Summer, Sun and Vocab Fun – “scheitern”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: September 8, 2023

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the last episode of this year’s “Summer, Sun and Vocab Fun”.
Yes, it’s September already, but at least in Berlin the weather is amazing so one last time, we’ll do a short, sweet article about one of these words that you never really notice.
Until you do.

And then they’re like everywhere all of a sudden. Kind of like your partner’s worn underwear in the apartment. You don’t see it and then, all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. Next to the couch, under the table, in the fridge, in that fine bottle of Gin. Like… how the hell does it even get in there. I bought this literally yesterday.
But anyway, I digress.
Let’s get to the topic and today, that’s the meaning of

scheitern

Some of you probably now observe their brains being like “Hmmm, that looks a bit like Scheiße.”
And that’s actually not completely wrong, because saying a nice, heartfelt “Scheiße!” might be exactly what we need as an outlet after some scheitern.

Because scheitern is to fail.

Let’s start with some examples and then go over some details.

  • Es ist keine Schande etwas zu versuchen und zu scheitern.
  • It’s no shame to try something and fail.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wenn das Projekt scheitert, ist die Firma pleite.
  • If the project fails/isn’t successful, the company will go bankrupt.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Wir haben uns auseinandergelebt.”
    Ehe gescheitert – nach nur drei Stunden lassen sich die zwei Hollywood-Stars scheiden.
  • “We’ve grown apart.”
    Marriage failed – after only three hours the two Hollywood stars file for divorce.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Versuche der Künstlichen Intelligenz, digitalen Alkohol zu produzieren, sind gescheitert.
  • The attempts of the artificial intelligence to produce digital alcohol have failed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas’ Small-Talk-Versuch ist gescheitert.
  • Thomas’ attempt at small talk has failed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, there are a few things to note about scheitern.
First of, as you can see in the last two examples, the spoken past goes with sein. So we say that a project “ist gescheitert” while in English we say “has failed”.
But if you think of scheitern as “becoming a failure” then using sein makes sense because it’s essentially a change of state.
Cool.

Another thing we can also note from the examples is that in all three of them, the entity “doing” the failing is whatever it was that was being attempted – das Projekt in the first example, der Versuch  in the second and die Ehe in the third.
I would say that this is the main use for scheitern, but the verb does also work for a person.

  • Der Comedian ist gescheitert.
  • The comedian has failed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

     

This does work, and it’s used particularly in contexts where we want to add the “obstacle” or challenge that was the reason for the failing.

  • Der Stand-Up-Comedian scheitert an seiner Nervosität.
  • The stand up comedian fails due to his nervousness.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Einhorn hat versucht, das Bierlager zu betreten, ist aber an der Einhorn-Sicherheitstür gescheitert.
  • The unicorn tried to enter the beer storage, but it failed on the unicorn safety door.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das Team ist im Halbfinale am Favoriten gescheitert.
  • The team failed in the semi finals against the front-runner.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

As you can see, the phrasing is scheitern an [obstacle/challenge] with the Dative case. If you need a mental image, just think of someone trying to get somewhere but there’s a wall blocking the way. The wall is the obstacle or challenge and we fail when we’re “at it”.

By the way, there are a couple other options for to fail in the context of a person failing at something. The first one is versagen.
This one DOESN’T take any kind of object, so you don’t versagen an something, you just versagen.  And it sounds somewhat serious and “loser”.

  • Wir haben versagt.
  • We have failed.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

     

This would fit well for a really good sports team in an interview after a surprising defeat, or for you telling your friends at your party that you couldn’t organize more beer. Serious stuff.
But it would be a bit out of place for a team lead telling the team that they missed the deadline, or for you telling your friends that you didn’t manage to catch the 3 o’clock bus.
The more neutral option and the best choice for daily life is simply… nicht schaffen.

And while we’re on tone – scheitern itself also sounds somewhat serious.
So for something really small not working out, the better choice is nicht klappen.

I’ll add links to the articles on schaffen and klappen below, so you can check out how to use those properly, if you want to.

But even though it’s not really a must have and you can speak fluent German without ever using scheitern, it’s definitely a word you’ll see fairly regularly.

Does it have any relatives?
Well, there’s the noun das Scheitern, which is the failure, or the act of failing.

  • Der Comedian erklärt sein Scheitern damit, dass er kein Bier hatte.
  • The comedian explains his failure with the fact that he didn’t have beer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And then, there’s the noun der Scheiterhaufen, which is the German word for stake. And not the stake in a bet.
The Scheiterhaufen is the “stake” of “being burned at the stake“.
Which seems like a really wicked connection. I mean… failing epicly is not pleasant, but using burning at the stake as a metaphor… that’s quite dark.

The real connection however is the word der Scheit, which is the word for a log or piece of chopped firewood. A few hundred years back, scheitern actually was about the idea of falling apart, being split into pieces, but over time it shifted a bit toward the notion of failing attempts.

And by the way… the ultimate origin of der Scheit and scheitern is the unnecessarily ancient Indo-European root *skei- which was about splitting, cutting. This root grew into a really big and lush language tree, with words like science, shedding and shit.
So, scheitern actually is related to Scheiße after all, bringing us full circle.

And that’s where we’ll wrap it up for today. This was our quick look at the meaning of scheitern.
As usual, if you want to test if you remember the key takeaways, just try the little  quiz I have prepared. I’m almost certain you won’t scheitern :).

And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions about any of this, please leave a comment.
Oh and maybe, if you feel like it, please try an example with scheitern, and I’ll correct it if necessary, because the phrasing is a bit tricky.
I really hope you enjoyed this one, I wish you a great week, and I’ll see you next time.
Bis dann :)

Further reading:

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