Word of the Day – “rufen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time, we’ll have a look at the meaning of


I’m sure many of you have seen it in context of telephones but there’s more to discover about this weird sounding word. Seriously…. “roofen” … sounds kind of kinky.
“Honey, I’m kinda getting bored with our kink routine.”
“Well Anastasia, do you wanna try rufing?”
“Ooooohhhhhh… it’s that German thing?!?! Harrrrrrrrrrr.”
Uh… sorry, I’m being silly again.
Anyway, let’s jump right in and take a look.

The origin of rufen is an excessively ancient Indo-European root *kar. Which clearly looks nothing like rufen but hey, it’s super ancient so people had thousands of years to make a few sound changes.
Anyways, the root carried the idea of a loud shouting, like a cheer after a successful hunt for example. And that sense hasn’t changed much because rufen is the German word for to call in the sense of calling someone’s name. So it’s not super loud but it’s more than just saying in.

  • Ruf mich, wenn’s Abendbrot gibt.
  • Call me when dinner is ready.
  • Der alte Mann ruft um Hilfe.
  • The old man calls for help.
  • “Wie war die Party?”
    “War super cool, aber Nachbarn haben wegen der Musik die Polizei gerufen.
  • “How was the party?”
    “It was really cool, but the neighbors called the police because of the music.”

Now, in the last example rufen was actually used in sense of to call by phone, but that only works in contexts of police, fire fighters or the ambulance. It’s basically a leftover from back in the day when you actually shouted these things.
The main word for to call  in sense of calling by phone is anrufen. Because… you know…  rufen means call and an means phone.

German Language – putting the ‘f’ in logic

Wait a minute, I’m pretty sure there is no f’in logic… oh… oh… I got it.
Seriously though…  the reason anrufen ended up the word for calling by phone is that people felt the need for a distinction to normal rufen (which would be just shouting the name) and an has this notion of addressing someone so anrufen was a good fit.

  • Ich rufe dich später  an.
  • I’ll call you later (by phone!!)
  • Thomas hat Maria angerufen.
  • Thomas called Maria (by phone).
  • Der Anruf ist für Sie kostenfrei.
  • The call is free for you.

Besides anrufen, there’s also durchrufen as a colloquial choice for quick calls, and of course we need to mention  zurückrufen which is to call back and which works for all kinds of contexts, not just phones.

  • Ich ruf nachher kurz durch/an, wenn ich fertig bin.
  • I’ll call you up later, when I’m done.
  • Kannst du mich bitte zurückrufen?
  • Can you call me back, please?
  • Danke für deinen Rückruf.
  • Thanks for calling back (lit.: your return call)
  • Wegen Problemen mit der Lenkung muss die Firma eine Million Fahrzeuge zurückrufen.
  • Because of problems with the steering, the company has to recall/call back one million vehicles.

Now, what would you say… were those all the prefix versions? Of course not. There are more. Because

German Language – putting the ‘more’ in versions. 

Wow, that didn’t make ANY sense.
But at least the prefix versions do because they all stay somewhat close to the core idea of rufen.

rufen prefixed

Aufrufen for instance. The range of uses might seem pretty broad but essentially it’s always a call to action.

  • Bitte nehmen Sie im Wartezimmer Platz. Ihre Wartenummer wird/Sie werden aufgerufen.
  • Please take a seat in the waiting area. Your number/You will be announced/called out.
    (Help! What’s the idiomatic wording here, in English?)
  • Der Präsident ruft die Bevölkerung auf, sich mal locker zu machen.
  • The president calls on the population, to loosen up a bit.
  • Das Programm stürzt bei diesem  Funktionsaufruf ab.
  • The program crashes at this function call.

Or take abrufen. The idea here is “calling something off of some sort of a stack or stock”.

  • Der Sportler konnte nicht sein volles Potential abrufen.
  • The athlete couldn’t activate/muster his full potential today.
  • Der Film ist auf unserer Webseite 7 Tage  abrufbar.
  • The movie can be found (lit: “is callable) on our website  for seven days.

Not too crazy, right? I mean.. it’s not like you see abrufen and you immediately know the meaning but when you see it in context you can definitely get the gist of it right away.
In fact, let’s try it. I’ll give you a few more versions in context and you can try and see if you understand of even find a translation. Here you go…

  • Galileo musste  seine Thesen widerrufen.
  • Galileo had to  ___ his theories.
  • Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es wieder raus.
  • Lit.: “The way you ______ a forest is the way it echoes out.” 
  • As the question, so the answer.
    (The German idiom is about how your “tone” will influence the tone
    you get back. Not sure, if the English saying really fits, I took it
    from the dictionary)
  • Dieser Satz hat drei Ausrufezeichen !!!
  • This sentence has three  ___________ !!!
  • Zuviel Kaffee kann Blähungen hervorrufen.
  • Too much coffee can _____ flatulence (gas/winds).

Fart-noises at 36, #nevergrowold, man.
Anyway, here’s the solution:

  1. widerrufen – this one is about renouncing, recanting and the most important context nowadays is cancelling contracts. The noun is der Widerruf.
  2. hineinrufen – this simply means to shout into,  so it’s super straight forward. It sounds quite literary though and in daily life you’d use reinrufen.
  3.  das Ausrufezeichen – this is the German word for exclamation mark. The verb is ausrufen and you can find it for public announcements but it’s not that common.
  4. hervorrufen – this one means to cause. Seems a bit random maybe, but it’s basically a twisted take on “calling out into the world”. Like… think of the coffee being like “Winds, I summon thee. Show yourself, blow out.” 

Now, if you didn’t get the all of them or none, don’t worry too much. For me, it might seem super obvious, but that’ because it’s my native language; I can’t really tell how difficult or easy it is for you guys.

Anyway, there’s one more version, we need to talk about. Berufen. By itself, it’s expressed the idea of calling someone up for a job but it’s sounds REALLY formal and pompous.

  • Wegen der Sache mit dem Zebra wurde Thomas doch nicht in den Vorstand berufen.
  • Because of the incident with the zebra, Thomas  wasn’t appointed/made to the board of directors.

There’s also a version with a self reference – sich berufen auf – and this basically expresses the idea of giving something as reference to justify what you’re saying or doing. Kind of like to refer to but MUCH more narrow in when it’s actually idiomatic. Unless you’re a lawyer you probably won’t need this word because it sounds super stiff and formal. The word for normal referring the word is sich beziehen.
Now, if the verb is so useless, why are we talking about it? Because of the noun  der Beruf. Because that is the German word for job in the sense of profession/occupation.  Like… basically, it’s what parents mean with REAL job.
Oh, and while we’re at it… there’s also the noun die Berufung, which is basically what you mean when you tell your parents you NEED to become a singer songwriter. Your calling. It’s also a boring legal term for to appeal but who cares.

  • “Was ist dein Traumberuf?”
  • “What’s your dream job?”
  • Was machen Sie beruflich?
  • What’s your occupation/what do you work?
    Lit.: “What do you do occupation-wise?”
  • Maria ist sauer, weil ich gesagt habe, Food-Blogger ist kein Beruf.
  • Maria is angry because I said Food-Blogger is not a  job (profession).
  • Koch ist sein Beruf und seine Berufung.
  • Chef is his job/work and his calling.

So that we have a pretty good overview over the prefix versions of rufen, let’s get back to the bare version. Or more precisely to the bare noun der Ruf.

Ruf and fame

Yes, of course a Ruf can be a literal shouted call, but what makes it useful is its other meaning. Attention ,time travel in three, two, one…. frrrrruuuuuiiiiippppp. A sunny day in medieval village, everyone is doing their village stuff when a figure emerges from between the trees, clad in white armor, on a white horse.
“OMG… it’s … it’s the white knight!!!” 
“I heard he once slew a dragon with one strike.”
“And he’s the most handsome, they say!”
“And his sword is so long.”
Such is what shouted the villagers as they gathered to welcome the guest.
Now, do you have an idea what I’m going for? No? Well, I’ll give you a hint: The knight has never been to that village before so what all the villagers are saying and shouting is what they’ve heard about him. Or in one word… his reputation.
Ruf is the German word for reputation. What people “call” you.

  • Die Bar hat einen guten Ruf.
  • The bar has a good reputation.
  • Okay Team, bitte arbeitet ordentlich, wir haben einen Ruf zu verlieren.
  • All right, team, please do a proper job. We have a reputation to lose.
  • Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt sich’s völlig ungeniert. (common proverb)
  • Lit.: “Once the reputation is ruined, you can live without any embarrassment”
  • You live freely if you don’t have a reputation to lose.
  • Der Star verklagt die Zeitung wegen Rufmord.
  • The celebrity sues the newspaper for calumny/defamation. (Lit: “reputation murder“)

And our little trip to the medieval village actually also helps us with another very useful word. You see, the fact that all the villagers had heard about the white knight means that he is famous. And do you know what the German word for that is? It’s berühmt. And do you know what the noun for that is? It’s der Ruhm. And I think you know where this is going :). Der Ruhm and berühmt are direct relatives of rufen and they’re based on the idea that people call you something.

  • Der schnelle Ruhm ist ihm zu Kopf gestiegen.
  • The quick fame got to his head.
  • Maria ist berühmt für ihre unkonventionellen Sandwiches.
  • Maria is famous for her unconventional sandwiches.
  • Dragonball ist einer der berühmtesten Mangas der Welt.
  • Dragonball is one of the most famous mangas in the world.
  • Auf dem Dinner waren viele Berühmtheiten aus Film und Fernsehen.
  • At the dinner, there were many famous people from the movie and TV scene.

By the way, the word fame goes back to the Indo-European root *bha. This root meant something like to speak, to tell and it’s the origin for a whole lot of words including aphasia, ban or … drumroll… phone. Tadah. Full circle :)
Here’s the link to Etymonline if you want to dig deeper into the root:

 The origin of “fame” an “phone”

And that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of rufen and it’s related words. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions you can call me on my cellphone… wait, no, you can leave me a comment :).
I hope you enjoyed it and learned something. And as a little desert, here’s a pretty berühmt and fun song by a berühmten German chansonier, Max Raabe, about how no one is ever calling him. Viel Spass und schöne Woche


** vocab **

rufen – shout, call 
der Hilferuf – the call for help
Polizeiruf 110 – famous German crime TV series

der Ruf – the reputation
der Rufmord – defamation
verrufen (adjective) – having a bad reputation 

der Ruhm – the fame 
berühmt – famous
berüchtigt – infamous

anrufen – call by phone (also: call gods)
der Anruf – the telephone call
der Anrufer – the caller
der Anrufbeantworter – the answering machine
durchrufen – colloquial word for quick calls
zurückrufen – call back
der Rückruf – the response call 

aufrufen (zu) – call up (waiting rooms), call upon to do something, also in tech for calling functions
derAufruf – sort of a call to action
abrufen – call from some sort of stack or stock (performance, data, reserves)

ausrufen – exclaim, declare (rare, context of declaring to the public)
das Ausrufezeichen – the exclamation mark
widerrufen – recant, cancel (very common for contracts)
hervorrufen – to cause (“call into the world”)

sich berufen auf – using x as reference to justify oneself (quite formal)
jemanden berufen – appoint to a job position

der Beruf – the occupation, “REAL” job
beruflich – job-wise

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