Word of the Day – “wirken”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 13, 2021

wirken-germanHello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. This time, we will have a look at the meaning of



Looks like a lot of work. No… wait. I meant it looks a lot like work. Seriously, it is the usual thing we can find for a lot of Germanic verbs… the consonants give the frame, the foundation, the core. The vowels kind of just fill in the blank
or add some meaning facet or something.

  • w_rk

In English, o works. In German it was once u and now it’s i… but who cares… it’s the same frame :).
The frame comes from an ancient Indo-European root that looks like a vomiting sound… *u̯erg̑. This is also the root for the word worm and the original meaning was something related to winding. People would wind bast fibers or something to make a fence. That was the start. But the word broadened a lot and soon meant pretty much the same as work means today. And what does work mean today? Exactly. Work. … okay, that sentence was kind of pointless.
By the way, work also has a brother in Ancient Greek… ergon  and guess this is a part of… en-ergy. Energy allows for work… en-work-er … that makes sense. Same for syn-ergy (work together) and  all-ergy (work of others). I was really surprised when I read that… but anyway… so wirken and work are related.
Now, German also has the word das Werk, which is part of many compounds.

  • Lebenswerk – life’s work
  • Werkzeug (work -stuff) – tool
  • Handwerker – craftsman/contractor
  • Werk – factory
  • Gewerkschaft  – workers union
  • Kraftwerk (power factory) – power plant
  • Bergwerk – mine

The relationship to work really shows. And that bring us to a very legitimate question. What’s up with arbeiten?
I mean… there’s this work-family which has meant the same for thousands of years. So why on earth would Germans start using arbeiten instead. Where does it come from anyway?
Well… it is a sad story with a happy ending. Arbeiten comes from the mega ancient root   orbh- which meant…. “without parents”. That makes arbeiten a direct relative of the English word orphan. Now… being an orphan is not a nice thing but back in the days it was infinitely harder as orphans had to do all kinds of shit labor to get by. That led to the Germanic word arҍējiðiz, which looks like I have a wrong keyboard setting but it meant something like plight, hardship or drudgery. So arbeiten once meant hard labor for shit pay and it wasn’t in any way appealing. But over the centuries a new class evolved, the middle class, and they took pride in their hard work. Martin Luther and the reformation also did their share and slowly Arbeit started to be something honorable, something to strive for even. People also started calling mental work Arbeit and before long what had once been an or- was an ideal.

  • I really like orphaning for an investment banker.

Yeah right, Oliver Twist does not like you… but anyway. So arbeiten has taken over most of the job-work.  But wirken is by no means without a job. It is probably the more useful word. I mean… arbeiten is what we do, but we don’t say the word all that much. Wirken is used more often I think, and it didn’t even change it’s meaning all that much. It just shifted a bit… from doing work itself to having an effect

The two meanings of “wirken”

The two meanings are actually just the core idea of “to have an effect” seen from two different points of view. On the one hand there is the very concrete effect …

  • Diese Kopfschmerztablette wirkt innerhalb von 5 Minuten.
  • This pain killer starts working within 5 minutes (lit.)
  • Kaffee wirkt abführend.
  • Coffee works as a laxative.

I used two examples that are kind of in context of medicine because the word is used there a lot but we’ll see later that it isn’t limited to that. So.. this concrete “having an effect” is one side.
And the following is the other:

  • Du wirkst müde.
  • You seem tired.

That’s right. Wirken can also mean to make an impression. And when you think about it there isn’t really a big difference. Having an effect, making an impression. In both cases you affect a system.

  • Er wirkt, als ob er mit seinem Job unzufrieden ist.
  • He looks as if he is unsatisfied with his job.

But wait a second… what about scheinen? Wasn’t that also to seem? So what’s the difference?
Well, scheinen is based on the whole idea of emitting an aura, your appearance in a way. You can appear in different ways all day without an audience. The sun is shining whether we see it or not. Wirken on the other hand is about an effect. And no effect without something affected. In you want to wirken you need a target even if it is not mentioned directly. So… wirken is more about the impression, it talks more about the “viewer”… and it is more concrete.

  • Der Raum wirkt größer als er ist.
  • The room looks bigger than it is.

Scheinen wouldn’t work as well here because it is about the impression of the room… not so much on its “aura”. Also scheinen has this subtle touch of deceiving to it that is totally lacking with the hard working wirken. And wirken can also be used as a stand alone.

  • Dieses Bild wirkt in diesem Zimmer nicht.
  • This picture doesn’t “flower out” in / show to advantage in this room.

All right. Now let’s take a quick look at the the structure. Wirken can take an adjective, a wie-sentence  or an as if sentence….

  • Du wirkst hungrig, traurig, groß.
  • You look hungry, sad, tall.
  • Sie wirkt auf mich wie eine Frau,  die weiß, was sie will.
  • To me, she comes across like a woman who knows what she wants.
  • Du wirkst, als ob du mir was sagen willst.
  • You look as if you want to tell me something.

Scheinen also kind of works with those but it sounds much better with zu-constructions.

  • Du scheinst, müde zu sein.
  • You seem to be tired.

These wouldn’t work with wirken… ever.

  • Er wirkt zu schlafen…. is not even understandable.
  • Er scheint zu schlafen…
  • He appears to be sleeping.

But you know what… I think we shouldn’t get lost in this. If we try to “force-grow” Sprachgefühl it won’t last a week… just like that basil I bought. It’s in the willow stage right now.
So, modern day wirken is all about having an effect – whether it is a real effect or just an impression. And now let’s look at all the words with wirken in them .

the wirken-family

The most important one is probably die Wirkung.

  • Ursache und Wirkung.
  • Cause and effect.

The word effect has other translations (Einfluss, Folge, Resultat, Effekt), too so you should not translate every effect as Wirkung but I’m sure you can at least understand it when you see it.

  • Das war wirkungsvoll /wirkungslos.
  • That was very effective/ineffective.
  • Mit kleinen Accessoires große Wirkung erzielen.
  • Making a big impression/impact with small accessories.

Another very prominent member of the family is wirklich which is often used as really.

  • Ich bin wirklich müde.
  • I am really tired.
  • “Thomas, ich bin schwanger.”
    “Was? Wirklich???”
  • “Thomas, I’m pregnant.”
    “What? Really???”

The connection to the core idea of wirken (have an effect) is not super obvious here, but the word really started out as something like working… like… making a difference, changing reality…. don’t know if that makes any sense to you :)

But if it doesn’t, no problem because now we’ll get to the prefix-version of wirken and I am certain a LOT of sense will be made there… no kidding. It is really pretty straight forward for once. And for many of them we can actually use the old working-wirken because these words evolved before arbeiten took over. So, let’s start with good ol’ be- …

  • Das hat nichts bewirkt.
  • That effected/effectuated nothing.

Be- does what it always does… we inflict working on something. And if we pair this up with the effect-idea then we’re already there… I put work into something, thereby causing an effect.
Then, there are verwirken and erwirken. Ver- adds the idea of away here, while er- does its usual reaching out so we have “work away” and “work until you have it”. But in practice both words are pretty much limited to the context of law suits or similar things which is why we won’t bother with examples here… that’s what you get for being so useless, you stupid words. You have forfeited your right to an examp.. oh crap… I just gave one didn’t I?
Anyway.. Now for the separable prefixes. Let’s start with einwirken.

  • Die Creme muss 5 Minuten einwirken.
  • The lotion has to “work” for five minutes.

This means that the cream has to work 5 minutes “into” the skin. It is a fairly common verb in German but I have no idea how to phrase that in English. Anyway, einwirken is not only limited to lotions. You can also einwirken on people and then it kind of becomes to influence. But again, it’s not important enough to have an example… sorry einwirken… maybe you should have acted more upon me.
Other verbs that all have the working-idea in them are mitwirken, hinwirken and entgegenwirken.

  • Ich habe bei dem Projekt mitgewirkt.
  • I participated on/did my share of/was involved with of the project.
  • Als Berater wirke ich darauf hin, die Prozesse in ihrem Unternehmen zu optimieren und blah blah blah bla…
  • As a consultant I am working towards optimizing the procedures in your company and blah blah blah blah
  • Mit unserem neuen Candy-Crush-Raum versuche ich dem heimlichen Spielen am Arbeitsplatz entgegenzuwirken.
  • With our new Candy-Crush-Room I am trying to work against the secret gaming at work.

And then we have two that are more about the effect-idea… nachwirken means to have an effect even after the actual event.

  • Ein eindrucksvoller Film, der lange nachwirkt.
  • An impressive movie that has a lasting impression/that stays with you a while.

And lastly there is auswirken. It is pretty similar to the effect-wirken but the aus underlines the idea of result or outcome.

  • Frühes Aufstehen wirkt sich negativ auf meine Laune aus.
  • Getting up early negatively affects my mood.
  • Er war sich über die Auswirkungen nicht im klaren.
  • He wasn’t aware (“in the clear”) about the ramifications.

And also, wirken alone could be mistaken for impression.

  • Er war sich über die Wirkungen nicht im Klaren.
  • He wasn’t aware of the impressions/effects.

And that’s it for today. That was our German word of the Day wirken. It used to mean to work but after arbeiten took over wirken focused more on the result and changed its core meaning to “have an effect”. In daily life you can find it a lot in context of medicine and in context of how something looks to you or what an impression something makes and there are many other important words in that family. Even the word for reality. Wirklich? Yep, Die Wirklichkeit. The “workliness”. Hmm… I would have preferred “funniness” or something. But okay…  for some people reality is a synonym for…  work. So I guess it makes sense.
Speaking of work… now it’s your turn. Create some examples and post them in the comments. We’ll of course all laugh at you if they’re wrong ;).

And if you have any questions or suggestions just leave a comment, too.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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