Word of the Day – “die Spannung”


Right when his mind started wandering into the mist of dreams ,
a silent crackle brought him 
back to reality.
The fire, he thought. But  that he had put out, he remembered.
Eyes closed he 
listened. There was no wind, and the world lay silent.
An owl hooted not too far 
away. Then again.
That’s when he heard the noise. A rustling, like leather on stone,

about  6 yards away behind the rocks. It ceased whenever the bird
was quite but 
as the next hoot came, so did the noise. There, behind those rocks,
someone was creeping closer.
And, so he reckoned, not with good intent. 

Hey guys. That was a little attempt to create at least some suspense here because , maaaan, today we’ll do what needs to be done and talk a little about the most boringest part of language :
Nah, of course not. Today will actually be full of suspense because we’ll have a look at the meaning of:

die Spannung

And it wouldn’t be a real Word of the Day if we were just looking at one word. Pshhh… I mean… come on. Lady Spannung is just the head of a whole family. We will look at all of house Spannung. House Spannung is a very old house and can trace its ancestry back to the first men. The  sigil of house Spannung is the golden spring, its words are “Always tense”… I uh … I think I watch too much Game of Thrones … but anyway,  as so usual there is a simple basic verb as the seed. Spannen. It has a number of translations (stretch, stress, span, tighten, but the core is best described as introducing tension into a system. Sounds super dry but that’s what the whole family is about actually. The most iconic use of spannen one is drawing a bow.

Nooo, … not that one. The other one, the hunting one.

  • Ich spanne meinen Bogen.

Drawing is about the movement that your arms makes, spannen is about what you do to the bow. You introduce tension into the system and that tension is then there, waiting for it’s release. The bow-drawing might actually be the original use of the word. At least it always had something to do with tension. The word spasm comes from Ancient Greek for instance and it has the same origins.
But anyway… a more contemporary use of spannen is with clothes.

  • Meine Hose spannt ein bisschen am Bauch.
  • My pants are a little tight around the waist.

But spannen alone isn’t really all that useful. The real potential of the core-idea shows in all the derived words.. you know..  like nouns and adjectives and prefix verbs and neverheards and notsurewhatthatis.
Let’s maybe just look at the ideas individually. Sounds good? Cool.

the tension-idea

And this brings us right back to Spannung because Spannung can be tension  in a system.There is the mechanical tension of a spring (Federspannung -spring force) but also the electric tension between two poles.

  • Die Netzspannung in Deutschland ist 50 Volt
  • The line voltage in Germany is 50.
  • Das Haus liegt unter einer Hochspannungsleitung.
  • The house lies under a high voltage transmission line/high tension line.

But just as tension, Spannung can also be used in a more abstract sense… for instance in politics.

  • Die durch die gegensätzlichen Meinungen zur Steuerreform entstandenen Spannungen zwischen den Koalitionspartnern nehmen zu.
  • The tensions between the coalition partners over the different opinions in  regard to the tax reform are increasing.

Maaan… I wonder how that is going to play out.
Finally, Spannung is also THE word in context of muscles. And here we see our first prefix-versions of spannen – anspannen, entspannen and verspannen.  Anspannen has an in it which often expresses the idea of starting something so it makes sense that anspannen would mean to flex

  • Ich spanne meine Muskeln an.
  • I flex my muscles.

The direct opposite of that is usually locker lassen or loslassen… a phsysiotertha uhm… physitherpanist examining your thigh could say the following

  • Einmal anspannen bitte… und locker lassen.
  • Tense up your muscle please… and relax. (don’t know what doctors would say in English)

But there is also  entspannen which is maybe a more “whole”relaxation for the muscles…

  • Maria hat jetzt Progressive Muskelentspannung für sich entdeckt.
  • Maria as discovered progressive muscle relaxation.

The third one is verspannen and the ver does something in between wrong and change here (you’ll understand once you read the post on ver :). Verspannen kin dof means to misflex or to flex into a not unflexable state. Meh… that sounded stupid, I know. You can verspannen your neck if you sleep in a weird position or if you make a weird move. The muscles harden. But the verb isn’t used that much actually. It’s not the doing it, it’s the result that matters.

  • Ich habe eine Verspannung am Rücken.
  • I have a tension/hardening on my back.
  • Mein ganzer Nacken ist total verspannt. Ich brauche eine Massage.
  • My whole neck is tensed up. I need a massage.

Yeah… that would be nice and relaxing. But now, because it was so interesting,  let’s go back to the tensions between the political parties. There is a different way of saying that… using angespannt instead of Spannung.

  • Wegen der gegensätzlichen Meinungen bezüglich der Steuerreform ist das Verhältnis der Koalitionspartner zunehmend angespannt.
  • Due to differentiating opinions regarding the tax reform the relationship between the coalition partners is becoming increasingly tense.

That begs the question… why does angespannt mean tense? Didn’t we say that an adds the idea of starting? Why isn’t that in the translation? The noun was Spannung so why not just gespannt? The reason is that gespannt has a second meaning, or tone. One that is very positive and that would kind of clash with the negative or serious tense we need here.  What is that other meaning? And more importantly, how is the conflict over the tax reform going to resolve?  Questions that no doubt have us all at the edge of our seats… so let’s find out.

 the “excitement”-idea… kind of

We’ve learned that the core of the whole spannen family is “tension into system”. Well… in a way, a human mind is a system too, thus also sussepti… uh susceblab… whatever. We can have different levels of tension too. Now, tension sounds pretty negative but it’s not a negative thing. The lack of tension is not … uhm… equalibreblah. That is but all forces  balanced. A lack of any sort of tension would be indifference.

  • “There’s Tom.”
    “Oh… Meeh Tom!”

    “Meeh, guys!”
    “Watcha doi.. you know what, never mind.”

Nah…  we definitely need some tension in our lives. In English, it’s called suspense and excitement. Suspense comes from the same root as to depend and pending. This root is the Latin word pendere which meant something like to hang. Meh… I guess that makes sense. The villain is lurking behind a stone, the hero doesn’t know. And the scene leaves us hanging in uncertainty for a bit. We’re anxious, a little scared maybe, and curious.  Excitement also comes from Latin. The root is the same as for cite and it is something like a call to action. Not to far from the tension-into-system-idea, I think. But anyway, nowadays excitement is pretty positive. You look forward to something, or you’re really enjoying something interesting. Excitement is about joy.
German uses the spannen-family for both ideas.. namely the words Spannung, gespannt and spannend. And they are all somewhere in between suspense and excitement. Spannung can means suspense, and spannend, which is literally “tension-introducing” can mean suspenseful.

  • Der Regisseur weiß, wie man mit einfachen Mitteln Spannung erzeugt.
  • The director knows how to create suspense with simple means.
  • Der Film war echt spannend.
  • The movie was really suspenseful.

However, spannend doesn’t always have to do with thrill. It can be just that something is interesting. Mathematics can be spannend for if you’re interested in it. But suspenseful?
Will x be 1 this time… dunn dunn dunnnn… nah, not really.
And what about exciting? Well, that  is a little too positive. Not everything that is spannend is also exciting. Suppose your company needs to lay of some people. Today they fired Peggy and Bill from customer care. Tomorrow they’ll announce who has to go in accounting. That is spannend, but it’s not exciting. So, I’d say that spannend is works for anything that really has you interested or invested. Can be suspenseful or interesting, can be intriguing or fascinating.

  • Du studierst angewandte Philosophie? Das klingt ziemlich spannend.
  • You’re studying applied philosphy? That sounds pretty intriguing/interesting/fascinating.
  • Bei einem ersten Treffen der Koalitionäre wurde lediglich ein weiteres Treffen vereinbart. Es bleibt also spannend.
  • At a first meeting between the coalition partners only reached an agreement for a further meeting. The suspense continues.
  • Wir machen auf Arbeit gerade ein echt spannendes Projekt.
  • We’re doing a really exciting/interesting project at work.
  • Jim ist ein spannender Mensch.
  • Jim is a fascinating/intriguing person.

I hope you could get an idea. It’s more investing than interesting but less joy-laden than exciting.
Now, the other really important word is gespannt. It’s the ge-form of spannen and the literal translation is in a tense state.

  • Die Slackline ist zwischen den Bäumen gespannt.
  • The slackline is tightened between the trees.

But gespannt is also used a LOT for this positive tension. If you’re gespannt then you can’t wait to find out something. Or a little mellowed down: you’re looking forward to something.

  • Ich bin gespannt, was ich zum Geburtstag kriege.
  • I can’t wait to find out/I’m excited to see what I get for my birthday.
  • Nächste Woche kommt der neue Batman-Film raus. Ich bin schon ganz gespannt.
  • Tomorrow the new Batman movie opens. I’m already excited.

But gespannt is maybe not as excited as excited and it is can sound rather skeptical…. especially in combination with mal.

  • Ich bin mal gespannt darauf, ob ich die Prüfung bestanden habe.
  • I’m really curious whether I passed the test.

Using excited there would kind of imply that I assume that I passed it.
To sum this up I would say that gespannt and spannend have something to do with finding out something. They can mean excited or exciting but often those two are just too … well… excited. You wouldn’t jump in joy because you’re gespannt. And a rafting tour can be exciting, but spannend… nah not really. Hearing about one can be.
For exciting I’d say aufregend or, if you want to take the colloquial approach, voll cool. And for excited I’d recommend a different phrasing…

  • Nächste Woche habe ich endlich Urlaub, ich freu mich schon voll
  • Next week I’ll finally be on vacation..I’m soooo excited.

And that vacation is really needed because the job is stressful. And that brings us to the last idea of the spannen-family.

the stress-idea

Just as we can feel positive tension, we can also feel negative tension.
And there are a few  spannen-words in that area.
Let’s start with Anspannung. We already know anspannen as flexing the muscles but the noun is mainly used for the tension of mind and soul…. negative tension.

  • Ich leide unter ständiger innerer Anspannung.
  • I suffer from constant (inner/emotional) strain.
  • Vor dem Auftritt trinkt die Sängerin immer einen Kurzen gegen die Anspannung.
  • Before the show, the singer always drinks a shot to calm her nerves.  (not lit.!)
  • Extrem angespannt – was kann ich tun.
  • Extremely stressed/strained – what can I do.

By the way… if we were to insert gespannt in the last example the tone would completely change. The sentence would then sound like you’re really excited.
Now, when you’re totally angespannt all the time, it’s no wonder that you’ll wear out slowly. And then when the stress is gone, but what’s left is a burned out wreck. You’re abgespannt.

  • Heute nicht Schatz. Ich bin ziemlich abgespannt.
  • Not today honey. I’m pretty worn out/drawn.

Hey, wait… drawn… that’s a nice call back to the drawing a bow.
But anyway, now what is it that we should do against Anspannung? What?
Oh… I wasn’t think of THAT but yeah… that can be indeed a great stress relieve. And it does kind of rhyme with what I was going for:  to relax. We’ve already seen in context of muscles but just like to relax entspannen is used for stress too. And there are all kinds of variations of the word in use.

  • Ich bin ganz entspannt.
  • I’m completely relaxed.
  • “Was für Musik willst du hören?”
    “Hast du was entspannendes?”
  • “What kind of music do you want to hear?”
    “Do you have something relaxing?”

  • Entspannen Sie Körper und Seele in unserer Wellness-Oase.
  • Relax your body and soul in our “wellness oasis”. (I reckon this isn’t even used in real English)
  • Ich brauche Entspannung.
  • I need relaxation.
  • Entspann dich mal.
  • Chill out dude.

Those were just a few examples and there are more variations out there. As there are more version of spannen, but I think we’ve done enough for one day. The most crucial thing to remember is that spannen is about introducing tension into a system. With that in mind you can hopefully guess all the variations and prefix-versions you see from context. A second take-away is maybe meaning of spannend and gespannt which appears to be close to exciting but are actually closer to REALLY interesting.
Speaking of interesting…  I’ll go to the washing salon now to do my laundry… yeah… sounds spannend doesn’t it :)? But I like it. The droning of the machines … I just find it really entspannend. Ok enough now … but I’m really gespannt for your own examples and questions and suggestions in the comments.
What’s left to say? Oh yeah… the  coalition conflict.
It was settled.
Thank god.
Bis nächstes mal :)


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1 year ago


Haben Sie einen Tipp, wie man diese drei Verben unterscheiden kann:

sich ausruhen
sich entspannen
sich erholen

Sie fuehlen sich alle so aehnlich an..

Vielen Dank im Voraus

8 years ago

Would it be possible to please give an example on how to use aufspannen? The dictionary says to restring a guitar but are there other situations where one can use that also? It also mentions “to stretch something out” but could one use that for say stretching the body during a yawn or would it only be for objects?

Would you use it, for example when describing stringing up a line between two trees (e.g. for hanging up washing when camping)?

Danke im Voraus!

8 years ago

I’m also under the impression that “Spannung” can refer to sexual tension in particular, and that saying “Ich bin Spannung,” is like saying, “I’m turned on.” Is that accurate?

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ah. Alright. Thanks!

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago
Reply to  SnowOnACactus

Besides, you said “I am tension”, which doesn’t make much sense, unless you’re the goddess of tension (in mythological sense) ;)

8 years ago

Ah, that was a mistake. I meant “Ich habe Spannung.”

8 years ago

Im Bild, was bedeutet “ge-” wie “Der Bogen ge-“

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Bogen gespannt, Kopf entspannt

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago

Es sieht so aus, dass auch “spinnen” mit “spannen” etwas zu tun haben könnte, auch etymologisch, vielleicht weil die Fäden während des Spinnens angespannt werden,

8 years ago

Lol, gut gesagt, wie man sagt “spin docter” , so witzig kann man nicht vorstellen !!

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

Agreed, although in British English we also use wrench, like pipe & monkey wrench etc. The interesting point about ‘spanner’ is that as a tool it introduces tension into eg a nut & bolt system. It can also release the tension.

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Being Scottish, this is funny. Clearly the tension between the Scottish & English aus die Engländer kommen. ;-D

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

PS Has this ‘thrown a spanner in the works?’ (common figure of speech) :-D

8 years ago
Reply to  Mike W

Only in British English! In American English it’s a wrench, which doesn’t fit the post nearly as well ;)

But I’ve heard that in German, “die Spanner” means “the peeping Tom” (is this actually true?), which would give the phrase a whole different meaning!

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

Tensions within the coalition, that began with the tax reform issue, are now increasing to include all manner of differences between the members. At this rate a General Election may need to be called by the end of the year! It is believed that an individual, living in Berlin, may have precipitated this latest crisis within UK politics. Daily Storyteller 12/6/14

8 years ago

Another great essay where introducing us to the notion of “tension” with “spannen”, and then all the derivative words that relate back to it to form many other words that have that same underlying root-meaning, is just terrific. This is another article I’ll read over again several times to let it sink in — thanks for yet anther great effort.

I thought about how to word the phrase above to include the idea that the tensions between the coalition partners increased with the different opinions about tax reform (but not necessarily ‘because of that, and that alone’), but I don’t know how to express that exact meaning in English. I was going to suggest that replacing “differentiating” with “divergent” might get us closer to the meaning you have expressed in German. “Divergent” suggests that the different opinions of the coalition members are wending away in completely different directions, which might then imply that this is leading to increased tensions for reasons beyond just the different opinions… I’m not sure, though, if that fully captures the nuance you mention that the sentence has in German.

Also, unrelated, but in another sentence above, which I can’t locate now, you write “in regards to”. Many, many native English speakers also make this mistake often, but it is always wrong. The correct formulations should be either “in regard to” or “as regards” or “regarding” but never “in regardS to”.

Thanks again for the valuable lesson! For us language nerds, who want a little more than just memorization of vocabulary, this site is a gold mine, and that makes the learning process so much more interesting for us, and yes, “ziemlich spannend” !!! Danke!

8 years ago

Hochspannung erinnert mich immer an AC/DC. Die “voltage” Spannung kannte ich ja schon, da ich Elektriker war. Guter Post wie immer. Heute bin ich gespannt, was du nächster Woche schreiben wirst. Macht das Sinn? Kein Fehler?

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel


8 years ago

I enjoy these postings. Have you done one for the various verbs from werfen? (ent-, aus-, auf-, an- etc.)

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

“I only drink to steady my nerves. Sometimes I’m so steady I don’t move for months.” Quote from WC Fields.

So the singer would have a shot before the show to ‘steady her nerves’.

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

Relax your Mind, Body and Soul in our……..Spa………Meditation centre……….Pool………Frying pan………..choose 3 of 4.

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

Oder, There are increasing tensions within the coalition regarding tax reform, and how to deal with it. (Coalition already describes an alliance of different groups and therefore opinion) :-)

BTW Great post.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel


Ich würde vielleicht sagen:

“Tensions between the coalition members have increased/are increasing due to differing opinions on tax reform.”

Das ist allerdings nicht perfekt. Ihre Version scheint zu sagen, dass die Spannungen ursprünglich über Steuerreform waren, und jetzt über etwas anderes sein könnten. Meine Version sagt fast das Gegenteil – die Spannungen bevor existiert haben, aber nur jetzt über Steuerreform sind.

Oder dies:

“Tensions between the coalition members, triggered by [yesterday’s/last week’s/last month’s] conflict over tax reform, are increasing.”

Aber diese Version setzt voraus, dass der Leser schon über der Steuerreform-Konflikt weiß.

Dieser Satz ist überraschend schwer zu übersetzen.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ist “gegensätzlich” einfach “different”, oder wird hier der Sinn von etwa “mutually opposed” ergeben?

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader
8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Das ist was ich nenne “mutually opposed” :D
Bloß “different” wäre für mich z.B. wenn die Farbe eines Autos gewählt werden würde: rot, blau, grün… Also, etwas Gleichartiges. Kann das Wort auch zur Beschreibung solcher Fälle verwendet werden?

8 years ago

Ich bin gespannt, einen neuen Artikel zu lesen! (Ist das richtig?)

”The tensions between the coalition partners over the different opinions with regards to the tax reform are increasing.” (gee… how would I say that in proper English ??? Help me :)

Ich würde wahrscheinlich nur sagen: “The tensions between the coalition partners over tax reform are increasing.”

Mit dem “differing opinions” Teil, klingt es etwas unhandlich, und es ist bereits impliziert. (Aber “their differing opinions on tax reform” ist wahrscheinlich die beste Phrasierung, wenn es notwendig ist.)

Besser vielleicht zu sagen:

“The idiots are arguing over tax reform again.”

Aber das macht nicht so nützliche eine Beispiel. :)

Ich würde die trinkende Sängerin wie so beschreiben:

“The singer always drinks a shot for her nerves.”

Mike W
Mike W
8 years ago

“The house lies under a high voltage transmission line.” In UK english this would be ‘overhead power line’, or just plain old ‘power line’, that is carried by pylons. However High voltage transmission line works too, just maybe a bit techy ie technical. Try googling it!

8 years ago

Relax your body and soul in our “wellness oasis”. (I reckon this isn’t even used in real English)
Oh ja… Du kannst es hier benutzen. Das Verständnis ist klar.

8 years ago

Seher interessantes Wortschat von Physik, Elektricität , Mechanik, und immer wierder spanned !.
Vielen Dank .

8 years ago

In the US above 35,000 kilovolts it’s generally a High Power Transmission Line (bringing the power over great distances before being transformed down [in voltage]). Generally 4,000 – 27,000 kilovolts are high tension wires that feed neighborhoods.

Ron Magnuson
Ron Magnuson
8 years ago

Before the show, the singer always drinks a shot against the nerves. (can I say that?)
No, the singer drinks a shot to calm her nerves. Or the singer drinks a shot for her nerves.