Word of the Day – “schüchtern”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of The Day, this time, with a look at a word that can even give fluent learners a sobering reality check about pronunciation.



I mean, come on… it might not be as bad as Eichhörnchen or that one infamous metro station in Berlin that contains these consonants:

Schlsschs Tr
(Leave a comment, if you know what I mean ;).

But schüchtern is definitely a one of those words that can make you feel shy about your pronunciation.
Which is a perfect match because schüchtern actually means shy.

The origin of the family is the rather un-ancient Germanic word *skeukh(w)az which was about being afraid. And there might be a connection to the ancestor of to shoot – to the actually ancient Indo-European *skē̌u–  -with the common theme being “make go fast”. Like… when I scare a deer in the forest, it starts to run really fast.
But there’s no consensus about this theory, yadda yadda yadda, science science science. It’s still good material to impress your date with.

“I… I’m pretty shy.”
“Awww… ”
“And you know what they say… shy might be related to shot! *wink wink”
“Oh… uh… so??”

I haven’t thought this through till the end to be honest. But I don’t have any dates on the horizon, so there’s still time I guess…. *sad piano…
anyway…erm… time for some actual examples for schüchtern… 

  • Thomas ist sehr schüchtern.
  • Thomas is very shy.
  • “Wieviel kostet das Bier?” fragt Maria mit einem schüchternen Lächeln.
  • “How much is the beer?” Maria asks with a shy smile.
  • Thomas geht zu einem Dating-Coach um seine Schüchternheit zu verlieren.
  • Thomas goes to a dating coach to lose his virgshyness.

Now, if you look for shy in the dictionary, you’ll find that German also has the word scheu. Which sounds much more like shy and it’s MUCH easier to pronounce than schüchtern. I mean… schüchternes Lächeln?! Come on, maaaan.
The thing with scheu is that it’s the more “instinctive” type of being shy. I don’t know if timid is a good fit, but scheu definitely leans more toward scared, and it’s the perfect word for animals.

  • “Ihhh, deine Fashion-Jacke ist so hässlich, die macht die Pferde scheu.”
    “Dann setzt ihnen Scheuklappen auf. Die Jacke bleibt an.”
  • “Eww, your fashion jacket is so ugly, it “makes” the horses scared/spooked.”
    “Then give them blinders/blinkers. The jacket stays on.”
    (Does English use “shy” here?)
  • Bären sind normalerweise menschenscheu.
  • Bears are normally shy of humans.

And while it is not really used that much for humans by itself, there are a few quite useful compounds that ARE used for humans in the sense of someone being “avoidant” of something… like… this reaction of “Ewww, get that away from me.”

  • Ich bin arbeitsscheu, aber ich bin auch konfliktscheu… ein epischer Kampf auf Arbeit.
  • I’m work-shy/averse to work, but I am also conflict avoidant... an epic battle at work.

There are a few other established ones, but feel free to play around and make up a new one… like spaßscheu or romantic-comedy-scheu. Native speakers will understand and it’ll sounds creative to them rather than “wrong”.
So scheu is a visceral, instinctive type of shy that leans toward fear and schüchtern is this typical human type of shy that comes a lot from our mind and soul.

Now, there’s one important pitfall to be aware of and that is shy in the sense of short.

  • Maria’s time for this marathon was 10 minutes shy of her personal record.

This shy is NOT translated with schüchtern or scheu and it would make absolutely no sense to a native speaker if you said such a sentence.
What to say instead? Well, that’s really impossible to say because it HUGELY depends on the context. Sometimes, something with weniger is idiomatic, sometimes German fast works. And sometimes you might need a completely different phrasing. My best advice here is to find an alternative phrasing in English and then try to translate that.
All right.
So now we know scheu and schüchtern, and those of you who are regular readers probably know what we’ll look at next… prefix versions.
Or related words, more broadly speaking. And there’s some nice stuff to be found.

Related Words

For schüchtern, there’s actually only one real prefix version… the verb einschüchtern, which means to intimidate. Quite literal, if we think about it. ein is pretty much in and timid is the Latin based version another word for schüchtern.

  • “… dann ist er weggerannt.”
    “Mann Maria, du sollst ihn daten, nicht einschüchtern.”
    “… and then he ran away.”
    “Dude, Maria… you’re supposed to date him, not intimidate him.”
  • Die Eichhörnchen ignorieren die Einschüchterungsversuche der Einhörner.
  • The squirrels ignore the intimidation attempts of the unicorns.

I guess we should note that einschüchtern usually sounds like someone does it on purpose than intimidate does in English. So einschüchtern sounds like there’s an intent. Or at least, it’s done by a person. For example, if you want to say that German is intimidating, einschüchternd isn’t a good choice. In fact, there are NO results on Google for the phrase “Deutsch ist einschüchternd”.
I can’t give you a good translation though… I think people would phrase with something like respect or angst. Or in case of German kompliziert. Or maybe bedrohlich, if it is actually a bit threatening.

Anyway, the more productive word in terms of relatives is definitely scheu, and the first ones we have there are the nouns die Scheu and die Abscheu.
Scheu is pretty much what you’d expect, so it’s a mix between fear and shyness and while not super common, it is used in a few phrasings.

  • Nur keine falsche Scheu beim Bewerbungsgespräch. Sagen Sie klar, was Sie wollen.
  • Don’t be overly shy at a job interview. Say clearly what you want.
    (lit.: “no misplaced shyness”)

Die Abscheu on the other hand shifted away from fear and shyness toward one slightly different reason for avoidance… disgust, revulsion. And it’s the core of the adjective abscheulich and the verb verabscheuen, which is a distinguished sounding option for to despise, to detest.

  • “Die Suppe schmeckt abscheulich.”
    “Ja, ich dachte ich mach was, was zu deiner Jacke passt.”
  • “The soup tastes abhorrent/awful.”
    “Yeah, I thought I’d make something that fits with your jacket.”
  • “Ich verabscheue Hass.”
  • “I despise hatred.” (Ancient Buddhist trick aphorism)

The next relative of scheu is the verb scheuen which is pretty much about the idea of shying away from something. Or more simply, to shun.
It’s not very common, though, and sounds quite “bookish”, so it’s only idiomatic in a few somewhat fixed phrases.

  • Ich habe keine Kosten und Mühen gescheut, um diese Party zu organisieren.
  • I didn’t spare (avoid) any effort or expense to organize this party.
  • Thomas scheut den Abwasch, wie die Katze das Wasser.
  • Thomas shuns doing the dishes like the cat shuns the water.

And last but not least, we have the verb scheuchen. Which is actually more common as one of the prefix versions verscheuchen or wegscheuchen, but the core idea of all three is basically what you want to do when you say

“Shoo shoo!”

Like … to a raccoon on your porch or whatever. You want to chase it away by making it scared (which was the original sense of the shy-family).

  • Thomas hat das Einhorn mittels Liebe von seiner Terrasse verscheucht/gescheucht/weggescheucht.
  • Thomas shooed away/scared off the unicorn on his porch by means of love.

And if you’ll ever read the Wizard of Oz in German, you’ll find that the Scarecrow in German is die Vogelscheuche…  because it scheuchs the Vogel.

And that’s pretty much it for today :).
This was our little look at the pronunciation nightmare that is schüchtern and its posse.
As usual, if you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared. And yes… there is a pronunciation portion in there.

And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


* * vocab **

schüchtern – shy (for humans and pets)
die Schüchternheit – the shyness

einschüchtern – to intimidate (Implies intent or at least someone actively doing something. Not a good fit for a mountain.)
der Einschüchterungsversuch – the attempt at intimidation

verschüchtert – shy, timid, intimidated (Stronger and more situational than “schüchtern”)

scheu – shy, timid, scared (Instinctive, really common for animals)

die Scheu (vor)  – the timidness, the shyness (Only common in a few fixed phrases)
die Scheuklappen – the blinders, the blinkers (for horses)

die Abscheu (gegen) – the disgust, the revulsion
abscheulich – awful, repulsive
verabscheuen – to despise, to abhor

scheuen – the shy away from, to shun (Not common, except in fixed phrasings)

scheuchen – to shoo, to scare off (no real difference to “verscheuchen” and “wegscheuchen”, except the “destination” is open)
verscheuchen – to shoo away, to scare away  (no real difference to “verscheuchen” and pure “scheuchen”)
wegscheuchen – to shoo away, to scare away (no real difference to “verscheuchen” and pure “scheuchen”)

die Vogelscheuche – the scarecrow

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