The meaning of – “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.

  • In vielen Flüchtlingslagern im Nahen Osten herrscht große Not.
  • Lit.: “In many refugee camps in the Middle East  penury/hardship/destitution reigns.”
  • The situation/living conditions in many refugee camps in the Middle East is/are dire.
  • VW in Not: neuer Manipulationsverdacht. Ist es überhaupt nicht das Auto?
  • VW in distress: new suspected manipulations. Is it not Das Auto after all?

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.

  • I was so drunk last night I just barely made it home (lit.: with painful effort)
  • Ich war gestern so betrunken,  ich hab es nur mit Müh und Not nach Hause geschafft.
  • Zur Not kann ich dir den Schlüssel auch nachher vorbeibringen.
  • In(at) a pinch/”if it’s an emergency”/if nothing else works out, I could bring the key by later.
    (“in/at a pinch” … the dictionary suggested this but is that actually something people say in daily life?)
  • Wenn der Beamer nicht geht, dann ist Holland in Not.
  • If the video projector isn’t working, things go awry.
    (probably based on a mocking of Dutch people, who were in constant danger of flooding a few centuries ago)
  • Not macht erfinderisch.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen.
  • Lit.: When in dire need, the devil eats flies. 
  • Beggars can’t be choosers.
  • Der U-Bahn-Streik nervt? Machen Sie aus der Not eine Tugend und fahren Sie Rad – mit den neuen City Bikes von Rad-Iator.
  • The metro strike gets on your nerves? Make a virtue out of necessity and go by bike – with the new city bikes from Rad-Iator.

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

  • Im Notfall Notbremse ziehen und Notruf wählen.
  • In case of emergency pull the emergeny brake and call 911 (“emergency hotline”).
    (110 in Germany)
  • Ehrlichkeit ist wichtig aber eine kleine Notlüge hier und da muss  erlaubt sein.
  • Honesty is important but a white lie/ emergency lie here and there has to be okay.
  • Das mit dem Klebeband ist aber nur eine Notlösung, ja?
  • The thing with the duct tape is just a band-aid/emergency solution though, isn’t it?

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….

  • Ich habe das notdürftig repariert.
  • I patched that up for now.
  • Die Stadt hat die Flüchtlinge notdürftig in einer Turnhalle untergebracht.
  • The town provisionally sheltered the refugees in a school gym.

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

  • Das neue Buch von Stephanie Meyer, jetzt noch besser – kein Lesen mehr notwendig.
  • The new book by Stephanie Meyer, now even better – no more reading required/necessary.
  • Teure Produkte sind nicht notwendigerweise besser als preiswertere Alternativen.
  • Expensive products are not necessarily better than more affordable alternatives.
  • Thomas sieht keine Notwendigkeit für eine Badreinigung. (sounds technical)
  • Thomas sees no necessity for a bathroom cleaning.

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.

  • Obwohl Maria versucht hat, nur das allernötigste einzupacken, ist ihr Handgepäck wieder zu schwer geworden.
  • Although Maria tried to only pack the absolute basic necessities her carry on wound up too heavy again.
  • Thomas’ Credo lautet: So wenig wie möglich aber so viel wie nötig.
  • Thomas’s creed goes like this: as little as possible but as much as necessary.
  • Mama, ich muss mal ganz nötig.
  • Mooom, I have to pee really bad (urgently).
  • Der Film hatte unnötig lange Action-Szenen.
  • The movie had action scenes that were overly/unnecessarily long.

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.

  • “Hi, wir haben einen Kasten Bier mitgebracht.”
    “Ohhhh… das wäre doch nicht nötig gewesen.”
  • “Hi, we brought a case of beer with us.”
    “Ohhh… you shouldn’t have/there was no need for that.

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

  • Ich hab’s nicht nötig, mich so unfreundlich behandeln zu lassen.
  • I don’t need to put up with/accept this kind of unfriendly treatment.
  • Die Kellnerin denkt, sie hat es nicht nötig, freundlich zu sein.
  • The waitress thinks she’s better than someone who has to smile.

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.

  • Der Computer benötigt 80% seiner Hardware-Power nur damit Windows 10 funktioniert.
  • The computer needs 80% of its hardware resources just so Windows 10 works.
  • Ein erwachsener Mensch benötigt im Durchschnitt 2000 kcal pro Tag.
  • An adult needs around 2000 Calories per day.
  • Bitte senden Sie uns die von uns benötigten Unterlagen binnen 2 Wochen zu.
  • Please send us the required documents within a fortnight.

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.

** 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)

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