Word of the Day – “schleifen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day, this time with a quick look at meaning of



Schleifen is related to der Schleim (slime) and slip. But it’s not as slimy as slime and not as sexy as slip…. uh… I mean, slippery.
Spring is messing with my mind. Though … actually … some slips do have a Schleifen, and they’re quite sexy. I’ll post a selfie later.
But first let’s talk some vocab…

So, the origin of it all is the unnecessarily ancient Indo-European root *(s)lei- and the core idea of it was something like sliding, smearing across a surface.
And that’s actually pretty much what schleifen is about. But unlike the English to slip, which is rather quick, schleifen is kind of a drag. Like… literally. If something schleifen that means it is pulled across a surface and there’s some resistance.

  • Das Einhorn schleift seine noch atmende Beute in die Höhle.
  • The unicorn drags its still breathing prey into the cave.
  • Das Kleid ist zu lang und schleift über den Boden.
  • The dress is too long and drags across the floor.

Those were two very literal examples, but it’s also super common in context of mechanics and two moving parts touching that shouldn’t touch. And it also works in more abstract contexts.

  • Die Bremse an meinem Fahrrad schleift ein bisschen.
  • The brake on my bike is dragging a bit.
    (it touches the wheel constantly)
  • Maria hat Thomas immer in die Oper geschleift. 
  • Maria always dragged Thomas to the opera.
  • Während Maria im Urlaub ist, lässt Thomas die Hygiene ganz schön schleifen.
  • While Maria is on vacation, Thomas slackens the reins on hygiene quite a bit. / let’s hygiene slide quite a bit.

But this still isn’t all you can do with schleifen. You see, when you drag something across a surface, the you might take small parts off the surface, right? And that’s why schleifen is also the word for sharpening blades. You slide-drag the Schleifstein (whetstone) across the blade. And another example is abschleifen which is what you do with the surface of old wooden planks.

  • Der Koch schleift sein Messer.
  • The cook sharpens his knife.
  • Die Wohnung hat abgeschliffene Dielen.
  • The flat has polished floorboards.

Oh and in case you payed really close attention, you might have noticed that we’re having two ge-forms (past participles). Geschleift is what you use for dragged and geschliffen is sharpened.
And  I want to take this opportunity to say “Thank you.” to German. Thank you German, that it’s not three.
“You’re welcome, I’m trying to help wherever I can.”
And we appreciate you for it.
So now that we know schleifen let’s take a look at the related words. And this time, I don’t mean prefix versions. I mean the family.
Hm… I feel like this would be the perfect spot to put a a GIF.

We’ve already learned that it comes from a root that was about gliding, sliding across a surface and that it’s related to slime and slide.
Well… there’s more. For instance the word slimak, which is the Russian word for snail, and which is a pretty great visual image for the idea of the root.
Then, we have the English slope, sleeve and slick and and slight. And even though they kind of come from all over the place, the original idea of gliding over a surface is kind of visible.
But that’s not all. Another member of the family is the German verb schleichen. 
Originally, it was about moving somewhere in a gliding fashion, kind of like a snake but over time, it shifted toward the fact that the movement is quiet. And so it become the German word for to sneak (in the sense of moving yourself, not putting something somewhere)

  • Thomas schleicht (sich) in die Küche.
  • Thomas sneaks into the kitchen.
    (self reference is not a must have but it’s more idiomatic to have it here)
  • In letzter Zeit haben sich Fehler eingeschlichen.
  • Recently, mistakes have crept in.
    (here, the self reference has to be there because… German grammar OCD)
  • Das Beispiel mit der äußerst leckeren, super erfrischenden Coca Cola ist Schleichwerbung.
  • The example with the extremely tasty, super refreshing Coca Coal is a plug (Lit.: “sneak ad”)

And that’s still not all. The next word I want to mention is schlicht which is a word for simple in the sense that there’s not much “extra”. Like… not much decoration.

  • Der Blumenstrauß ist schlicht, aber schön.
  • The flower bouquet is simple but beautiful.
  • Ich habe schlicht nicht genug Zeit. (somewhat rare phrasing)
  • I simply don’t have enough time.

The original idea of schlicht was something like flat, straight for a surface. A surface that you can easily glide over :)
And this notion of even, straight also helps with the meaning of schlichten which is to mediate, arbitrate in context of calming down disputes and arguments. You “even” the waves, if that makes sense.

  • Thomas versucht zwischen Maria und ihrem Einhorn zu schlichten.
  • Thomas tries to mediate between Maria and her unicorn.

Now, the story how Maria and her unicorn got into that bad fight is actually quite interesting and I’d love to tell you about it, but I think most of you are having a hard time concentrating right now because there’s one question in your mind. And the answer is: yes :).
Schlecht, the German word for bad, is also a member of the family.
And the connection is actually quickly made. Schlecht was the same as schlicht once, so it meant simple, “without decoration”. Now, rich people always tended to have a somewhat not schlicht lifestyle. Like… the dress of the princess would have lots of complicated embroideries while the dress of the farm girl was… well super schlicht. And so it’s no wonder schlecht got associated with poor. And from there, it shifted to the idea of low quality and bad.

  • Das Wetter war diesen Sommer extrem schlecht.
  • The weather was extremely bad this summer.
  • Mir ist schlecht.
  • I’m nauseous.
  • Maria kann 20 Liegestütze?! Nicht schlecht.
  • Maria has 20 push ups?! Not bad.

Oh … wait. She can do, not she has. I think she doesn’t actually have any. But I can ask her if you want. I think she doesn’t actually have any. But I can ask her if you want. I think she doesn’t actually have any. But I can ask her if you want. I think she doesn’t actually…. oh … oh shit…. the phone, we have a call here, Alex from Colorado, welcome to the show.
“Duuuude, what happened? You kept repeating yourself.”
I … I don’t know. I must have been caught in a time loop. Thanks for breaking it.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I wanted to ask about Schleifen, you mentioned in the beginning. Can that be a noun?
Ohhh, right, right. Yes, German has the noun die Schleife. What comes to mind first is this:

But it can also mean ribbon or even loop.

  • Die Kinder lernen, wie man eine Schleife macht.
  • The children are learning how to tie their shoes. (lit.: “make a ribbon”)
  • Ich war in einer Zeitschleife gefangen.
  • I was trapped in a time loop.

Now, this looks extremely similar to the verb schleifen but it actually comes from the word die Schlaufe, which is a kind of a more general term for these yarn-circles. The origin of it is suuuuuuuper ancient Indo-European root (s)leu which was about … gliding, slipping into something.  Which sounds AWFULLY similar to the root (s)lei- and it’s notion of gliding smearing. Hmmmmm… the etymology books I use don’t explicitly mention a connection.
But those books also don’t explicitly mention that there are tomatoes in my fridge.
And yet there ARE.
drops mic

picks up mic
And that’s it for today :). This was our look at schleifen and to boil it down to one example… schleifen is what your bike brakes do on the wheel sometimes.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.



5 5 votes
Article Rating