The meaning of “der Zweifel”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 10, 2023

zweifel-bezweifeln-verzweifHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day, number 140… or uhm.. something. Not sure actually. I just know it’s not enough. Not even close. We need more words. Moooooore. We need to be like word eating zombies.
Woooords.
Oh, there. There’s new word. Let’s learn it…

der Zweifel

Der Zweifel means the doubt.
And clearly the two words aren’t related.
Or are they?!
Dunn dunnn dunnnn.
Nah… come on, that can’t be.
I mean – doubt, Zweifel – they don’t even have one letter in common.
That would be really weird if they were related, right?

Maybe, before we jump in you can take a second and think about it.

Do you think Zweifel and doubt are related or not.
Place your bets now :)

And now, let’s jump in and find out.

If the word Zweifel reminds you of the word zwei then you’re actually right on the money.
Zweifel does come from zwei (two).

And that makes perfect sense.
Suppose  you’re a little hungry so you go to a Souperia . If they only have one soup that sounds good, then you’re fine. You’ll just take that one.

But if they have two soups that sound tasty, then you’ll always have doubt as to whether you picked the right one. So choice between zwei (two) soups kind of leads to Zweifel (doubt). And I think some of you might have caught on to it – zwei and two ARE related. And the Latin sibling of zwei and two is duo. Which is the core of the word double. And double… well that looks an AWFUL lot like doubt :).

So Zweifel and doubt are not only translations for each other, they quite literally are the same thing. A variation of “two”, with a core idea of “of two minds“, if you will.
I don’t know… I guess, some of you saw that coming from a mile away but to me it was one of these little “Ohhhhhh”-moments when I realized that doubt also comes from the number 2. It looks completely different to Zweifel but the underlying idea is exactly the same – from two comes the idea of choice and from choice comes the idea of hesitation and doubt… or Zweifel.

Now, what about the -fel in Zweifel? Well, this is related to the fold-family so Zweifel literally once meant two-fold. And in fact it was first used as an adjective. It meant that something has two sides and from there it went on to being… well… dubious or doubt-inspiring. But then people started using it as a noun and they invented a new word for the adjective.
Example time:

  • Ich habe meine Zweifel, ob das so eine gute Idee ist.
  • I have my doubts, if that is such a good idea.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Es gibt keinen Zweifel, dass die Erde rund ist.
  • There is no doubt that the earth is round.
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  • Es ist zweifelhaft, ob wir mit dem Projekt rechtzeitig fertig werden.
  • It is doubtful whether we can finish the project on time.
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As for the opposite, the “doubt-freeness”, there are actually several options. Zweifelsfrei is the least unlimited one … uhm…  and it’s mostly used in combination with

  • Ich kann zweifelsfrei beweisen, dass du mit Badputzen dran bist.
  • I can prove beyond doubt that it’s your turn to clean the bathroom.
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. The other options are broader and for the most part they’re  interchangeable.

  • Thomas verschwendet zweifelsohne /ohne Zweifel / zweifellos  am meisten Druckerpapier.
  • Undoubtedly, Thomas is the one to waste the most printing paper.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Undoubtedly a really boring example :).
Seriously though, I checked Google N-Gram and zweifellos is by faaaaaar the most common one. But it’s on the decline. And actually, this graph is kind of fascinating so here it is:

 

zweifellos-trend

What I find interesting about that is that people in the first half of the 19th century (and before) were apparently  much more certain about their statements. Or they wanted to make the readers think they were by peppering their writing with “zweifellos”. It’s a bit manipulative. I mean, if you’re a student and your professor tells you that something and says there’s no doubt about it, you’d be less likely to ask questions. Same thing for journalists. or politicians. I’ve checked up on undoubtedly and there’s a similar decline.  So maybe this overall decline in the use of “no doubt”-words is an indicator that people are becoming a little “reflected”. But it’s just a theory, maybe it’s only a coincidence.
Anyways… enough with that stuff. Time to get to the meat. And that will be served with an entree of but.

The verb zweifeln and its prefix version

Here it comes: the basic verb is zweifeln and it means to doubt. 
BUT!
The grammar of the two verbs is rather different. Doubting can be done to stuff directly.

  • I doubt something.

Zweifeln cannot.

  • Ich zweifle etwas….  is wrong

It’s understandable but it is a pretty huge, bad sounding mistake. Zweifeln alone in theory is really just sitting there, being doubtful.

  • Ich zweifele.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But in practice, the verb is NOT used by itself and the way to connect a “topic” to the doubting is by using  the preposition an. So the verb is kind of zweifeln an. And oh, an goes with Dative here

  • Ich zweifele an der Kompetenz meines Chefs.
  • I doubt the competence of my boss.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Here, we connected a noun, and if we want to connect a “fact” (phrased as a sentence), then we should use the respective da-word, daran.

  • Ich zweifele daran, dass mein Chef kompetent ist. 
  • I doubt my boss is competent.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now you’re probably like “Man, German is soooo annoying with its prepositions and da-words”.
But the good news is that a preposition is not the only way to give your doubting a direction. We can also harness the incredible power of prefixes, namely be-.
It does what it always does, and that’s exactly what we need here. Bezweifeln mean“to inflict doubt on something”.

  • Ich bezweifele die Kompetenz meines Chefs.
  • I doubt my boss’s competence.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich bezweifele, dass mein Chef kompetent ist.
  • I doubt that my boss …
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Bezweifeln is a bit stronger than zweifeln an and I think it’s a bit closer to to doubt, actually.

  • Ich zweifele daran.
  • Ich bezweifele das.
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The first one sounds more like

  • I have my doubts about that.

while the second one really is

  • I doubt  that.

Bezweifeln doesn’t work for people though.

  • Ich zweifele an meinem Chef.
  • I doubt my boss. / I have doubts about my boss.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Bezweifeln would sounds like I doubt that my boss exists, here.
Anyway, bezweifeln is not the only prefix-verb (of course). Behold: anzweifeln.

  • Ich zweifele deine Kompetenz an.
  • I doubt your competence.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Because two verbs that mean to doubt are not enough.
The difference between anzweifeln and the other two is that anzweifeln is not really full force. The an has the same vibe like the one in anfangen (to begin) here. So when you anzweifeln, you’re just starting to doubt something, you’re raising doubt. A bit like second guessing, maybe. Like…
“Wait a second… you’re saying you’re late because you had to bring Thomas home because he was so drunk?!?! That doesn’t sound like the Thomas I know. ”
That is anzweifeln. The line to zweifeln an is actually super-blurry but grammatically, they’re different and anzweifeln works like bezweifeln.

  • Ich zweifele deine Story an.
  • Ich zweifele an deiner Story.
  • I have my doubts/reservations about your story.

When the an is a prefix at the end, then “story” is in the accusative, when the an is used a preposition it takes the dative. Man, even writing such a sentence makes tired. I can’t imagine how it must be to learn that stuff.
And that brings us right to the last verb for today… verzweifeln.
Verzweifeln means to despair and there are actually two of the four possible idea of the ver-prefix that makes sense here… away and change.
Here’s roughly how it works:  you have a doubt about something. Then you have some more doubts about, and then some more. Then you also have some doubts about something else, and some more doubts about that. And then some extra doubt about a third thing, some general doubt and a doubt-cherry on top. You’re buried under a pile of doubt. You’re just one big doubt yourself. Either way, you don’t know what to do, you don’t see a way out. And so you lose hope … which is where verzweifeln directly meets to despair. Because  spair  comes from the old Latin word for…  hope. In Spanish for instance, to hope means esperar. So to despair means you’re loosing hope because you don’t see a way out.  Verzweifeln  comes from the other side and literally means you doubt so much that you don’t see a way out. And then you loose hope. Different approaches, same result, same meaning.

  • Maria verzweifelt an Thomas Ignoranz.
  • Maria despairs of Thomas’ ignorance.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The related words are probably more important than the verb itself … Verzweiflung and verzweifelt.

  • Deutsch treibt mich an den Rand der Verzweiflung.
  • German brings me to the verge of despair.
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  • Thomas ist verzweifelt.
  • Thomas is desperate/in despair.
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  • Verzweifelt versuche ich dich zu verstehen.
  • Desperately I am trying to understand you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Oh, there were three vers in the last example.How neat :). Aren’t German prefixes just awesome. Someone should write a book about them. The good news is:
We are. I mean… we at the German is Easy radio station. A book with explanations and also small dictionary. And the best news is that the release date is December 20th. I have my doubts about that though. You know, our interns here are a super lazy. Just leeching coffee all day.  I probably should drop by their office and bitch at them right now. Or maybe I could ask Steve to mix some Adderall powder into our coffee-vending machine. That should have ’em focused all right. But I doubt he’d do it. He’s too soft on them, you know. There… just now, one of them is waltzing by the studio window as if he’s  Captain Stroll. So lazy… it’s incredible. Back in my day, interns used to be mo… but anyway… I… I  think  we’re done for today.

This was our German Word of the Day der Zweifel. It means doubt and the core of both words is the idea of duality. And choice can lead to doubt because the grass is always greener when you smoke i… wait, I bezweifle that that’s how it goes. Anyway, if you have Zweifel about some of the words we’ve learned today, or if you want to try some examples or if you’re just super-verzeweifelt about German and need to vent just leave a comment.
I hope you liked it and  schöne Woche :)

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