False Friends Explained – “spenden vs to spend”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of False Friends Explained, this time with a look at

spenden vs to spend

And those two are actually not THAT far apart. Still, there’s a lot of room for confusion.

  • I spend 150 Dollars on Sushi every day.
  • Ich spende jeden Tag 150 Dollar für Sushi.

Because while the English sentence makes you sound like a rich snob who is completely out of touch with the reality of the common man, the German sentence makes you sound like… uhm… a generous rich snob. Who is totally out of touch with the reality of the common man. I mean, seriously… donating 150 bucks for Sushi. Come on.
But yeah, that’s what spenden is…

… because spenden is the German word for to donate.

  • Maria hat 100 Euro gespendet.
  • Maria donated 100 Euro.
  • Haben sie vielleicht eine kleine Spende für was zu Essen? (typical line in the metro)
  • Do you maybe have a small donation for something to eat?
  • Thomas geht morgen Blut spenden.
  • Thomas is going to donate blood tomorrow.
  • Marias Opa hat eine Spenderniere.
  • Maria’s grandpa has a donor kidney.

Actually, it’s a bit broader than to donate and the translations can vary.

  • Der Baum spendet Schatten.
  • The tree gives shade.
  • Der Seifenspender ist leer.
  • The soap dispenser is empty.
  • Thomas kauft sich feuchtigkeitsspendendes Schampoo.
  • Thomas buys (himself) a (“moisture-giving”moisturizing shampoo.

Jesus Christ… feuchtigkeitsspendendes.?!?! Moisturizing the listener, this word. How is anyone supposed to pronounce this. And it’s sooo loooong. No wonder that the German version of Scrabble is called Scabbabbbligkeitsungität and has an edge length of 2 meters. And that’s the travel edition.
Anyway, even though the translation is not always to donate, the core of German spenden is kind of a selfless giving and it DOESN’T have this notion of investment or trade that the English to spend has.
And now the question is, which language messed up the meaning? Let’s take a look at the history and find out.

the surprising origin of “spenden”

As Germanic as they might seem, to spend and spenden actually come from Latin and are closely related to words like expensive and expense. That makes sense, right. Oh and dispenser is also related, so we have another parallel there.
The origin is the verb pendere which we also have in words like depend or pendulum. Pendere was about hanging and expendere was about weighing and paying. Wait… how does that any sense… let me read up real quick… uh… okay …  apparently, the meaning was inspired by a scale. Like… weighing the gold or silver for a trade by putting it out on a hanging dish. Oh man, I wonder what these Romans were smoking.
Anyway, so the Latin expendere already was about paying and expensive, expense and spend have stayed true to that, while spenden lost the aspect of commerce and shifted toward giving.
But the original meaning has survived in the related noun die Spesen. It’s a plural only noun and it’s the German word for expense. Well, actually it’s more business expenses so expenses you have for the job. But it’s at the heart of a really common idiom that describes that you put in a lot of effort without getting any benefit.

  • Außer Spesen nix gewesen.
  • Except for expenses, there was nothing.
    (is there an idiom in English? Danke :)
  • “Dieses Dinner geht auf die Firma”
    “Aber… meine Rechnung sind fast 100 Euro?!”
    “Passt schon. Das sind Spesen.”
  • “This dinner is on the company.”
    “But… my bill is almost 100 Euro?!”
    “Don’t sweat it. Those are (business) expenses.”

And this example actually brings us right to the next related word, which is quite the surprise, even though it is just an i away. Die Speise is a German word for … a meal.
And we don’t actually need much crazy mind yoga to understand the connection. The word was coined by monks. They spoke a lot of Latin and their main expense was food. Tadaah.
And by the way… in Italian there is la spesa and even though it can technically mean expense, you will see it a LOT in context of buying food.
It’s not the only word German has for that, and it’s not used that much as a stand alone but there are a few REALLY common compounds with it.

  • Könnten wir eine Speisekarte haben? (sounds a bit formal, only for higher class restaurants)
  • Could we have a food menu?
  • Ich nehm’ die Einhornsuppe als Vorspeise und das Kobe Unicorn Ribeye als Hauptspeise.
  • I’ll have the unicorn soup as an starter and the Kobe Unicorn Rib-Eye as the main course/entrée.
    (hey Americans, entrée for main course? Is that on purpose to tease the French?)
  • Sodbrennen kommt von Magensäure in der Speiseröhre.
  • Acid reflux/heartburn comes from stomach acid in the esophagus.

And there’s the verb speisen, which is a pompous snobby sounding option for to eat. And for some reason it’s also used in context of “giving electricity into a system” … I mean… it’s nothing you need to use actively. I just wanted to mention it because it might be confusing when you read the sentence word “Einspeisevergütungsgesetz.” in the context of renewable energies. But okay… I guess that is confusing either way.
Anyways,  last but not least, there’s the verb spendieren, and this one is kind of the little, light hearted brother of spenden. Like… spenden has this serious vibe of someone being in need. Spendieren is more about giving out treats.

  • Der Star spendiert den wartenden Fans Pizza.
  • The star treats/offers the waiting fans pizza.
  • Apple hat dem neuen iPhone eine dritte Kamera spendiert – die sogenannte Schoß-Cam an der Unterkante.
  • Apple treated its new iPhone to a third camera – the so called lap cam on the lower rim.
    (this wording is pretty common in tech talk that’s supposed to sound fluffy. Is that idiomatic English though?)
  • “Nimmst du noch ein Bier? Ich bezahle.”
    “Du hast doch schon die letzte Runde bezahlt?!”
    “Jooo, ich habe heute meine Spendierhosen an.”
  • “You want another beer? I’ll pay.”
    “But you already payed the last round.”
    “Yeah, I‘m in a generous mood.”
    (lit.: I’m wearing my treating-pants)
  • Thomas ist sehr spendabel.
  • Thomas is very generous (in terms of money).

Not super common but it’s one of those words that’ll really make you sound like a native speaker if you use it at the right moment.
So now we know what spenden is and where it comes from. But there’s one more thing we need to answer: how to actually translate to spend.
And the answer to that is the answerest answer ever

“It depends.”©
Answer to all questions German language since 1834

For spending money, the word is  ausgeben (we’ve talked about it in detail in another article, I’ll link it in the vocab section) and for anything time based like weeks or vacations or child hoods, the word to go is verbringen.

  • Thomas hat 200 Euro für Sushi ausgegeben.
  • Thomas spent 200 Euro for Sushi.
  • Wegen seiner Fischvergiftung hat Thomas eine Woche im Bett verbracht.
  • Because of his fish poisoning, Thomas spent one week in bed.

And there are a few other options but they’re rather specific so if you have a context in mind that you’re unsure about, let’s just talk about it in the comment.
And that’s it for today. This was our look at the pair of false friends that is spenden and to spend.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** vocab **

spenden (gespendet) – to donate (also: to give)
die Spende – the donation
der Spender – the donor
spendieren (spendiert)  – give out as treat 
spendabel – generous

die Spesen (plural) – the business expenses

die Speise – the dish, meal, food
das Speiseöl  – cooking oil
die Speisekarte – the food menu
die Hauptspeise – the main course
die Speiseröhre – thing through which the food slides into the stomach

ausgeben – to spend money  (find the article here)
verbringen – to spend time (and time based things)


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