The meaning of “stecken” (and its crazy family)

Written By: Emanuel Updated: September 26, 2023

Hello  everyone,

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

stecken

I’m sure it’s not a super crazy reveal that stecken is related to to stick. And the two verbs do overlap. But they also have their differences. And their family as a whole is pretty interesting. So we have lots to talk about and lots of cool words to learn and I’d say, we’ll jump right in.

 

The origin of the family is the outstandingly ancient Indo-European root *steig-. It expressed the idea of being pointy and possibly poking something with it. And stecken and to stick are not its only descendants.

The root is also the origin of German stechen (to sting, to stab) and its noun der Stachel (the stinger). And while that is not that big of a reveal, you might be really surprised that the root is ALSO the origin for stigmata, instigate, stimulus and… drumroll please…  style.
Yup, style.

Style comes directly from the Latin word stilus, which was a pointy object to write with.
So  “I like your style”or in Latin “Stilum yorum me pleasis”** – basically originally meant “I like your pen.”
(**might not actually be Latin)
Then it shifted toward “I like the way you write.” and then to “I like the way you express yourself.”
Well, I’m not sure if the Romans actually had that phrasing, but that’s roughly the evolution of the word.

Anyway, while style has changed quite a bit over the many centuries (no pun intended), stecken and stick have stuck (ops, again no pun intended, I am really sorry) to the original idea.
A stick, or der Stock in German, is still a pointy object, and the verbs stecken and to stick have a notion of putting something “pointy” somewhere.

  • Thomas steckt sich Marias Lippenstift in die Nase.
  • Thomas sticks Maria’s lipstick into his nose.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But there’s also a new element – the notion of fixation.

  • Thomas muss ins Krankenhaus, weil Marias Lippenstift in der Nase stecken geblieben ist.
  • Thomas has to go to the hospital because Maria’s lipstick got stuck in the nose.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And this brings us to the most important difference between German stecken and the English to stick. To stick has broadened the notion of fixation to include contexts where there’s some sort of glue. Just think of the adjective sticky.
German stecken does NOT have that. Instead, you need to use a word of the kleben-family.

  • Ihhh… der Tisch ist super klebrig. 
  • Ewww… the table is super sticky.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria klebt einen Aufkleber auf den Kühlschrank.
  • Maria “glues”/puts a sticker on the fridge.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Stecken can express the idea of being stuck, but ONLY in a mechanical sense. Like… putting lipstick into your nose and not getting it out.

I think it’s best to think of stecken as a verb about positioning. German likes to be precise about placement and uses a variety of verbs for to put, depending on how and where something is being put.
The special “power” of stecken is this notion of sticking in and fixation. It does translate to to stick sometimes, but German also use it a LOT where English would use …. often it’s used as to put even to be.
Cool, examples.

  • Thomas steckt sein Handy in die Hosentasche.
  • Thomas puts his phone into his pocket.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wir dürfen den Kopf nicht in den Sand stecken. (idiom)
  • We mustn’t stick our head in the sand.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das neue Super-Alpha-Boss-Müsli – weckt, was in dir steckt.
  • The new super alpha boss muesli – awakens your potential/ what’s inside you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria steckt voller Überraschungen. (common phrasing)
  • Maria is full of surprises.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Hey, wo hast du gesteckt? (colloquial)
  • Where have you been/been hiding?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

As you can see, there doesn’t really always have to be a notion of real sticking, or being stuck. In the last example, you could just as well say “Wo warst du?”
The only thing stecken does here is adding a little flavor of hidden.
And this brings us right to the prefix versions.

stecken – the prefix versions

Because one in particular is what we need to talk about actual, factual hiding. Do you want to give it a go?
Here are the options…

  • anstecken
  • verstecken
  • wegstecken
  • einstecken

You have one gif to think about it :)

And? Do you have an idea?
Well… the correct answer is …. verstecken.

verstecken (and wegstecken)

Verstecken is the German word for to hide, and if you’ve read my article on ver-, that’ll make perfect sense to you. One of the ideas of the prefix  ver- is away, and if you put something away, it is out of sight. Or in one word: hidden.

  • Thomas versteckt Marias Lippenstift.
  • Thomas hides Maria’s lipstick.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das ist kein gutes Versteck.
  • That is not a good hiding place.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Kinder spielen Verstecke(n).
  • The kids are playing hide and seek.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • In Disney-Filmen gibt es viele versteckte Messages.
  • There are lots of hidden messages in Disney movies.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And what about wegstecken?
Well, wegstecken is also about putting away, but it doesn’t have the notion of hiding.
You can use it for literally putting away something, or in a figurative sense of coping with something.

  • Der Ritter steckt sein Schwert weg.
  • The knight puts away his sword (presumably into the sheath)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas hat die Niederlage gegen Maria beim Squash nicht gut weggesteckt.
  • Thomas has not taken well the defeat at squash against Maria.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And this brings us right to the next one, einstecken.

einstecken and reinstecken

This one has a focus on “inside”. Think of the ein- as a generic pocket. So instead of stecken into X, you can just say einstecken… without the X.
In the right context, that can express the same idea as wegstecken, but it’s also often used in contexts of taking something with you.

  • Ich stecke mein Handy ein.
  • I put my phone away (into one of my bags or pockets).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wer austeilt muss auch einstecken können.
  • Who dishes out has to be able to take a hit.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Mist, ich hab’ vergessen, mein Handy einzustecken.
  • Damn, I forgot to take my phone with me (“put my phone into one of my pockets”).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich hab immer Kaugummis einstecken. (colloquial)
  • I always have chewing gum with me.
    (don’t ask me about the grammar of this… I mean do… but don’t :).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The one thing einstecken DOESN’T mean – and those of you who are veterans of the great Prefix Verb Series will know this – the one thing it doesn’t mean is literally sticking something inside of somewhere. For that we need the r-version reinstecken.

  • Thomas’ Nase: *existiert
    Thomas: “Perfekt. Da stecke ich Lippenstift rein.”
  • Thomas’ nose: *exists
    Thomas: “Perfect. I’ll put lipstick inside there.”
  • “Das war ein echt tolles Beispiel, Emanuel.”
    “Ja danke. Ich habe viel Zeit und Arbeit reingesteckt.
  • “That was a really great example, Emanuel.”
    “Yeah thanks. I put a lot of time and work into it.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Cool.
Now, there’s one more version of stecken that I want to mention and that is anstecken. Might not be useful now, but it will be VERY useful next year, in 2020. Believe me.  You heard it here first.

anstecken

If we take it literally, it should mean something along the lines of sticking something somewhere.
Well, it is used in contexts of pinning medals on someone’s chest..

  • Der Präsident steckt dem Agenten einen Orden an.
  • The president pins a medal on the secret agent’s chest.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And in a way, the actual real everyday meaning is also about sticking something to someone. But it’s not a medal. It’s a cough, for example. Or diarrhea. Or enthusiasm.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
(sich) anstecken is the word for infecting someone (or oneself ) with a disease or metaphorical condition.

  • “Schatz, ich geb dir mal keinen Kuss. Ich bin erkältet und will dich nicht anstecken.
    “Oh, keine Sorge, ich hab’ mich schon bei einem Arbeitskollegen angesteckt.
    “Äh… wie bitte?”
  • “Honey, I won’t kiss you today. I have a cold and I don’t want to get you infected.”
    “Oh, no worries. I already got infected by a colleague.”
    “Uhm… excuse me?!?!”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wenn klein Thomas krank ist, darf er nicht in den Kindergarten, damit er die anderen Kinder nicht ansteckt.
  • When little Thomas is sick, he’s not allowed to go to the kindergarten so that he infects the other kids.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas hat mit seiner schlechten Laune alle angesteckt.
  • Thomas infected everyone with his bad mood.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Now, does that meaning REALLY come from the idea of pinning your disease to someone?
Probably not. Anstecken actually has a third meaning, and that is to light in context of fire. It’s rare these days, but you can find it used in books for lighting a cigarette for example.

  • Der Agent steckt sich eine Zigarette an.
  • The secret agent lights himself a cigarette.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This meaning is based on an old medieval usage of the word in sense of pinning an incendiary composition somewhere.  And if we now consider that one type of disease is an inflammation, then it’s not that crazy anymore that anstecken got the sense of transmitting an infection.
Oh and just to give you one more little way of connecting the dots… just think of the word to instigate, which was also a member of the family. Instigating, lighting a fire, getting an infection… they all share aspects.

Anyway, let’s get back to practical things and look at a couple of examples for the noun die Ansteckung (the infection/transmission of disease) and the adjective ansteckend which means contagious.

  • Die Ansteckungsgefahr ist hoch.
  • The risk of contagion/infection is high.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Gähnen ist ansteckend.
  • Yawning is contagious.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But you guys are not yawning right now, are you? *worried look
Seriously though, we’re almost done for today.
Just a few cool nouns that we need to mention. First up, we have the noun das Besteck, which is the German word for silverware or cutlery – so the whole of knives and forks and spoons.

  • Der Kellner muss Besteck polieren.
  • The waiter has to polish silverware.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And the origin of this word is surgeon tools, like scalpels and lancets, that they would put (stecken) into a case. Yup, that’s really where this word comes from.
And last but not least we have the … well… couple Stecker and Steckdose. A Stecker is a plug and a Steckdose is where a Stecker goes… a wall socket/outlet.

And for once the genders actually make sense, because Stecker is der and Steckdose is die.

  • Habt ihr eine Steckdose? (common question in cafés for laptop users)
  • Do you have a socket somewhere?
    (what’s like the most common word in English for that… I feel like there’s 5 different ones and I never know what to say… danke :)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Alexa, warum ist der USB-Stecker von meinen AirPods kaputt?
  • Alexa, why is the USB plug of my AirPods broken?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Yeah… there’s a lot of things wrong with the last example. But it’s here to show you that Stecker works for all kinds of plugs. Except those to keep water in a sink. That’s a Stöpsel.
A Steckdose on the other hand is ONLY the word for an outlet/socket where you actually get electricity from. The word for a USB port or a Lightning port or whatever is der Anschluss or, in a more technical sense, die Buchse. Depends on the personal preference of the plug.

And with this dumb, barely comprehensible joke, I’d say, we’re done for the day.
This was our look at the family of stecken and its prefix version. At its core, stecken is a placement verb that has a notion of piercing and fixation added and that shines through in most of the family members.
As usual, you can take the little quiz my snoring assistant has prepared for you.
And of course, if you have any questions about stecken, or specific uses of to stick or some other prefix versions of stecken … just leave me a comment and we’ll clear it all up.
I hope you liked it, have a great week and see you next time.

 

 

 

** vocab **

stecken = to put (in a stable, fixated fashion, usually inside something), to be (for people and talents)
stecken bleiben = get stuck

klebrig = sticky
der Aufkleber = a sticker

verstecken = to hide
das Versteck = a hiding place
Verstecken = hide and seek (children’s play)

wegstecken = literally to put away something, or in a figurative sense of coping with something
einstecken = to put away, to have with me (inside something)
reinstecken = literally to stick something inside of somewhere
anstecken = to stick something to someone, to pin; to light in context of fire (rare, only in book)

(sich) anstecken = to infect someone (or oneself ) with a disease or metaphorical condition
sich bei jemandem mit etwas anstecken = get infected with something by someone
die Ansteckung = the infection/transmission of disease
ansteckend = contagious
die Ansteckungsgefahr = risk of contagion/infection

das Besteck = silverware or cutlery

der Stecker = a plug (for electronics, NOT a bathtub or sink)
der USB-Stecker = a USB plug
die Steckdose = a wall socket/outlet
der Stöpsel = plug (for bathtubs and sinks)
der Anschluss = a port, a connector
die Buchse = a jack, jack socket, female conector (more technical sense)

der Stachel = the stinger
der Stock = a stick
stechen = to sting, to stab

 

 

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