Word of the Day – “die Schuld”

schuld-entschuldigen-germanHello everyone,

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

die Schuld


and I’m sure most of you have seen that before as part of the words Entschuldigung and entschuldigen which are the German counterparts for the common English words to unguiltify and deguiltification.
Now you’re like “Those aren’t even real words” and of course you’re right. Those are more like the literal translations of Entschuldigung and entschuldigen because the main meaning of Schuld is guilt.
German uses that idea in quite a range of words that have surprisingly diverse translations in English. Today, we’ll take a look at all of those, we’ll see how to use entschuldigen correctly, and we’ll find out why Germans are not that much into credit cards.
Seriously… if you want to go to bars and pubs make sure you have cash.
So, are you ready to dive in? Cool.

I just said it, Schuld means guilt. But it would actually be more accurate to say the core idea is guilt. Sure, Schuld can translate to guilt directly.

  • “Mein Matcha-Jogurt. Er ist weg.”
    “Ich hatte Hunger. Tut mir leid.”
    “Nein, diese Schuld ist zu groß um sie zu vergeben.”
  • “My matcha-yogurt. It’s gone.”
    “I was hungry. I’m sorry.”
    “No, that guilt is too big to be forgiven.”

But in every day life Germans use Schuld where English uses fault or blame.

  • Leute, unsere brandneue Kaffeemaschine ist kaputt. Und wir bleiben hier so lange drin, bis ich weiß, wessen Schuld das ist.
  • Guys, our brand new coffee maker is broken. And we’ll stay in here until I know who’s to blame for that.
  • “Na, toll. Das Bier ist warm. Vielen Dank.”
    “Das ist doch nicht meine Schuld.”
    “Doch! Du hast ewig mit Maria geflirtet.”
    Selbst schuld. Du hättest es ja schon trinken können.”
  • “Oh great, the beer is warm. Thanks a lot!”
    “Come on, that’s not MY fault.”
    “It is! Your flirt with Maria took forever.”
    “Well, it’s your own fault. You could have drunk it.”
  • Thomas ist schuld daran, dass das ganze Team über das Wochenende arbeiten muss.
  • It‘s Thomas’ fault that the whole team has to work the weekend.
    (Note that you can say Schuld haben and schuld sein and both
    mean pretty much the same. To me schuld sein is way more
    idiomatic but that might be different for other regions of Germany
    or Austria.)
  • Die Gesellschaft ist schuld.
  • It’s the societies fault/society is to blame.

All these examples revolve around the idea of who is guilty. The two languages come from different angles. And it’s the same with the words that are related to die Schuld. The translations rarely have the word guilt in it because English uses a variety of words but the idea of guilt is always kind of there.

  • Thomas beschuldigt den Praktikanten, Doughnuts geklaut zu haben, aber der ist unschuldig.
  • Thomas accuses (literally: “inflicts guilt on“) the intern of stealing donuts, but he is not guilty.
  • Maria ist nicht so unschuldig, wie sie tut.
  • Maria is not as innocent as she pretends to be.
  • Thomas hat einen Unfall verschuldet. (sounds formal and official)
  • Thomas has caused an accident
    (this is “ver” in sense of “for”… he “made guilty for”, if that makes sense)
  • Bitte vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
  • Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
    (this is part of a common Christian prayer. I was really surprised to find that the translation here is NOT guilt but now I feel like trespass might actually be closer to the original version …Berlingrabers, I’m kind of counting on you here:)
  • Thomas will Maria nicht erzählen, wann er seine Unschuld verloren hat.
  • Thomas doesn’t want to tell Maria when he lost his virginity.

Unschuld for virginity… that’s actually a really weird phrasing when you think about it. Someone who hurts or kills someone has lost their Unschuld. Not someone who freaking humps for the first time.

“I had my first time last night and it was amazing.”
“Good for you, now you’re guilty forever.”

Hmmm… who would wanna put such a negative spin on something that should be enjoyed. Sounds like something religions would do.

Religions© – they mean well but they’re really OCD sometimes

Anyway, let’s get to the most important related word and that is, of course,

Entschuldigen and Entschuldigung

Entschuldigen, literally “to unguiltify”, means to excuse, to apologize. And grammatically it (mostly) works like to excuse in that it needs an object. You can’t just excuse the way you can apologize.

  • I apologize.

This is correct. But these are not:

  • I excuse.
  • Ich entschuldige…. WRONG!!

So when you want to use it in the sense of to apologize – and you do have to do that because German only has this one word for it – then you need to put in one of those self references.

  • Er entschuldigt sich.
  • He excused himself./He apologizes.

Here are some more examples.

  • Ich will mich bei dir für/wegen etwas entschuldigen.
  • I want to apologize to you for something.
  • Thomas hat sich bei Maria dafür entschuldigt, was er über ihre Haare gesagt hat.
  • Thomas apologized to Maria for what he said about her hairdo.
  • Wir bitten Sie, die Unannehmlichkeiten zu entschuldigen.
  • We kindly ask you to excuse the inconveniences.
    (there’s no self reference here because we have a “regular” object)
  • Entschuldigen Sie mich einen Moment.
  • Excuse me for a second.
    (someone at a meeting who is about to take a phone call and leave the room)

The noun for entschuldigen is die Entschuldigung and that can be an excuse in a more official sense as well as a heart felt apology. But it always has a genuine tone to it. For a feeble, petty excuse you’d use the word die Ausrede (link below) .

  • Ein Kater ist keine Entschuldigung.
  • A hangover is not an excuse.
  • “Tut mir leid, Schatz.”
    “Entschuldigung angenommen.”
  • “I’m sorry, honey.”
    Apology accepted.”

Now, entschuldigen and Entschuldigung seems to be something beginners are having trouble with because the dictionary says excuse to both of them.
If you’re having trouble with that… here’s a little overview again: entschuldigen is the verb, it is something you can do. Entschuldigung is a noun, it something you can ask for, demand or accept.
Entschuldigung can be used as an introduction to a (non-verbal) question you ask strangers. And it can be used as a stand alone word in sense of “I’m sorry”

  • Entschuldigung, wissen Sie, wie man zum Bahnhof kommt?
  • Excuse me, do you know how to get to the train station?
  • Entschuldigung… (waits for the other person to step out of the way)

  • Sorry
  • Tschujung (spoken German)
  • “Aua. Passen Sie doch auf, wo Sie hintreten.”
    “Oh, Entschuldigung.
  • “Ouch, you should pay attention where you tread.”
    “Oh, excuse me/I’m sorry.”

The verb entschuldigen can also be used to approach strangers BUT then you NEED to add the formal you.

  • Entschuldigen Sie, wissen Sie wo….
  • Excuse me, do you know….

Without the Sie it sounds pretty wrong. As does entschuldigen used as a one word excuse.

  • Entschuldigen. WRONG!!!

One might think that -gung and -gen sounds similar but no, not to a native speaker’s ear. Entschuldigen as a stand alone is understandable … but it sounds really really bad, so you try to not mix them up.
So, this was the whole guilt aspect of Schuld. Now let’s get to the other aspect.
Wait, there’s another one?
Yes, and it has to do with money.

schuld, schulden and money

The word guilt doesn’t have a plural. You can have some guilt or a lot of guilt but you can’t have 3 “guilts”. Schuld works the same, but technically, there is a plural. Die Schulden. Schulden doesn’t mean “guilts”. Schulden means debt.

  • Thomas hat Schulden.
  • Thomas is in debt.
  • Deutschland hat seit ein paar Jahren in der Verfassung eine Schuldenbremse. (it’s really called that)
  • For a few years now, Germany has had a national debt brake in its constitution.

And this fact, the fact that Germans use the same word for debt that they use for guilt might be the reason why Germans are somewhat restrained when it comes to borrowing money. Sure, lots of people are in debt for some reason or another but generally, it is much less normal than in the US and “Schulden haben” (being in debt) has a very negative ring to it in German. Like… when I hear

“Thomas hat Schulden.”

my natural reaction is to think

“Aw… poor Thomas. I hope I never get into that situation.”

I don’t hear the opportunity that debt can offer. Schulden sounds bad. So why did the Germans start using this negative word for debt? The answer is, they didn’t. It’s the word that changed.
Because some two thousand years Schuld was simply about a sort of obligation that you had toward someone. Like…bringing the smith a boar because he fixed your ax or giving the chieftain a barrel of ale because he won the last drinking competition. We could say a Schuld was something that you should do for someone. And if you’re now like “Hmmm, should and Schuld look really similar and they’re both about obligation… can that really be a coincidence”, then you’re on the right track. Schuld is directly related to should. And that is especially visible when you look at the verb schulden, which is the German word for to owe.

  • Du schuldest mir noch 10 Euro.
  • You owe me 10 Euro.
  • Du schuldest mir noch eine Entschuldigung.
  • You still owe me an apology.

I don’t know… “You should me 10 Euro” … it’s like sooo obvious once you know it. Really a pretty cool connection.
Anyway, so the original Schuld was just about obligation toward someone, be it financially or otherwise. And this notion of having done something wrong, being guilty came in later. I don’t know… I feel like religion might have had something to do with it. Religion always had a tendency toward guilt tripping people with their obligations toward the Lord.
Anyways, here’s a couple more examples for schuld words with the sense of owing.

  • Ich bin ihr nichts schuldig.
  • I owe her nothing.
  • Thomas hat sich für das Haus verschuldet.
  • Thomas indebted himself for the house.

And one last thing about to owe maybe… we’ve learned that Schuld and schulden has a slightly negative tone. So when people want to use owe in a positive way, for stuff you don’t have to pay back, they’d use verdanken.

  • Maria verdankt ihrem Skilehrer viel.
  • Maria owes a lot to her ski teacher.

And I think that’s it. This was our look at the word die Schuld and the schuld family, which is either about owing or about guilt.
As always, if you have any questions about all of this (I feel like it was actually quite a bit to digest) just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

One bit of random trivia:

The word sin might be related to the German sein as in to be. It’s not certain and there are other theories but that’s kind of deep :).

further reading:

Word of the Day – “die Ausrede”

** Vocab **

die Schuld – the blame, guilt, fault
die Mitschuld – part of the blame (kind of like assistant’s blame)
die Teilschuld – part of the blame (just technical part)
die Unschuld – the innocence, the virginity

unschuldig – innocent, not guilty
schuldig – guilty
etwas verschulden – cause something bad

das Unschuldslamm – innocent lamb
die Unschuld vom Lande – figure of speech for a naive, innocent person
die Unschuldsvermutung – the presumption of innocence

die Entschuldigung – the excuse, the apology
die Ausrede – the petty excuse
(sich) entschuldigen – apologize, excuse (oneself)

die Schulden – the debt
sich entschulden – to get out of debt
der Schuldner – person owing money
der Gläubiger – person owed money
sich verschulden – go deep into debt
die Staatsverschuldung – the national debt

schulden – to owe
jemandem etwas schuldig sein – owe someone something



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Ted Kim
Ted Kim
2 years ago

If you explain it in religious terms as guilt and sin as debt, it would be much easier to explain.

4 years ago

Kann man das verb auch wie verzeihen benutzen? z. B. “Ich habe es verkackt aber ich habe mich entschuldigt und er hat mich entschuldigt/mir verzeihen”

4 years ago

Fabulous. Thanks so much for this detailed explanation and set of example sentences

5 years ago

A few folks have responded about the language of the Lord’s Prayer (Vaterunser) – just want to help a little bit to clarify.

The liturgical version of the Lord’s Prayer is the version from the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13), plus the conclusion “…for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours…” which isn’t original to the Greek text, though it appears in later manuscripts. Anyway, in Matthew the phrase in question is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” just like in the German.

There is also a shorter version of the prayer in Luke (11:2-4), which has “forgive us our sins” instead of “debts.” “Trespasses” is, as mentioned above, an older alternative to “sins” in English, close to the idea of “transgressions” (Übertretungen), with the idea of illicitly crossing legitimate boundaries. I really don’t know why “trespasses” is more common globally, since otherwise the liturgical Prayer follows Matthew, but that’s where it comes from. I’m not sure which traditions have been more likely to use “debtors,” but that’s what I grew up with in Presbyterian churches.

Hope that helps. :)

5 years ago

Hallo everyone. :)

Thank you for making me a member. It’s really a start up for me. Thank you for the help. Thank you sir Emmanuel for the reply. So for this reason, I am now very much motivated to learn. Thank thank you!

hugs and kisses,

student from Philippines :)

5 years ago

Thank you for your help…i’m reading the newspapers daily..im confident enough and i got to say i do owe you gratitude..Just one of those questions that has been on my mind from the very start: is it customary every where in deutschland to say entschuldigung before you start conversations? As common as excuse me? Danke viel auch Emmanuel

Fran Levy
5 years ago

let’s not forget “Don’t Tread on Me,” the motto on one of the flags of the American Revolution. Those words are written above the image of a coiled rattlesnake.

5 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Ted Nugent…is he huugeee in Deutschland? .. Als Hasselhoff?

5 years ago

I’m loving the teaching style in this, thank you so much to the people who’ve donated extra to allow for scholarships, and moreover to Emanuel for getting back to me so quickly on my email, I’m pretty shy about asking for help with getting further education so your positive attitude was really welcoming, thanks much. (And I agree, dark-ages Christians tend to guilt-trip a lot, weird, right?)

5 years ago
Reply to  Livia

Danke dude, is there a word for this in German : ” La Politesse”
Means when you are really polite..diplomatic all the way..danke (in french ..je te remercie….excuse moi ….)

5 years ago

We always used debt/debtors when we recited the lord’s prayer when I was at school here in Scotland. A long long time ago.

I think ‘sin’ is related to ‘sound’ – although not the kind of sound that makes a noise. Rather, the ‘Sound’ that means ‘narrow channel of water’ or ‘gap’. These suggest the idea of separateness, as does the related adverb ‘asunder’, used in the English phrase ‘to split asunder’. One can see how the idea of ‘sinfulness’ can be thought of as being ‘separate’ or ‘on the other side of the channel/gap’

5 years ago

Long ago and far, far away [from current location]. You probably shouldn’t speak English like me any more than I should speak German like a young Berliner. We’d both sound very odd. A couple of further thoughts, though –

I have noticed that irregular verbs seem to be getting less use in English than they did. Sorry, examples are not coming to mind, but gut getreten’s comment to the effect that “tread” is more noun than verb seems to fit (although I have no idea of her/his age).

Influence of language on behaviour is an intriguing field. The very close verbal associations for German speakers between debt and guilt are particularly interesting. Here (in Australia) the emphasis from lenders is very much on “credit”, which sounds good. Credit card use attracts “reward points”, for a fee and plenty of spending. Increased credit limits are offered at regular intervals, as opportunities not to be missed. We hear and read that debt is necessary to achieve a “credit rating,” which must be a good thing. Apparently Australia has the world’s highest level of personal debt!

gut getreten
gut getreten
5 years ago

“Ouch, you should pay attention where you tread.”

“Tread” isn’t used so much in English (except for the ridges on tires or shoes), “step” sounds more natural. (BTW I love how German uses “treten” for both step and kick…. I imagine that Germans are really bad at kicking and just try to walk up people when they get in fights.)

5 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy


5 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

“Tread” isn’t used so much, as you say, but everyone understands it and it sounds sort of “cute” when used. Also, the idiomatic expression, “tread lightly” to mean “be careful” or “cautious” in the sense that something is sensitive, is used very often.

5 years ago
Reply to  alexviajero

Don’t forget “Don’t tread on me.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsden_flag

5 years ago
Reply to  gut getreten

Tread has its place still as it means something different to “step”. You would be more likely to step on someone’s toes, because “tread” (to me at least) encompasses the idea of a deliberately completed footfall from ball to heel whereas as “step” is much more snappy. I think you would be more likely to advise someone to “tread carefully” than to “step carefully”, because of the deliberate nature of the word “tread”.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

W.B. Yeats

5 years ago
Reply to  aoind

Not that it has anything to do with Schuld, but English speakers’ understanding of differences between tread and step clearly vary wildly.
For me tread is the more general and the one with clumsier connotations. I definitely talk of treading on toes and if I find something unpleasant on a shoe will remark about what I’ve trodden in. I’d also be far more likely to say that something was broken by being trodden on, than stepped on.
Step feels more precise and careful, and possibly more purposeful, as in stepping over a sleeping cat, on stepping stones or around a small obstacle.
Treading feels to me much more open to metaphorical interpretation than stepping, as in Yeats’ “tread softly” and general use of “tread carefully”……..but “watch your step” is also often used metaphorically.

For Emanuel’s example I’d probably say ” [You should] watch where you put your feet.”

5 years ago
Reply to  Ruth

“Watch (or “Mind”) where you put your feet” is what I would say too.

“Tread” does also have the meaning of trampling underfoot which I think is connected with the word’s sense of deliberateness.

“Watch your step” implies that steps are things to be observed rather than consciously controlled.

original sinner
original sinner
5 years ago

In English you can also euphemistically refer to virginity as “innocence.” I’m sure there’s something about original sin in there somewhere….

My mind was kind of blown when I first found out that “debt” and “guilt” are basically the same word in German. (Greece and its so many guilts…) But in English, debts can be “forgiven,” so I guess the ideas are still connected there, too.

5 years ago

Just another thing: is it at all possible to download the articles ike a PDF file?
A lot of time during the day I don’t have access to the internet, so it would be good to print it up and study using good old paper, Thanks!!!

5 years ago

I really must say: Vielen Vielen Dank, Thank you very much to all of you who donate a little extra, that made it possible for me to become a menber, I was surprised to see that I could actually become a member even though I could not afford to pay it and also, the answer to my email was so fast, Thanks a lot guys, you’re awesome !!! and Thanks Emanuel for the nice email.

5 years ago

Thank you for a lovely post, like so many others. Just a small comment:

For a few years now, Germany has had a national debt break in its constitution.
For a few years now, Germany has had a national debt *brake* in its constitution.

Anyway, when you say Schulden (pl.) does that normally mean debt (as a mass noun) or debts (as individual loans) or can it do both?

Thomas hat Schulden. (wie viele Schulden? Car loan, home loan, plus a loan to have a wedding)

Does it make any sense whatsoever to say

…Thomas hat drei Schulden…

or how would you say that he has three different debts?

Many thanks again. BTW Shakespeare used to say (I am told):

Neither a borrower, nor a lender be
for loan oft loses both itself and friend.

5 years ago

The weird use of ‘trespasses’ in the Christian prayer is just a weird thing. No one uses trespasses like that outside of that prayer. For most people it just means entering private property: “No trespassing”.

5 years ago

Thanks for the great post Emanuel. Feared you were having a week off to work on part 2 of the position of “nicht” but glad to have something to chew on.

“trespasses” and “trespass against us” is the most common formulation for the Lord’s Prayer but alternatives include “sins”/”sin against us” and “debt”/”debtors” (this last being perhaps the most closely corresponding to the German version).

5 years ago
Reply to  aoind

‘Trespasses’ is the most familiar version but dates from the 16th century and now sounds old-fashioned (or weird) to a lot of people. More modern translations tend to use the words ‘sins’ or ‘debts’.

5 years ago

> ** for an ANKI Vocabulary Deck of about the stuff in this post click here **

You forgot to make that a link.

Regardless, the post was great! Thanks!