Word of the Day – “die Leistung”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: October 16, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
And this time we’ll take a look at the meaning of

die Leistung

 

A topic that has been on my to do list for literally years, and quite a few of you asked me about it but I never really felt ready. Like… I didn’t know how to approach the thing.

But now I finally feel like I kind of have a good angle, so today we’ll explore what die Leistung means and how it’s different from die Arbeit.
And we’ll of course also talk about the verb leisten and in particular the meaning and usage of the phrasing sich leisten. Because that’s kind of different than the rest.

So, are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

And we’ll start with the meaning of die Leistung itself.

What exactly is “die Leistung”?

The reason why die Leistung makes lots of learners go like “Hmmm, I kind of don’t really get it.” is the fact that it has a LOT of translations that are all kind of similar but not really.
Here’s an excerpt of the  list from the online dictionary dict.cc for example:

achievement, performance, accomplishment, attainment, merit, power, capacity, effort,
output,
service, benefit, proficiency, efficiency, ….

They all kind of revolve around the theme of “working”, but it’s not clear at all what the core theme is.
I also checked Duden, the “official” German dictionary, to see if they maybe have a good definition but that was confusing in a different way…

 

I mean, seriously… three different banners in one screen… that’s a bit too much, no? Like, I feel like this is really just meant as a nuisance to get you to buy premium. Oh well, that’s the internet in 2023 I guess.

But anyway, so I was turning and flipping the “meaning cloud” of Leistung in my head for quite some time to see what the best angle might be, and I think the best angle is actually one of the most nerdy angles… physics.

You see, in physics, Leistung is a very important unit and it is defined as:

work per unit of time

I believe the English term for this unit in physics is power, but that’s not all that helpful. What matters is the definition – how much “work” something can provide in a given time period.
Think of an engine for example – the horsepower. In this context, English uses the word output and it describes how much “force” the engine is able to output at once. The bigger the output, the faster the car can accelerate.

  • Der Motor hat eine Leistung von 400 Ps (Pferdestärken).
  • The engine has an output of 400 hp (horsepower).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Solarpanel hat eine Leistung von 300 Watt.
  • The solar panel has an output of 300 Watts.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, most uses of Leistung are of course NOT about “work per unit of time”.
The reason why I think it’s helpful though is that Leistung always has some sense of “work done” in relation to something else and that distinguishes it from die Arbeit.

Die Arbeit can be refer to the process of working or the work itself…

  • Die Arbeit macht mir Spaß.
  • I like this work/This work brings me joy.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And it can also refer more to the final outcome of the working.

  • Der Handwerker hat gute Arbeit gemacht.
  • The contractor has done proper work/ a great job.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Die Leistung on the other hand refers to the “outcome” of work or effort, but it’s more of a statement of how the result or outcome relates to the person who created it.

Like… think of two people running a 7 minute mile, one untrained person who comes straight from the desk and the other is a NFL running back. The “output”, the result is the same, but for the untrained person this is a MUCH better Leistung than for the athlete.

And how exactly you’d express this in English doesn’t really matter… feat, accomplishment, performance, achievement. They all kind of fit.
Though I think performance is probably the best match overall.

  • In den vergangenen Monaten sind die schulischen Leistungen von Tim sehr zurückgegangen.
  • In recent months the school performance of Tim has declined sharply.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mit gutem Kaffee bin ich zu Höchstleistungen fähig.
  • With good coffee I’m capable of peak/top performance/output.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

     

  • Der Manager ist mit der Leistung des Teams nicht zufrieden.
  • The manager isn’t happy with the performance of the team.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Präsident gratuliert dem Nobelpreisträger zu seiner Leistung.
  • The president congratulates the Nobel price winner for his achievement.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

     

In the last two examples, we could also swap in Arbeit, and the meanings wouldn’t change too much, but the focus would shift toward the actual “piece of work” and away from this being a result of the effort or achievement of the person.

Now, beyond the more physical Leistung and Leistung as an achievement of people or a team, there is a third broad notion for Leistung and that is a sense of “what you get”.

  • Welche finanziellen Leistungen bietet der Staat für Familien?
  • Which financial benefits does the state offer families?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Autoversicherungen bieten alle ungefähr die gleichen Leistungen.
  • Car insurances offer more or less the same coverage.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Hotel hat ein gutes Preis-Leistungs-Verhältnis.
  • The hotel gives good value for money.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

As you can see, this is where translations like benefits, service or payment come from.
And while it might seem a bit random at first, I think this theme also ties in nicely with what we already learned. It’s basically the same, just with the focus on the receiver of the “output”.
Like… think of the car engine again. The Leistung (output, power) it has is the Leistung (benefit, service) you can get from it. I hope that makes sense :).
Cool.

So now we have at least a rough idea of what Leistung is now. Don’t worry if you can’t quite put it into words or pin it to one single translation. It’s fairly elusive.
What matters is that you get the idea when you see it in the various contexts in appears in.
Let’s try it out and look at some compounds with Leistung actually. They’re all over the place in terms of “field” but I think you could understand the gist of all of them and see why they mean what they mean.

  • Während in der Industrie viele Arbeitsplätze wegfallen, boomt der Dienstleistungssektor.
  • While many jobs disappear in manufacturing, the service sector is booming.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas trainiert wie ein Leistungssportler.
  • Thomas works out like a professional athlete.
    (a “sport-doer” who does it with a focus on high performance, instead of fun or just a hobby)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Auch Sachleistungen vom Arbeitgeber müssen versteuert werden.
  • Also non-cash benefits by the employer are taxable.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wenn ich keinen Kaffee getrunken habe, bin ich nicht leistungsfähig.
  • When I haven’t had a coffee, I’m not able to perform, “output-capable”.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

There are quite a few more out there, especially in more official language but I think with a bit of mind bending you can guess most if not all of them from context.

All right.

So now that we know the noun die Leistung, let’s move on to the verb it is based one –  leisten. And its reflexive version sich leisten.

“leisten” and “sich leisten”

Leisten by itself is pretty generic and at its core about “doing work”.

  • Maria hat viel für das Unternehmen geleistet.
  • Maria did a lot for the firm. (has a lot of merit)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But it’s quite rare actually and mainly used in a bunch of fixed combinations like Widerstand leisten or Erste Hilfe leisten.

  • Der Bankräuber leistet bei seiner Verhaftung keinen Widerstand.
  • The bank robber does not resist the arrest.
    Lit.: “… does not render resistance…”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Jeder Autofahrer muss lernen, wie man Erste Hilfe leistet.
  • Every driver has to learn how to give, administer first aid.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

What’s REALLY useful though is the reflexive version sich etwas leisten. Because it means to afford something.

  • Der Deutschkurs ist zu teuer, ich kann mir das im Moment nicht leisten.
  • The German course is too expensive, I can’t afford that at the moment.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wie kannst du dir denn so eine Wohnung überhaupt leisten?
  • How can you even afford such a flat?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wir sind schon hinter dem Zeitplan, wir können uns keine Pausen leisten.
  • We’re already behind schedule, we can’t afford any breaks.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

With reflexive verbs like sich leisten, the question is of course always whether we’re dealing with Dative or Accusative, because sich can be both. And as you can see in the examples, for sich leisten, it is a Dative.
The item you afford is the direct object (Accusative).
Actually, it kind of makes a lot of sense if we think of leisten along the core meaning that we had as “providing a service” or “to output”.

  • Ich kann mir die Wohnung leisten.
  • I can afford the apartment.
    Lit: “I can render, give the apartment to myself.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Let’s do a few more examples.

  • Als Studentin konnte sich Maria manchmal nicht einmal einen Kaffee in der Cafeteria leisten.
  • As a student/during her time as a student Maria sometimes couldn’t even afford a coffee at the cafeteria.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas ist auf Marias Shitlist – Er kann sich jetzt keine Fehler mehr leisten.
  • Thomas is on Maria’s shitlist – he can’t afford any more mistakes.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Actually, in the second example, we could also use allow himself as a translation. Maybe that’s the most helpful way of thinking about sich leisten, because it has the same self reference.

And actually, this is also a side meaning of sich leisten – “allowing oneself something” in the sense of “taking the liberty” in contexts where someone oversteps some boundaries.

  • Unglaublich, was Thomas sich beim Meeting schon wieder geleistet hat.
  • Incredible, what Thomas dared do/allowed himself to do at the meeting again.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But the main meaning is definitely to afford.
All right.
So I think that’s pretty much it for the day. Well… except a couple of ROFIs… that’s “Read Once, Forget Immediately” :)

Read Once, Forget Immediately

Well, I guess we could quickly mention the origin of leisten and Leistung which is actually kind of surprising.
It’s the nauseatingly ancient Indo-European root *lois- and the core idea of this root was furrow, track.
Which seems to have nothing to do with anything, but it’s actually quite close. The main English offspring of that root is the verb to learn, which got its meaning from the idea of “following a track”.
And that’s actually also where leisten comes from, only that it’s not about “following a track” because you’re searching, but instead “following a track” because you’re told to.
A few hundred years ago, the sense of leisten was along the lines of fulfilling a task or following instructions and then it slowly shifted toward doing work and the general sense of output.

So that’s the origin. Not really all that useful, but German learners are generally super smart, so I think wir können uns ein bisschen Trivia leisten ;).

And then last but not least, let’s also mention the noun die Leiste. It actually has NO connection to leisten and Leistung, but it looks related, so it could be confusing.
In essence, it’s a long thin item that “delimits” something and its two main uses are for the “edge” between the flooring and the wall, and then also for the groin.

  • Der Fußballer hat einen Leistenbruch.
  • The soccer player has an inguinal hernia, a rupture.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Schrank kann nicht ganz bis an die Wand, wegen der Fußbodenleiste.
  • The wardrobe can’t completely up to the wall because of the skirting board, baseboard.
    (what’s the most common English name for this, actually? I found like several different ones. Thanks :))
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And that’s information you can forget in 3, 2, 1… gone :).
Your brain will remember it when it’s time.

And that’s it for today folks. This was our look at the meaning of die Leistung and leisten and I really hope I could clear it up a bit.

As always, if you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little 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 – bis dann :)!

 

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