Word of the Day – “wirken”

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 …

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:

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.

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.

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.

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….

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

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.

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.

Another very prominent member of the family is wirklich which is often used as 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- …

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.

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.

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

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

And also, wirken alone could be mistaken for impression.

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.

for members :)

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Am very glad I found this site! I moved to Zürich from the U.S. three months ago and am busy taking language classes. This site helps to keep things interesting. Keep up the good work.


Thanks for another great and useful blog.
Concerning the question about the lotion, in English you can also just say “work the cream in for 5 minutes”.

der Thomas

These are blurbs from a resume – so I guess they are not really full sentences (which might make a great GiE – article hint hint), but trying to decide if these examples in English would use Arbeiten or Wirken:
• Have worked to develop their test stand..
• Have worked together to gain a higher level understanding of their hardware.

Trish Lechman

Great post I love the examples, German is a lot of work!


brilliant ! thank you very much

Nikolaus Wittenstein

“Dieses Bild wirkt in diesem Zimmer nicht.”
Man kann das auch auf Englisch sagen: “This picture doesn’t work in this room.”


Hello Emmanuel, just a suggestion from a fan of your presentations. I suspect that many people print out your lessons and read them on paper and file them away in the ‘Wisdom of Emmanuel’ folder in our filing cabinet, because there is just too much information to simply read off the screen.

This makes for a lot of paper, especially when we print and walk around with the printout in our pocket. Something to read when there is free time during the day.

There are perhaps 2 simple ways to make the texts shorter.

instead of
Kaffee wirkt abführend.
Coffee works as a laxative.
I suggest
Kaffee wirkt abführend. Coffee works as a laxative.

instead of

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

I suggest

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

from the point of view of the writer or if it was for publication in a book or magazine, your presentation is obviously better but in the context of a blog being printed by the end user, my suggestion may be more practical.

If we take wirken as an example, it is possible to cut down text length from 30% to 50%

herzlichen Dank und freundliche Grüsse,


der Thomas

Please don’t do this. It is much harder to read that way.

Also, what’s a printer?


copy to MS Word, save as pdf and print in PORTRAIT BOOKLET format, which you can carry in your back pocket. very convenient.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Alternatively, you could use a smartphone or a tablet instead of printing everything out. Save the trees! :P


formatting is a problem on a phone

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

I haven’t had such a problem with this blog.


Die Beispiele würden meiner Meinung nach abschreckend auf die Blog-Leser wirken- insbesondere auf diejenigen, die die Texte eher an einem iPad lesen- wenn sie, wie du vorschlagen hast, nacheinander geschrieben worden wären.

Andererseits finde ich es einfach toll, dass du dir Zeit genommen hast, beim Perfektionieren dieses Blogs mitzuwirken!


Hopefully he does NOT make this change. Most people read it online (who PRINTS anything today, apart from work? I dont know anyone…), and you suggestion makes readin almost impossible, one big messy string of words. Emanuel, please stay with the stuff just as it is, thanks.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Ja, hört sich wie Kotzen an.

– Hej, Miglopaltasar, wir müssen weiterarbeiten!
– *u̯u̯u̯errrg̑*

Und “Arbeit” ist sogar besser, da das Wort dem Slawischen “rab” (Sklave) verwandt ist, sowie dem “Robot[er]”.

Was “wirken” betrifft: ich wurde einmal überrascht, als ich las: “Er wirkte als… [Beruf]” – weil ich stattdessen “arbeitete” erwartet hätte. Ich nehme an, das ist gleich wie “er funktionierte als…”, die Bedeutungen von “arbeiten” und “wirken” scheinen in diesem Fall zu überlappen. Ich vermute auch, dass “wirken” hier andeutet, dass diese berufliche Funktion irgendwie optional/zusätzlich zu anderen vllt. wichtigeren Beschäftigungen wäre, obwohl ich mir dessen nicht sicher bin.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Was ist die korrekte Nicht-Stellung bei “entsprechen”?
Ich habe immer angenommen, es sei “Das A entspricht dem B nicht”, nach den üblichen grammatischen Regeln. Ich habe aber schon öfters gesehen/gehört: “Das A entspricht nicht dem B”, und das ohne irgendeine Entgegensetzung (wie “sondern”…).


Really enjoyed this post, especially the etymological background. It cleared up a number of vague uncertainties or hard to formulate questions about arbeiten, wirken and scheinen. Keep up the good work: it seems to be effective!!!

Christopher J
Christopher J

Hi, I really appreciated the etymology here too—is there a specific source that you refer to for this, perhaps (apart from Duden) a standard kind of work would you know?

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Was bedeutet “Abturnen” (als eine Art Sport gemeint)?


I have always appreciated your efforts to post such useful lessons of German language. These might be very useful for all the people learning German language.


Awesome post as usual.

I believe effectuated takes two f’s: That effected/efectuated nothing.

Thanks again for this very interesting blog!


Thank you so much! I’m so glad I’ve found the blog.

Can you recommend any audio lessons?


Ich habe Deutsch für drei-fünf Monaten gelernt, und Ihres Blog hat mir wirklich gehelft… (Ist das richtig?)


Hallo Emanuel,

Dies Mal möchte ich einfach sagen, dass du vielleicht einen Fehler gemacht hast, du hast geschrieben: “Mit kleinen Accessoires große Wirkung erziehlen”, ich denke dass das Verb “erziehlen” nicht existiert, meintest du wahrscheinlich “erzielen”?

Das ist alles inzwischen, danke für deine Hilfe beim Deutsch Lernen.

Breann Wasson
Breann Wasson

Hi! Completely off topic, but where do you get your etymology information? It seems to be one of the things that really works for me when I’m trying to learn new words. Knowing where they come from helps cement them in my mind. I was just wondering if it was something you picked up along the way or if you have any resources for it? Thank you so much!


Ich könnte wohl spät dran sein, aber ich stelle die Frage trotzdem.
Kann “Wirkt auf mich” auch als “it get/gives(me) the feeling (that)” übersetzt werden?


Also, “Es wirkt auf mich als ob, er sich kaum dafür interessiert.”
Kann man so einen Satz überhaupt bilden?
Wenn ja, Können dieser oben Satz als ” I get the feeling that …..” Übersetzt werden?