Word of the Day – “der Zettel”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: March 17, 2022

einkaufszettelHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will take a quick look at the meaning of:

der Zettel

Zettel is one of those words that I perceive to be purely Germanic… not very elegant, a bit harsh in sound and yet it has a certain degree of clumsiness to itself. So does it have an English relative that evolved from the same Germanic root? It does indeed… and this counterpart is…. schedule. Yes, schedule … trust me, I was as surprised as you are now but when you mumble both words it kind of shows. And what about the Germanic root? Well I was kind of blown away that Zettel and  schedule originate from the fancy Latin schedula, which meant small strip of papyrus.
Obviously the word schedule has very little to do with the origins but it still looks quite the same. The German Zettel has come quite a long way as far as the looks are concerned, but what about the meaning?

Well, Zettel is actually pretty close to the origins when it comes to meaning, so this is the point where we say good bye to schedule because it has nothing to do with the word Zettel. Great, a mere 200 words into the post we are already … behind schedule…. … …. tadah!!
No one is laughing? Hmmm… it’s not like I can’t make this explanation so dry it  blows… … …
Still nothing? No appreciation?
Well that’s it then. There won’t be no pun never no more (whatever that actually means).

So… Zettel has kept the original meaning pretty much. A Zettel has the following characteristics. It is made of paper, it may or may not be a complete page (usually it is smaller), it may or may not be square shaped, it may or may not be used on one side and it won’t probably last long. So basically it is a piece of paper that you need to write down some information.
You are on the phone with someone and they are about to give you some address? You want to leave a little note on the fridge for your flatmate? Or you need to buy some things for your cake and you are to lazy to memorize the 4 items?
 to the rescue. You don’t need a whole new white shiny page… you just need a piece of paper of any kind… a Zettel.

  • Hast du mal einen Zettel?
  • Do you have something to write on?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Zettel is used in a number of compound nouns.

  • Ich habe vergessen, meinen Einkaufszettel mitzunehmen.
  • I forgot to bring my shopping list.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich habe mir einen Merkzettel für morgen geschrieben.
  • I wrote a reminder for tomorrow.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Für die Mathearbeit brauche ich einen Spickzettel.
  • I need a cheat sheet for the math quizz.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Spicken does not mean to cheat by the way. It is more like to peek. Anyway…  so a Zettel is a small piece of paper to write on… so just to make sure, a flyer with mostly dark colors won’t make for a proper Zettel.
Zettel isn’t very official. If someone was to falsify the theory of Einstein on some wrinkly Zettel that would be a bigger bang (no pun here… continue reading) than if he did it on a page of a spiral notebook… how lame. A Zettel would be really ‘in your face Einstein’.
Zettel is also often used in sense of note. It is actually a very good translation for note a lot of times.

  • Ich habe dir einen Zettel auf deinen Schreibtisch gelegt.
  • I left you a note on your desk.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Kannst du mir einen Zettel schreiben?
  • Could you write me a note?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The other translations for note would be Nachricht or Notiz and for the examples both would be weird… especially Nachricht, because Nachricht is really just the information. You can hardly leave a Nachricht on a table… you need to write it down first or record it and leave the cassette… uh… I just gave away that I was born in the 80s :)

So now that we know the meaning of Zettel... let’s enter the realm of the abstract. Behooooold…

A squared squirrel squinted at the squash court. How industrious. Clouds were there. Despite, counterclockwise would have been the better choice…

What’s that? You would like to know, what the fuck? Well that was just a little warm up to open your minds and hearts.
So the first abstract meaning of Zettel is Denkzettel. The literal translation would be think-note but it actually … a lesson. Not a lesson in school but a lesson someone is taught after doing something wrong. So if someone keeps parking in your spot and you have his car towed… that is a Denkzettel. Or you flatmate keeps drinking your milk, so one day you put some REALLY rotten milk there… that morning coffee will be a Denkzettel.
For some reason German do not simply give a Denkzettel to someone, they make them have it. The following phrasing is kind of fixed as it is and anything else would sound weird.

  • Ich verpasse dir einen Denkzettel.
  • I teach you a lesson.
    (I  make you have a think-note. (lit.)).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Go ahead, look up verpassen in the dictionary… you are sure in for an unpleasant surprise … guahhahahhahhahhaaa… that’s just what you deserve for not finding my puns funny.

Another abstract usage of Zettel is one I really like a lot. I don’t use it very much as in… never, but I still find it very figurative. The word I am talking about is the verb verzetteln or to be precise sich verzetteln. It really doesn’t have anything close to a translation…  “getting confused due to too much input at a time” kind of goes there but when you check the different dictionaries you will get all kinds of translations. So lets just look at verzetteln itself… think of ver as the same ver as in verlaufen which means to lose your way and zetteln… well zetteln as a verb doesn’t exist but it feels like it could mean “work with notes”... so sich verzetteln is kind of getting lost or lose the big picture because of a whole lot of notes all around you. An example?

  • Thomas hat sich mit seinen vielen kleinen Projekten verzettelt.
  • Thomas got kind of lost with all his small projects.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

It is really giving me a hard time to translate this to English but I think you got the idea.
The last word for today is anzetteln. The literal or better the figurative meaning is to put a note somewhere at a wall, but it actually means to start or to cause. But although it would be a good word its use is rather limited as it is only used in combination with a war, conflict, brawl or argument… I don’t know why.

  • Thomas hat gestern in der Bar eine Schlägerei angezettelt.
  • Thomas provoked a fight in the bar yesterday.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

So anzetteln is nothing you would need in everyday life but at least you will understand it when you read it.

To wrap this up real quick, here is the grammar of Zettel. It is masculine and the plural is die Zettel, so no change there.

  • Auf meinen Zetteln steht alles was ich wissen muss.
  • On my notes there is everything I need to know.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And this example shows that, just like so many other words, Zettel will get an n in case 3 plural… Zettel gets n-ed… just like this post…. badum tish.
That was our German word of the Day, der Zettel – piece of paper to write on.
If you have questions or suggestions or a good translation for verzetteln, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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