Word of the Day – “der Zweifel”

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’s one. Let’s eat

der Zweifel


 Der Zweifel means the doubt. And clearly the two words aren’t related.
Or are they?
Dun dun dunnnn
They aren’t, Emanuel was sure of it. Two words that don’t even share a single letter just can’t be related. And yet, there was this weird feeling in his gut. A feeling he knew all too well. A feeling that had never wronged him. There was no doubt, he had to take a dump. And so there he sha sat in the Chamber of Tiled Walls, his mind wandering. “Zweifel. Zwei-fel. Zwei… oh my god!” Such were his thoughts. Luckily, the etymological dictionary was there, conveniently placed next to the toilet, for, as so many others, he liked to ingest while eges… gee, what am I blabbering. I’m sorry. So… the word Zweifel directly comes from the word zwei .
nd that does make sense. For example… 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)  because y… wait, wait, wait …. hold on  a minute. Doubt. Doub-t. Doub… double … duo… two…. Wow!
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:

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

. The other options are broader and for the most part they’re  interchangeable.

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:



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.

zweifeln and its prefixes

Here it comes: the basic verb is zweifeln and it means to doubt. 
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 is really just sitting there, being doubtful.Which is what I did, when I found out that there are T-Shirts with this use of to doubt... for dogs.

I really do.
But anyways, if you want to name a target for your doubting in German, you need a preposition… an.

And, if we want to connect an activity, we should use the respective da-word.

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”.

Bezweifeln is a bit stronger than zweifeln an and I think it’s a bit closer to to doubt, actually.

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.

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

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.

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

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 :)

for members :)

Leave a Reply

newest oldest
Notify of
Janice Sant
Janice Sant

You won t see this one, not before you see it!



More on doubt:

Deutsch Lerner
Deutsch Lerner

Would Zweifel be related to the english expression “to be in two minds about something”?


Es ist zweifelfrei, dass ich die Post genossen habe. Das kann soger ein verzweifelte Person zwefelslos verstehen und damit seine Verzweiflung reduzieren. Vielen Dank für die Post.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

*den Post
*den Post


Emanuel- dort ist kein Zweifel, dass du bist mein Gott. :D haha see what i did there? I hope that was grammatically correct…

On an unrelated note, can you quickly explain to me what the difference between “sich” and “selbst” is? I have looked all over and I still have no clue.

Danke schön

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

” I hope that was grammatically correct…”

*Es gibt keinen Zweifel daran, dass du mein Gott bist.
*Es besteht kein Zweifel…

“On an unrelated note, can you quickly explain to me what the difference between “sich” and “selbst” is? ”

selbst = the word “self” and its derivatives in context, like myself, yourself… (also, “even”, in other contexts)
sich = reflexive pronoun


Ein Buch? Das ist ein Witz, oder? Du schreibst immer mit deinem vollen Ernst…. Das wäre sehr toll!


“Ich kann zweifelsfrei bewiesen, dass du mit Badputzen dran bist.”
Da hast du wohl “beweisen” schreiben wollen?


Super guter Artikel! Ich verzweifelte davor immer daran, dass ich überhaupt keines Gefühl mit dem deutschen Präfix haben kann. Danke deiner Erklärung zweifele ich daran nicht mehr. Aber ich bezweifele den Grund für die Verschleppung des Buchs. Und die “blame the intern” Strategie bringt nichts. Die Intern könnten hingegen ihre Karriereaussichtten anzweifeln.

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Hab ein tolles Wort erfahren:

Obwohl ich es nie zuvor gesehen habe, habe ich fast sofort verstanden, dass es hier um Verzinkung durch Eintauchen von etwas in die Zinkschmelze geht. Deutsch ist cool :)

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Eine Idee für nen eventuellen künftigen Beitrag: erscheinen vs. vorkommen vs. auftreten. A bissl Philosophie ;)


Great as usual, but I’ll make a few question if I’m allowed.

1.) Can you replace “Verzweiflung” with a noun-ified verzweifeln, as in “Das Verzweifeln” ?
1.1.) if so is there a difference in nuance?
2.) Your example with “Ignoranz” doesn’t make it clear but does the “an” used with “verzweifeln” also take the dative?
3.) So “mit etwas dran sein” means “to be one’s turn to do something” ?
3.1.) on the topic of “dran” could you explain if there’s any relation to the phrase in this video?

…also, I don’t know if you are keen on requests but if you ever get DOUBTFUL about what to write next could you please take in consideration the verbs “treiben”, “ziehen”, “schlagen”, “machen”, “fallen”, “werfen”, “hören”, “suchen”, “tragen”, “halten”, “zeichen” and their prefixes? (I think you might’ve already written articles about some of those but I’m too lazy to search ;-P )

Oh, and lately it’s been all about the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berliner Mauer, any thoughts, anecdotes?

Vielen dank!


***********wrong video, I meant this

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Ich wage es, ein paar Fragen zu beantworten.
1) Ich glaube, “das Verzweifeln” impliziert eine Zeitdauer, und das gilt, soweit ich weiß, für die meisten substantivierten Infinitive. Das Verzweifeln ist eher ein Prozess, die Verzweiflung ist eher ein Zustand.
Ich glaube auch, im Deutschen funktioniert das Ersetzungsprinzip, nämlich: nachdem sich eine nichtinfinitive Substantivierung durchgesetzt hat und lexikalisiert geworden ist, ersetz sie die entsprechende Infinitivform in meisten Fällen, außer wenn man den zeitlichen Umfang hervorheben will (“beim …”, “am …”, “während des …”).

2. Es ist der Dativ, wie auch in meisten ähnlichen Fällen (“ich habe Freude daran…” usw.)

3. Ja.

3.1. Ganz nah dran = wortwörtlich “totally close to/[or at] it”. Für mich wirkt “dran sein” ein bisschen abstrakter, obwohl der Sinn mehr oder weniger gleich ist.

4. Umm, wenn du zu faul zum Nachgucken bist, was bringen dir dann künftige Beiträge?


Danke sehr! Das war echt hilfreich!

Was meintest du aber mit “was bringen dir künftige Beiträge” ?
Wenn ich sagte ich wär zu faul um nachzugucken wollte ich mich nur den Ärger damit ersparen damit ich schneller meine Vorschläge einbringen könnte.Es wäre ärgerlich gewesen das ganze site durchsuchen um nur zu erfahren ob es ein Beitrag jedem meiner Vorschläge schon gab. Außerdem, ich wollte definitiv nicht sagen dass Emanuel neue Beiträge schreiben soll, über Verben, über die er schon geschrieben hat nur weil ich zu faul bin um die alten Beiträge nachzugucken. Das wäre total verrückt!

David P
David P

meines Chefs Kompetenz

Are you always allowed to use the English style word order and the genitive like you done here instead of the more common (and way more confusing for beginners) “das Kompetenz meines Chefs”?


As far as I know it sounds generally very poetic and archaic. It comes up in a lot of old texts, namely fairy tales and plays and the like (think the Shakespeare of the German speaking communities). Honestly I find it odd that Emanuel used it in an example and to me it sounds stilted, but hey – I’m no native.


I like the feeling it gives though. Recently I’ve been listening to a band called Equilibrium who are a German Folk-Metal band (i generally dislike metal, but they have beautiful acoustic versions), and their titles/lyrics have this phenomenon a lot. I’m not sure why I like it, I think it’s because their lyrics sounds rather folky and dated.

Wenn die Täler grüner werden, wenn **der Wälder Rauschen** klingt,
Wenn uns leicht die Schritte tragen, wenn **der Männer’ Sang** erklingt,
Kommen wir an uns’re Tore, endlich brichts aus uns heraus:
Heimat! Wir sind zuhaus!
(song is ‘Heimwärts’)


Einsam stehn die schwarzen Zinnen,
Trotzen **aller Zeiten Wirren**.
So auch ich, komm sei mein Zeug:
Blutend, aber ungebeugt!
(this is from ‘Unbesiegt’)

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Ich glaube, es hat mindestens ebensoviel mit der Reimerzeugung zu tun, wie mit dem Herstellen des Altertumsgefühls. Es ist nämlich eine bei mir aufgefallene Tatsache, dass des Reims wegen (hehe) deutsche Dichter alle deutschsprachlichen Tendenzen einfach “überschreiten”, sei es die Nebensatzwortstellung, die Satzklammer oder einfach die Rechtschreibung.


Hallo, Ich möchte wissen, ob es richtig wäre ” Zweifel an etwas haben” zu verwenden.
Also, Beispielsweise “Ich hatte einen kleinen Zweifel daran,deshalb hab’ ich Sie nochmal gefragt” oder sowas ähnliches.Würde Ich grundsätzlich “i had a little doubt,…” auf Deutsch auszudrücken. Gibt’s noch andere oder variante ,die gebräuchlicher sind.
Danke für die mühe!


* Würde ich mich grundsätzlich “i had a little doubt,…” auf Deutsch auszudrücken.


Ach,quatsch habe ich wieder etwas falsch geschrieben.Der erster Satz war wahrscheinlich richtig.


Ja!, Das ist genau was ich gemeint habe.Danke nochmal!


>>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.

What does “be-” always do? I think there is some pattern but I cannot figure it out. Is there an article explaining this? Thanks!
E.g. zahlen and bezahlen seems same to me. stelen, bestelen….emmmmm. I just get lost.