it useful. Mainly the two words notwendig and nötig.
Wenden is one of the three dozen German words for to turn so taken literally, notwendig means something like “turning the dire situation around”. Like… something that’s notwendig is basically what is needed, necessary. And it is much less serious or strong sounding than Not so you can also see it in

Nötig is essentially the same, but it sounds a tad bit less technical and the situations where you’d use it are a bit different.

Technically, you could use notwendig in the first two, but in the second two, (un)nötig is the only option.

Now, the cool thing about nötig are the common expressions that it’s used for.

This one is a very common  way of showing genuine appreciation for a little surprise or gift or favor. It might sound a tiny bit too formal for close friends but especially when you’re over 40 it’s totally something you can use.
Next up there’s the phrasing etwas nicht nötig haben. Literally it means that you don’t need something but the actual meaning is more about you thinking you’re above something, you’re too good for it. Depending on context it can sound stuck up or self empowered but it definitely always sounds confrontational

There are a LOT of these waitresses and waiters in Berlin, trust me.
All right.
Now, we’re almost done for today but a real word of the day article needs at least one verb. For Not it’s benötigen. Using the standard core of the be-prefix we can think of it as “to inflict needing on something” which is a pretty good match because benötigen is essentially a formal, technical sounding alternative to brauchen.

What’s important to note is that benötigen DOES NOT work for activities. So you can’t say

  • Ich benötige zu schlafen…. QUITE WRONG

You can only benötigen things, and so I don’t think you benötigen benötigen and you can put it on the passive pile. But Not and nötig are really good to know and I’m sure you’ll see them quite a lot.

And I think that’s it. This was our look at the meaning of die Not. It’s related to the need but it’s pretty much never a translation for it because Not is much stronger. The relation totally shows with the adjectives notwendig and nötig which mean required, needed, necessari(ly).
I’ve added some more Not-compounds to the vocab list so check that out if you need to collect words. And as usual, if you have any questions or suggestions or if there are some more cool idiomatic expressions with Not you want to mention, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** click here to download all audio files (zip-archive)**

** vocab **

die Not  – poverty, destitution, misery, distress
die Notbremse – the emergency break
der Notausgang – the emergency exit

die Seenot – distress at sea
die Notlüge – white lie, emergency lie

die Notlösung – the band-aid, the temporary solution-
die Notaufnahme – the emergency room

der Notfall – the (case of) emergency
die Notwehr – the emergency self defense (act of violence under threat)

im Notfall – in the case of emergency (formal)
zur Not – if it’s really urgent/if it’s an emergency (colloquial, common)

nötig – necessary, urgent
notwendig – necessary (technical, formal)
die Notwendigkeit – the necessity (technical)

unnötig – unnecessary
etwas nicht nötig haben – be better than having to do something (can be positive and negative)

benötigen – need, require (more formal and technical than brauchen)

die Nötigung – coersion, necessitation (legal term)

for members :)

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In the US, we say ” IN a pinch” instead of “At a pinch” for ” Zur Not”. Perhaps, this is the original way to say this (i.e. England). A Britishism?


I thought the phrase was “in a pinch.” I think it sounds slightly old-fashioned to me (I’m ~30 and American). I would probably just say “if (absolutely) necessary.”

“Machen Sie aus der Not eine Tugend” -> “Turn lemons into lemonade” would be a light-hearted interpretation.

Ich glaube, ich habe “notwendigerweise” fast nie gehört. Würde man nicht “unbedingt” sagen?

Sagen Eltern ihren Kindern “Notlügen”, z.B. was den Weihnachtsmann angeht?


Great explanations!
It’s more commonly expressed as “in a pinch”.


We do say “in a pinch”. But not often. I think it’s an older expression. But I think it’s universally understood. Although I don’t expect as much these days. : /


Das war ich, Camille. Your story-listener. Wie immer. :)


I’ve never heard/said “at a pinch”, but I have heard/said “in a pinch”.


more heard then said


What about Notung? The name of Siegfried’s sword? What does that signify?


I listen to a lot of German music as a way of practicing. I first came across “Not” (that I can remember anyway) in the Song “Leben ist schön” from Eisblume. The first lines of the song are:

Dein Herz – tropft rot.
Ich werf ein Rettungsseil in dein Boot.
In See – und Not.
Wirst du sonst kopfüber untergeh’n.

(Song here with lyrics if interested – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6HxyGna4qA)

Thought of this when I first saw your vocab word “die Seenot”.

This was cool for me to read, since my experience of this was more of the “in distress” or “in danger” type of meaning I thought this was all of it. This article cleared this up a bit for me. Thanks for another great article!


Haven’t finished reading this one yet, but –
could you possibly shorten the bar thingummies that link to your recordings? Please? I do find all those black and grey stripes disturbing.


Very odd. Having posted that I find that they’ve all shrunk into little black boxes, each with a triangle/arrow head. Magic?

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren

Australian here: “at a pinch” is what we use. Don’t recall ever having heard ‘in a pinch’.


I think die Notbremse is the emergency brake (for stopping things quickly), not an emergency break (making a dash for the loo?).

A good English translation for Notlösung might be ‘makeshift solution’ – which duct tape certainly is!

And as a 60-year old Brit, I would definitely use ‘at a pinch’.


Thank you for all this work. And apologies, my question doe not relate to your topic, but rather to the verb ‘duerfen’ you also discuss.

Read somewhere that German men are ‘duerftig’. I thought it refers to being ‘needy’ in the sense of being dependent …..but any other meaning in this, and am I correct. with thanks Minna

Nicklas Kulczycki

A very literal translation you may enjoy for “zur Not”: “if need be”. Not only is this a rare instance of the subjunctive in English, but also it captures the original meaning without the use of an idiom.


Wir haben ungefähr das gleich Worte im Norwegisch, -Naud/Nød. Ich denkst vielleicht unsere Norwegishe Worte kommen aus Deutsch(Germanic).

Diese Ausdrück ist sehr ziemlich als das Norwegische Ausdrück.

mit Müh und Not — Med naud og neppe.

In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen — I naud et fanden fluger.

Ich denkst deine PDF ist eine gute idee. Ich Wünsche das Sie bitte machen dem mit mehr Luft am die Seite. Dann ist es leichter zu Lesen.


Interessant! Jeg forsøker å lære meg Norsk med Duolingo.
Interessant! Ich versuche, mich Norwegisch mit Duolingo zu lehren.
Interesting! I am trying to teach myself Norwegian with Duolingo.

Norwegian and German are at times confusingly similar – at least in writing.


I wish you luck with the Norwegian. :) A lot of the words are very similar, but they can have different genders in Norwegian and German. Confusing, I know! Anyway in Norsk Bokmål they mostly use two genders in written language. I use Norsk Nynorsk where three genders is always used.

I guess we have a bit easier grammar that German since we don’t use the Dative, but this is hard for me to say since I am a native speaker.

not notdusching
not notdusching

Yeah I think you’d hear “needs be” more in the southern part of America. But people down there put S’s on all kinds of things. Actually, I think it’s pretty common in day to day speech with the S. Just not in the proper, middle America dialect (which is what they go for on the news).

not notdusching
not notdusching

It’s a map with that symbol (and others) on it, with the German and English translations of the symbols at the bottom. (I like to pretend I don’t understand German and that it’s marking the locations where the especially smelly scientists are.)

There’s also a nice Notausgang sign on the 3. floor by the door to the balcony. Basically, this guy, except with a parachute:
comment image This is what I actually meant to paste….
(I still haven’t figured out if it’s serious or not)


“at a pinch, I’ll catch the 1 o’clock bus”,…. ‘at a pinch’ is definitely used in the north of England…I have used it all my life, which literally means, I can/could, just about (hopefully), do that.

“If needs be” means “if the need / your needs, warrant it, the task (etc) will be done come hell or high water”, again this phase is used a lot, but it may be used more in northern England. This second phrase is more definite.


Hallo Emanuel,

danke für Deine “Deutschlektionen”, sie machen mir wirklich viel Spaß.

Ich hab eine (wahrscheinlich blöde) Frage. Wie ist der Unterschied zwischen nötigen und zwingen? Wann benutzt man nötigen und wann zwingen? Wird nötigen in der Umgangssprache verwendet?