Word of the Day – “wohl”

wohl-pictureHello everyone,

and “wohl”-come to our German Word of the Day. This time we “wohl” have a look at the meaning of:



Wohl is a very versatile word.
A word with multiple meanings it seems.
Evading your grasp, just like a bird
its core and its essence totally blurred
but crow because a new hope for us gleams.

These words, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe during the time he was preparing for the Certificate Deutsch back in his hometown Cornwall, bear witness that wohl has been confusing for generations of students. Little is known about the hope Goethe was referring to, but it doesn’t really matter because with our modern technology wohl is not the problem anymore it used to be a few centuri.. what? Cornwall isn’t a city? Ohhhh… well, then…

Which brings us to our word of the day wohl and what it has to do with guessing. So are you ready to jump in? Very well.

We’ll start with some history (yaaawwwn)

Some history (yaaawwwnn)

Wohl has quite a few very very famous words in its family. On the German side we have wollen (to want) and wählen (to vote, to chose) and on the English side wohl is related to well (well as in good) and will.
They all come from a very mega-ancient Indo-European root that looks exactly like all the other Indo-European roots we have seen here… *u̯el . Seriously… those roots really look all very similar to me. But anyways’s… this stump meant pretty much what its German descendants mean: to want and to vote. It is still very obvious in the will… which is basically something you want. The verb will has changed a little and is used to build the future tense in English… this might seem random at first glance but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. English people back a few centuries just said:

  • I will go home after this one.

stating their intentions… and it is not very far from intentions or plans you have to the future tense. But there is an even more obvious example… in context of marriage. There are 2 ways to ask THE question in English one being this:

  • Will you … ?

And  in German?

  • Willst du …?

And the answers would be:

  • Yes, I will.
  • Ja, ich will.

So… this is essentially the same thing… just in English will is the like future tense verb and in German it is “to want”. I think the notion that you statement in front the altar reflect your intention and not a fact about the future is maybe less romantic but more realistic :). But anyway…
And what about well? How does that relate to its want-origin? Well, something done well is kind of done desirably or the way you want it… for things people had the word good but the position for actions was vacant and goodly was not an option because … you know…the most common everyday things shall NEVER follow regular patterns.
In German, there is no distinction between adjectives (words describing things) and adverbs (words describing actions or adjectives) so well is often translated as gut.

But sometimes wohl is also a translation for well

“wohl” as “well”

The German wohl is used in sense of well when you talk about how you feel. The most common example is the combination with fühlen…  wohl is actually kind of a prefix:

Sich wohlfühlen always needs a self-reference. So it is

  • Ich fühle mich wohl.
  • Du fühlst dich wohl.
  • Er fühlt sich wohl.

It  is mainly used for places or situations. So you can dich wohlfühlen in a hotel or in a bar. But for example sich wohlfühlen wouldn’t really be an adequate translation for that song “I feel good”. Why not? Well, I think mainly because sich wohlfühlen has a very relaxed and “couchy” vibe to it :). It implies being comfy.
Let’s put it in the negative…

Maybe it was a high pressure bar…. haha… get it? … like air pressure… in bar… uh… a physics jok… ok ok never mind.
Sich wohlfühlen isn’t strictly limited to locations.

And you can also use it in a health context.

Another option to put it into the negative is just to add un.

Generally, wohlfühlen has a very nice tone to it and so it is no surprise that marketing loves it. If you spend time in Germany you will sooner or later use shampoo with a Wohlfühleffekt, use a bit of Saunawohlfühlsalz in a Wohlfühl-Oase or eat a plate of Wohlfühlpasta with a glas of Wohlfühlwein.. no kidding, you can google all that, people LOVE adding Wohlfühl to things to add the notion of comfortable :). There is even the absolutely nonsensical Wohlfühlgefühl (check it here)… my god, so stupid. But anyway… obviously the combination of wohl and fühlen is definitely something to remember.
Now, fühlen is not the only verb with which wohl works… for instance, there is also wohlsein. But, at least to me, the only purpose of this word is as a response to a burp. Then, there are things like wohlschmeckend (well-tasting) or wohlriechend (well-smelling) or wohlwollend (well-meaning)  but people don’t really use those in daily life. I mean.. technically you can do it. Theoretically, you can use wohl in sense of well for all kinds of stuff but either it’ll sound a bit old

  • Habt ihr wohl geruht, (mein König)?
  • Have you rested well, (my king)?

or it is confusing because of the other meaning of wohl:

  • Die Suppe hat wohl geschmeckt.
  • The soup was probably tasty….  oh… oh that is not what I wanted to say

So, better to think of gut as the default translation for well.

Now, before we move on to the other meaning of wohl, here are 2 more examples for the well-wohl.
is also part of the German Version of as well as... sowohl als auch… the only difference is that sowohl is the intro of it and is not there in English.

And finally, well-wohl is part of a very definite good bye… you know… the serious break up one.

All right.
So, most of the time well translates to gut but in some situations the translation is wohl. By far the most important example is sich wohlfühlen and if you see a wohl in a context in which it would make perfect sense as well… well, just assume it means well. Oh … speaking of assuming… let’s move on to the next wohl, the particle one.

wohl assumes things

Sometimes, a well can add value to real estate…  oh… uh… let me start over.
An English well can add a notion of  really or for real to a statement…

The German sentence sure looks the same but it means something totally different …

  • It probably is past midnight.

People use wohl to express that they assume something. And they use this wohl a lot.

Now, I don’t know for sure why the word took on this meaning  but I wouldn’t be a nerd if I had no theory, would I? And deep inside you like it; you want me to talk dir.. nerdy to you; you think vanilla grammar is fine but sometimes you need the real thing, don’t you? Why else would you be reading this, right? So let’s take a short (really short, I promise) detour and talk abstract theory.
You see, between German linguists there is a debate about whether the German future is a real tense or rather a mode… yeah… it certainly doesn’t matter for the average language learner. The reason why I am mentioning it is because both sides have good arguments and of those arguments helps seeing a connection between will and the assuming-wohl.  There is a usage of the future tense that expresses uncertainty:

  • “Where is my book about linguistics?”
    “Well, you took it with you when you were going to take a dump so it will be in the bathroom.”

So… here, the Speaker is not trying to say that the book will be there at some Point in the future but rather that it is probably there.  This phenomenon is not limited to English but it also exists in German, French and Italian and possible all languages (please let me know if this exists in your language too). A possible underlying explanation is that a statement about the future will always be an assumption of sorts because we simply don’t know yet.

  • Tomorrow, I’ll start learning vocabulary.

Sure… … … …
So a statement in future tense is to an extend an assumption… in English this is also reflected by the fact that the verb will is used to build it. Now, we’ve learned that will and wohl are related and both come from an old version of want. So… if will could take on the notion of assuming, maybe a similar thing happened to wohl… maybe even at the same time. Hey… heeeeyyyy wake up!!!!
Whatever the reason might be… wohl is often used to express that the speaker is making an assumption… it is more certain than maybe and less neutral than probably. It’s range is from a genuine “I guess”

to “Well, it is pretty much a fact.”.

It is definitely more probably than maybe but it is tricky to say what the difference is between using wohl and using wahrscheinlich (probably).
Wohl has more color to it. Probably is really just stating that something is or looks very probably while wohl is more personal. Also, wohl is often used in sort of rhetorical contexts.

Especially the last example is a very common situation. It is pretty much the rethorical question

  • Are you totally crazy?

or the simple statement…

  • You are crazy!

So… in this example wohl is not exactly assuming anymore… it is saying yes. And that is the third important meaning.

wohl as yes… and other stuff

Wohl can also be used to underline or reassure something… and besides doch it is the other important word you need if you want to stand your ground in school yard discussions.

It does sound very childish to argue that way but at times and especially in combination with sehr it is in use also by adults.

And there are some other sort of fixed phrases with in which wohl kind of says yes. For instance for words of wisdom:

In the military (at least in movies):

to turn questions into very harsh sounding orders:

or in combination with a but:

Sorry, of I am just listing examples. It is just kind of hard to give you a nice catchy rule when exactly wohl has this yes-spirit. Also, it is kind of hard to tell apart the assuming wohl from the affirming one.  Okay… when it is spoken it is quite obvious because the affirming wohl needs a strong emphasis or else it sounds like the assuming one. But when it is written it is hard to tell. In some phrases it is this in others it’s that and sometimes it can be either.  To make it even more confusing, there are also some phrasings where I have no idea in which category to put them for example this particle weapon:

Another fixed phrase is wohl kaum which means hardly

And again I have no idea what exactly wohl does… it is kind of affirming but also assuming at the same time.
And then, there is this pattern where wohl is following a question word in counter questions:

Again, I have no idea how to translate that but

  • Wo/wie/warum/wer wohl?

all those imply that the answer is pretty obvious… it is like

  • Who/where/what/how/why do you think? Duhhhh....

Now… is that the assuming wohl or the affirming wohl or a completely different wohl entirely? I don’t know and you can think of it however you want. But all those expressions are fairly common and you’ll definitely hear or see them sooner or later.
Now, we’re almost done here but there is one last thing we should mention. And that will bring us full circle back to our first meaning of wohl… you know… the well-wohl. There is also a noun das Wohl and that basically means the well-being.

This is not really something you need everyday except in one situation. A very very very very very very common situation. Common and easy to remember. And it is incredibly easy in practice because you need no grammar at all…

And it the softer, more elegant brother of prost.

  • Cheers.

And speaking of cheers, it’s time to do that cause we’re done for the day.
That was our German Word of the Day wohl. It comes from the same root as well and will. It can be used to express assumptions, it can also reaffirm a statement and sometimes it means just well, especially in combination with fühlen. To me, all those meaning kind of make sense and share a common core of something being desired or desirable… don’t know if that makes sense to you. Anyway… I hope I could clear things up a little.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.