Word of the Day -“schweben”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today, we’ll take a short and sweet look at the word



Schweben is the German word for to hover, and I know that most of you now think “Mehhhhhh.”
And yes, I admit, it’s not the most useful or exciting word ever. And not many interesting relatives either. But there are a few nice colloquialisms here. And hey… every good TV show has these kind of “slow” episodes where not much happens, right? RIGHT?
So…  now that I’ve lowered the expectations enough, let’s jump right in :)

And we’ll start right away with a few examples…

As you can see, the translation doesn’t always have to be to hover, but the core notion of kind of “standing” in air or water is always clear. And that also goes for the more figurative uses.

The last one is a bit random, no doubt, but it’s a pretty common phrasing in books. And it makes sense if you think of it as a metaphor for falling any minute.

Cool. Now, we definitely need to mention the one context of to hover where schweben is NOT a good translation. I am talking about hovering in context of a computer mouse.

  • Hover over the button to show tool-tip.

I think this hovering is pretty common in English computer lingo, but German actually kind of lacks a standard here.
People use bewegen or fahren or they might even just use “hovern” with German verb endings…

  • Bewege den Mauszeiger über den Button, um den Tool-Tip zu zeigen.
  • Fahre mit der Maus über den Button… yup
  • Mit der Maus über den Button hovern um den Tool-Tipp zu sehen

But what absolutely doesn’t work is schweben.

  • Schwebe mit der Maus über den Button… NOPE

That sounds like I have to sit on some giant bio-tech hover-mouse and I’m like “Hover over that button, Mouse!”, and the mouse is like “Very well, master. Shall I load the laser guns?” and I’m like “Absolutely.”
Well, okay… it doesn’t really sound like all that, but schweben with a computer mouse is not idiomatic.
Anyway, speaking of imagining something… that actually brings us to the prefix version vorschweben. Or jemandem vorschweben to be precise.
Taken literally, it means to hover in front of someone. And if we know think of it in a figurative way, it makes perfect sense that it’s about… an idea.
Not an idea in a sense of “Wow, I just got an idea.” but in the sense of having an expectation or  vision.
Think of it as picturing something, just with the roles reversed. So you’re not picturing, you just sit there and it hovers in front of your eyes.

Now you might be like “Emanuel, is there any difference to sich vorstellen?”
And the answer is… not really. Well, there is as far as phrasing goes.

  • Ich stelle mir etwas vor.
  • Etwas schwebt mir vor.
    (I am picturing something. )

For vorschweben, the thing I am picturing is actually the subject, while it’s the object for sich vorstellen.
As far as their meaning goes, the two verbs are really similar, though, and we could use sich vorstellen in both of these examples. Vorschweben sounds a little less active and a bit more vague. Like … you’re just sitting there watching mental images. So you don’t really NEED vorschweben. But it’s one of those little colloquial words that make you sound REALLY native for a second if you use them correctly. Like… try it with your friends. I’m sure they’ll notice and be really impressed.

All right.
So now we know what schweben means and how to use it. What we don’t know yet is where it comes from and if there are any relatives in English.
Well, ultimately schweben belongs to the same big family as swipe and wischen (check my article about that for more, link below) but the closest relative in English is probably the word swivel. Yup, swivel. Swivel has this notion of moving left and right and that’s exactly what schweben used to be. Like… a few centuries (or more centuries) ago, you could actually “sweven” your sheep across the pasture. That just meant you made them move hither and yonder. Schweben eventually shifted toward stuff in the air, and became the word for to hover. But it has a cousin that kind of stayed closer to the original meaning… the verb schweifen. It has the core idea of roaming, wandering and it’s actually not all that common by itself, apart from a few specific contexts or phrasings.

But what is kind of useful is the prefix version abschweifen – because that’s the word for the context of getting off topic, either with your thoughts or with a presentation or something. Speaking of something… I have recently realized that soy products give me gas. I was at this Asian Tapas place where you can order several small bowls of stuff and they all contained soy, fried or cooked or whatever, and man…. my tummy was a balloon after that.
Anyway, examples….

There also the phrasing ohne Umschweife which is about the idea of directly, without sugar coating and the noun der Schweif, which is basically the fancy brother of der Schwanz – a long nice, bushy tail. Like the ones horses have, and especially comets.
And last but not least there’s the verb schwafeln. Schwafeln is a colloquial term for blabbering stuff no one is interested in. Yup… I’m sure you just thought “Wow, that’s useful :)”.
Technically, schwafeln doesn’t belong to the same family as schweifen but it looks similar and it fits perfectly with the idea of abschweifen and going off topic so yeah… they’re not related in history, but they’re related in our minds :).

And that’s it for today.
This was our quick look at schweben and its family and I hope you had fun and learned a little. As usual, I recommend you test yourself with the little quiz my assistant, who has sore muscles because she had leg day yesterday, has prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any questions or suggestions or you want to just schwafeln a bit in German, just leave me a comment.
I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time. 


Test yourself on "schweben"

1 / 5

What does "schweben" mean?

2 / 5

What does the common expression "in Gefahr schweben" mean?

3 / 5

Can you use "schweben" in context of a cursor/computer mouse?

4 / 5

Which of the following is a correct translation for:
"What do you have in mind/What's your idea?"

5 / 5

What does the verb “abschweifen” express?

Your score is

The average score is 90%



** vocab **

schweben = to hover, to levitate, to float
das Schweben = levitation
in Gefahr schweben = to be in danger
jemandem vorschweben = to have an expectation or vision, to imagine something, to picture something
etwas schwebt mir vor = I am picturing something
schweifen = to roam, to wander
abschweifen = getting off topic
phrase: ohne Umschweife = directly, without sugar coating
der Schweif = a long nice, bushy tail (horses,comets)
schwafeln = a colloquial term for blabbering stuff no one is interested in



for members :)

Leave a Reply

newest oldest
Notify of

Hope you had a nice holiday!!!!
Thanks for your article about arguing in German; I found it extremely useful as I’m currently trying to compile a list of idioms and other expressions in German and I took loads out of your video, so thank you!! Oh, and “auf Wolke 7” as well as some other expressions in this article are also going on that list!

Typos now:
“But there are a few nice colloquialism here” (colloquiallisms)
“I have to sit on an some giant bio-tech hover-mouse that and I’m like” (I have to sit on some giant bio-tech hover-mouse and I’m like)
And things (or people) float on water, not in water (that would not mean floating but diving or being otherwise immersed)

Anyway, I’m not going to schwafeln anymore, but I’ll say that yes, that verb is also going on my list :)

Bis bald!


I’m puzzled by the view that things only float on water, not in it. Lots of (especially living) things, including plankton, neither float on the surface nor sink to the bottom. They can be described as being “neutrally buoyant”, but I’m struggling to think of a colloquial description of that state with no active movement other than “floating in water”. For me “immersed” suggests that the object is not usually in water.

Thanks for an interesting little post, Emanuel. I hadn’t thought before of horses and comets having similar tails.


Agreed. Things can float “in” water just as other things can float “in” the air. The only equivalent phrasing I can think of is “to be suspended in” but that’s definitely not colloquial and it also has a sense of fixed location.

Marian H
Marian H

I think jellyfish float IN or float through it, so I did not think that was necessarily wrong. The others are points well taken.


Thanks for another great blogpost.
And speaking of Wolke 7, check out Philipp Dittberner & Marv’s “Wolke 4”.




Ok you got me, what is “leg day”?


Your posts are always interesting and this is no exception! I just hope some of it sticks…


Hi Emanuel welcome back from your travels. Thanks for sharing your experiences of Ljubljana a few weeks back. I’m going there for a few days next month so I’ll be looking out for the scandi chic, table cloths in every restaurant and fancy thoroughbred dogs. Schwafeln and Geschwafel will be quite easy for speakers of British English to remember as it is very similar to (and must surely be related?) to the English word “waffle”, which is a word beloved of teachers when they put a big red wavy line through whole essay paragraphs and the word “waffle” alongside it. I see that “to waffle on” is listed on dict.cc as a translation for schwafeln.


Interesting – that’s another BE/AE difference. “Waffling” in AE really only means speaking equivocally, not committing to saying something clear. The British meaning seems to be older (and you can see how they’re related); it’s funny that the later sense became the standard meaning in America, as it’s apparently not attested until after U.S. independence, but originates in N. England and/or Scotland.


Well I suppose that’s only a small divergence in usage! You’ve made me wonder how I would say “equivocate” colloquially now. I have no idea.


Equivocate could be… Talk out of both sides of your mouth, play both sides. But yeah, it’s usually “waffle” as in the classic waffling politician, who promises to cut taxes but then turns around and propses newer, higher ones.


Does “cloud 7″ in German” mean the same as “cloud 9” in English ?


Thank you so much for the information!


Wie geht es dir Lehrer? Du bist mein liblingslehrer :) Ich habe eine Frage an Sie, und zwar kannst du mir schreiben welche verben mit fahren sind wichtig? es gibt zu viele prefixe, ich weis es nicht was oder nicht wichtig ist. Danke im Voraus


also, fahren mit prefixe :)


Thanks to all of you Im from a very distressed country and I cant really pay for this, so I want to thank you people for your help.


Danke Sie hat mir viel geholfen! Und ich habe noch 3 verben. So helfen Sie mir mal oder jemanden wer weis :
fliegen mit prefixe – es gibt uber 30 prefixe, was ist wichtig? Laufen mit prefixe . Richten mit prefixe.
Also: fliegen, laufen und richten. danke im Voraus

Marian H
Marian H

Das war interessanter, als ich es mir vorgeschwebt habe: Gleich als vorgestellt oder?