Word of the Day – “treiben”

treiben-antreiben-meaningHello everyone,

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



A word that’ll really drive your German forward. Driiive. Draaaaiiiiiiiiifff. Traaaiiiiiiipffff. Treeeeiiibut hey let’s waste no more time with my nonsense and get right into the world of treiben. Sounds good? Perfect.

Treiben has two close relatives in English, both of which can be a translation for it. The first one is to drift.

  • Ups… da vorne treibt meine Badehose auf dem Wasser.
  • Ops… over there my bathing trunks are drifting on the water/floating on the water.
  • Der Hund spielt mit einem Stück Treibholz.
  • The dog is playing with a piece of drift wood.
  • “Hast du Pläne für heute Abend?”
    “Nee, ich wollte einfach raus und mich treiben lassen.”
  • “Do you have plans for tonight?”
    “No, I just wanted to go out and see where the night takes me.”
    Lit.:” I just wanted to go outside and let myself drift around.”

The other close English relative is to drive. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is driving a car. But that notion is pretty new. In Old English, some 700 years ago,  people still called that “to fare a car”. Wait, can it be?
Meh.. anyway, the original to drive was quite broad and it still exists today. Driving someone off the property for example certainly doesn’t mean chauffeuring them out. And a sex drive is not some sort of adult bus tour or something. These are examples for the original idea of to drive which was something like to make move, to push forward. Think of a shepherd leading a herd of sheep up a hill. That’s the perfect image… he doesn’t literally shove or push them but he does make them move (forward). That’s the core idea and it’s especially present in German.

  • Der Schäfer treibt die Herde auf die Weide.
  • The shepherd leads the herd onto the pasture.
  • Cola treibt den Blutzuckerspiegel in die Höhe.
  • Coke drives up the blood sugar.
  • Perspektivlosigkeit treibt viele Menschen dazu, sich auf den gefährlichen Weg nach Europa zu machen.
  • A lack of prospects makes many people start the dangerous journey to Europe.
  • Die ganzen deutschen Pluralformen treiben mich in den Wahnsinn.
  • All those German forms for the plural are driving me crazy. (lit.: “are driving me into insanity”)

Now, what about this example:

  • The turbine drives the generator.

Would treiben work here?
The answer is no. The examples we had above all contained some sort of destination. And German really likes that. Or put the other way around… it doesn’t really like treiben without any indication of direction. So if you were to say

  • Die Turbine treibt den Generator.

German would be all whiny like “Uh… uh…. where’s the turbine driving the generator to?! Oh god, it’s sooooooo imprecise. Please complete your sentence, I’m so confused. Waaa, waaaaa.”
Yeah, German is really OCD with these things. The solution to this “problem” is a prefix but we’ll get to those in a second. First, let’s look at the other important use of treiben  – as a colloquial translation for to do. Think about it – doing something is kind of setting things in motion, making things move. It’s not always idiomatic so you can’t just swap it in for machen or tun, but there are a few very common phrasings.

  • Was treibst du so?
  • What have you been doing lately/what are you doing right now? (depends on context)
  • Ich treibe gerne Sport.
  • I like doing sports.
  • Thomas and Maria are doing it like rabbits.
  • Thomas and Maria treiben es wie die Hasen.’

I don’t really know what it is that they’re doing in the last examp… what? Ohhhhhhhh… I watch… uh… I mean, I see.
This sexample actually brings us to the noun der Trieb, which is the word for an inner drive – the very basic, instinctual  ones.

  • Thomas und Maria geben ihrem Sexualtrieb nach.
  • Thomas and Maria yield to their sex drive.
  • Mein Hund hat einen extrem starken Jagdtrieb.
  • My dog has an extremely strong hunting instinct.
    (lit.: “drive to hunt”)

Trieb is also the name for shoots of plants… like… new little branches or twigs or buds coming out from somewhere and it’s just part of the noun das Triebwerk which is the German word for jet engine.

  • Das Flugzeug musste wegen einem Triebwerkschaden notlanden.
  • The plane had to do an emergency landing due to a damaged engine.

And that brings us back to the question of how to do the example of an engine driving a car and to the … drumroll…

prefix versions of “treiben”

And because treiben has so many good prefix versions, they all get their own headline so you can find them quicker.

 – antreiben –

Remember German being OCD about treiben having a destination? Well, antreiben is the word to go for if you do not want to specify one. Just a general driving forward, and the range of contexts is super broad. A coach pushing his team, some inner motivation that drives you and most important of all… engines. And that applies to the verb as well as the noun and any other related words.

  • Der Wunsch, einen Oskar zu gewinnen, treibt den Schauspieler an.
  • The desire to win an Oscar is motivating/driving the actor.
  • Das Auto wird von einem 240 PS-Motor angetrieben. (PS= Pferdestärken)
  • The car is driven by an engine with 240 HP (horse power).
  • In Deutschland werden vergleichsweise wenig Autos mit Elektroantrieb verkauft.
  • Comparatively few cars with an electric engine are sold in Germany.
  • Thomas wirkt in letzter Zeit so antriebslos.
  • Thomas seems devoid of motivation recently.

So… treiben means to drive, to push if you specify a destination. if you don’t have one, then an- kind of takes the role of that.
Cool, next.

– auftreiben –

Auftreiben is a bit weird in so far as that only the noun has the literal meaning while the verb itself is some abstract craziness.
Meh… on second thought, that’s actually pretty normal for a German prefix verb. So, der Auftrieb is the word for a force that pushes you upward when you’re under water and it’s also used for stuff that is emotionally uplifting.

  • Salzwasser hat einen höheren Auftrieb als Süßwasser.
  • Salt water has a greater buoyant force than freshwater.
  • Die Beförderung hat Maria Auftrieb gegeben.
  • The promotion has given Maria a pushboost of motivation.

The verb on the other hand is completely different. Auftreiben is a colloquial term for to find. Think of a hunt. You’re having a party in a small town, it’s past 10 pm and you’re out of… beer? That’s when you would try to auftreiben some beer.  So it’s not finding as in finding something you’ve lost, or finding something randomly on the street but finding something new after somewhat of a hunt.

  • Ich muss irgendwo ein Diskettenlaufwerk auftreiben.
  • I have to dig up/find a floppy disc drive from somewhere.

Not super common, but colloquial and if you’re among native speakers you’ll hear it sooner or later.

– abtreiben –

Literally, it means to drive off but the only context for it is to drive off fetuses. That’s right… abtreiben means to have an abortion and the noun for the abortion itself is die Abtreibung.

  • Das Thema Abtreibung ist in den USA extrem umstritten.
  • Abortion is a very controversial topic in the US.
  • Maria will im Moment definitiv kein Kind. Aber sie weiß trotzdem nicht, ob sie im Falle einer ungewollten Schwangerschaft wirklich abtreiben würde oder nicht.
  • Maria definitely doesn’t want a child at the moment. But still, she doesn’t know whether she would actually have an abortion in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

Not one of the most poetic words of the German language but definitely worth knowing.

 – übertreiben and untertreiben –

These two are really useful whenever you’re telling something. If your story is boring you’ll probably spice it up by making everything bigger, funner, more amazingerer. That’s what übertreiben is for… to exaggerate. And untertreiben is the opposite – to downplay, to underexaggarate…

  • “Der Strand war so voll, dass man keinen Sand mehr gesehen hat.”
    “Ach komm, du übertreibst.”
  • “The beach was so packed you  couldn’t see ANY sand.”
    “Come on, you’re exaggerating.
  • Ich finde den Hype um die Bar übertrieben.
  • I think the bar is over-hyped.
  • Ich glaube ich habe es gestern beim Training ein bisschen übertrieben.
  • I think I went a little to far with the exercise yesterday.  (I overtrained.)
  • Thomas ist immer so übertrieben gründlich.
  • Thomas is overly thorough all the time.
  • “Kleines Problem” ist in dem Fall ein bisschen untertrieben.
  • “Small problem” is kind of an understatement  in that case.

The nouns are die Über-/Untertreibung  and they’re totally in line with the verbs.
Now, these were just some of the prefix versions. There are hundreds more.
Okay, no, that was an Übertreibung, there are just a few. Eintreiben for example is what a debt collector does – “drive in” money. Austreiben can mean to exorcize  or sprout (for trees) and sich rumtreiben  is a slangy term for being outside, going around.  And there are still a few more but they’re really not that common. So I think that’s it for today… but hold on, I see we have a call here… uhm… Alicia from Greensboro, North Carolina, welcome to the show.
“Hey Emanuel, thanks so much for taking my call. And great topic… I’ve been waiting for treiben for a long time.”
Yeah, I’m sure you’re not the only one… it’s really been on my list forever, too. Did the show clear it up a bit though?
“Yeah, definitely… the connection to driving really helped, too… I have a question, though. “
Sure, go right ahead.
“What about the non-separable prefixes? Like… Betrieb and vertreiben… aren’t they related to treiben, too? I feel like I see them quite a bit….”
Oh god, yes. I totally forgot. We can’t skip those two. Do you wanna help me take a look?
“Sure, why not.”

– vertreiben and betreiben –

So, do you have any idea what vertreiben means?
“Yeah, I think it’s something like chasing away… like… with the away-notion of ver-“. Does that make sense??”
Yeah, that’s exactly right. Here’s an example:

  • Der Duft von meinem Sojasteak hat die Wölfe vertrieben.
  • The smell of my soy steak has driven off/chased away the wolves.

but it’s also used in a more figurative phrasing for passing the time.

  • Ich vertreibe mir die Zeit während der Zugfahrt mit Zeichnen.
  • During the train ride, I pass the time drawing.

“I guess we can’t skip the ‘mir’ here, can we?”
Nah, then it would sound too much like chasing away.
“And does it work with other words for time… like … Ich vertreibe mir den Montag… would that be idiomatic?”
Not really, it only works with the word Zeit. There’s also the noun der Zeitvertreib, which means the pass-time.
“Wait… you mean Zeitvertrieb, right?”
No, I do do a lot of typos but this wasn’t one. Vertrieb is the noun the other meaning of treiben: to distribute.

  • Thomas’ Vater arbeitet im Vertrieb.
  • Thomas’ dad works in distribution/sales.

No idea, if you can see a hint of chasing away in that sense.
“Kind of… I guess. “
This meaning isn’t all that useful though, so I’d say let’s move on to betreiben. Originally, it was just an intensive version of treiben but it’s only ever used in a figurative sense nowadays and most commonly in sense of 
 to run as in  running a business.

  • Marias beste Freundin betreibt ein kleines Café.
  • Maria’s best friend runs/owns a small café.

“Ohhhh… that’s why der Betrieb is the word for a company.”
Exactly, Betrieb is a word for a business. Oh and it’s also a formal word expressing the sense of “being in operation” for machines and devices.

  • Der Laptop wird im Dauerbetrieb sehr heiß.
  • The laptop gets very hot when used for an extended period of time (lit: when it’s in operation)
  • Bitte lassen Sie den Kühlschrank vor Inbetriebnahme 12 Stunden ruhig und aufrecht stehen.
  • Please let the fridge stand still and upright for 12 hours before starting it/first use.
  • Wenn man zu lange in einem Unternehmen arbeitet, wächst die Gefahr, dass man betriebsblind wird.
  • When you’re in a company for too long, there’s a danger of getting stuck in a rut/becoming routine blinded.

“betriebsblind … that’s a cool word.”
Yeah, and there are loads and loads of other compounds… betriebsfremd (external, not part of the company), betriebsbereit (ready for use) , das Betriebsgeheimnis (company secret) …
“… and Betriebssystem which is operating system. I know that one because I have my laptop set to German.”
Haha… I used to do that with my phone back when I was learning French.
So… I think we’re actually done. Or do you have any more questions?
“Hmmm… nope… at least not right now. And if I do later, I’ll just leave you a comment.”
That’s perfect. So thanks a lot for reminding me and helping me with betreiben and vertreiben, and to all you out there thanks for readi… I mean for listening. This was our look at the family of “treiben“. We learned a lot of new words but I think the connection to “to drive is kind of visible in all of them, once you know it’s there.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment. I’m out. You all have a super Woche.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


**vocab **

treiben – to drift, to drive (as in make move), also: colloquial for “to do”

das Treibholz – drift wood
das Treibgut – flotsam
die Treibjagd – the hunt (using dogs)

der Jagdtrieb – the hunting instinct
der Fortpflanzungstrieb – the reproductive drive
das Triebwerk – the engine (for jets)
der Triebtäter – the sex offender (lit.: doer by sex drive)

antreiben – push/motivate/drive (no destination specified)
der Antrieb – generic word for engine (boats and cars mostly)
antriebslos – demotivated, without motivation

abtreiben – to have an abortion
die Abtreibung – the abortion

übertreiben – over-exaggerate
übertrieben – over-exaggerated, overly
untertreiben – donwplay, understate, de-emphasize
die Unter-/Übertreibung – the over-/under-exaggeration

der Auftrieb – the push, force upward under water
auftreiben – to find (sense of hunting down, digging up)

eintreiben – “driving in” owed money
austreiben- “driving out” something… usually the devil or devil-like features
sich rumtreiben – to be (in sense of walking around somewhere… sounds negative, often used for adolescents)

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Jenny Treiber
Jenny Treiber
3 months ago

Slightly on topic… my last name is Treiber (paternal grandparents both Austrian) – I’ve always thought romantically of my ancestors having been shepherds or “wanderers” of some type, thoughts?

4 months ago

Hi Emanuel-

Können bedienen und betreiben austauschbar genutzt werden?

Zum Beispiel:

Wissen Sie, wie man diese Maschine bedient/betreibt?

Vielen Dank

1 year ago

Hallo Emanuel!  You said that “betreiben”’s only ever used in a figurative sense nowadays and most commonly in sense of  to run as in  running a business.

And I’ve seen this word also used with “Sport”, like “Sport betreiben”. Does it mean that “Sport treiben” and “Sport betreiben” are the same? Or “Sport betreiben” means running sport as a business?

Theses following sentences were quoted from DWDS:

1:Die Zeit, 18.02.2013, Nr. 07

Ich kann den Sport jetzt betreiben, ich muss aber nicht.

2:Die Zeit, 23.07.2007, Nr. 29

Unzählige Jugendliche quälen sich auf ihren Rädern über Deutschlands Berge: Sie betreiben Sport.

3:Bild, 21.02.2006

Wenn man diesen Sport mit Otti betrieb und auf seine Kosten kommen wollte, mußte man sich dranhalten.

4:Berliner Zeitung, 08.08.2005

Inzwischen betreibe ich den Sport das ganze Jahr über, immer mal ein paar Stunden in der Woche.

5:Die Welt, 25.06.2005

Man betrieb Sport als zweckfreie Demonstration ästhetischer Selbsterbauung – und wurde bald darauf vom Pöbel weggeräumt.

6:Der Tagesspiegel, 23.05.2005

Sie betreibt diesen Sport seit 1952 und ist noch heute dabei.

1 year ago
Reply to  EM C

oh sry the format is so hässlich ….

1 year ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Vielen Dank für die blitzschnelle Beantwortung!!!!

2 years ago

when it becomes Noun, when is it xxxxxtrieb and when is it xxxxtreib? It seems a bit random to me but probably there is some reason behind it? for example relates to Präteritum trieb or Perfekt sein getrieben?

2 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

 I can’t think of any “-treib”-versions,

das von Ihnen erwähnte Wort “Zeitvertrieb” zum Beispiel:)

parul patel
3 years ago

This is amazing.

3 years ago

I just encountered the word “durchtrieben” but have never seen the verb durchtreiben. Any idea on where its meaning comes from?

Judith Walters
Judith Walters
6 years ago

To “German is Easy” Thanks so much for your comment on “dem Hans seine Frau.” That was my impression too. It was used by educated people who knew the “Schriftsprache,” but spoke local “Mundart” in more informal situations — as you said with friends (and relatives). Thanks again. I’ve always wanted to know.

6 years ago

sorry if this is a stupid question but in “Das Flugzeug musste wegen einem Triebwerkschaden notlanden.” wouldn’t it be “eines Triebwerkschadens”? Or are there also two-way dative/genitive prepositions..?

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

How about “deinetwegen”, “meinetwegen”, “seinetwegen”, that would be the genitive version of “wegen” + personal pronoun.
Also I would say that the difference between the dative and genitive constructions is the level of German you are speaking. For a highly language conscious person the dative constructions sound bad. “wegen den Bäumen” sends a shiver down my spine and must be “wegen der Bäume”. And also your example “wegen eines Triebwerksschadens” sounds very natural to me. Duden says that in some occasions the dative is better, essentially when genitive just does not work because it would confuse. http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/wegen
Everywhere else dative is, I would not say coloquial but more in the range of, not super perfect. So if you don’t care it is just okay but if you care it is not. Also there is a regional preference in the South to use dative here I think. And this is one of the reasons why “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.” got written.

Judith Walters
Judith Walters
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I have long had a question about a dative construction that seems to fit here. My relatives in Austria use the construction “dem Hans seine Frau” to mean “Hans’ wife” or “der Maria ihr Mann” to mean “Maria’s husband” Is this southern German or just not standard at all? How does it sound to you? Thanks. I’ve long wanted to know, but didn’t know whom to ask.

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Wow, thank you for setting me straight on that. I should not have worded it like that. Maybe: “people who think of themselves as highly language conscious(but not necessarily are)”. :) Anyway, so it is just a thing of what you are used to. Thank you very much, it opened my eyes. I will cut my steak in two before frying it from now on.

6 years ago

Danke …wieder

6 years ago

Thanks for the post….emmanuel eine frage..die worte Konzern in deutsch..ist das ein falsch freund (concern in english)?..und die worte bizarre existiert in deutsch als in englisch?? Danke viel… (Check out the song..above..it is cool)

6 years ago

Das ist ein cool Lied..von Jamiroquai….Drifting Along=Treiben Lassen…mit lyric ubersutzung. Geniessen Sie

6 years ago

I would agree that a herd is herded or driven rather than led. I also wanted to add that “prey drive” is a good direct translation for “Jagdtrieb”. Really interesting to see the semantic connections of “treiben”. Thanks for the thorough entry!

6 years ago

Maybe in some areas of the world shepherds lead herds out onto meadows, but where I come from cowboys drive or move herds and there are cattle drives. I would probably never associate the word herd with lead as a first choice verb. That could just be a regional preference, though. Anyway, thanks so much for your terrific blog. It’s absolutely the best method for learning German I’ve ever come across. Between German is Easy and Easy German on YouTube I’m really beginning to make some progress. Vielen Dank.

Judith Walters
Judith Walters
6 years ago

I am finding your blogs about the meanings of German words very insightful. They are worth saving. That is why, I believe, some have requested a .PDF version. Are you planning to compile the blogs into a book? This wealth of information should be saved in some permanent format.

I am presently reading the Spiegel E-book “1914-2014: Die unheimliche Aktualität des ersten Weltkrieges.” In it there is the sentence that includes the word umtreiben: “Die Renaissance der Erinnerung an den Ersten Weltkrieg wird von jenem Minderwertigkeitsgefühl genährt, das die Russen seit Jahrhunderten umtreibt.” What does the word umtreibt mean in this contex? Does the translation “drives into a tizzy” fit the bill? Or is that too colloquial? Treiben means “drive;” “um” means “around” with (to me at least) a sense of confusion (“spin around”). Perhaps the less colloquial words such as “plague, pester, annoy, or bother” would be better.

6 years ago

Ausgezeichnet ! Ausgezeichnet ! Danke !
If you want to make sure it is a jet engine ( and not
a propeller engine) you are talking about don’t you need
to say ” duesen Triebwek ” ?

6 years ago

Servus, und danke für alle diesen großartigen Beitrage! Es gibt auch Adjektive wie gasbetrieben und strombetrieben, die nützlich sein können, ich glaube. Was ist mit ihnen?

6 years ago

A really good post. Thanks for your continued hard work and entertaining presentations!

6 years ago

Hi, great post,

you know the word “Understatement”?
A fashion word that I think is way too often used nowadays. (Man übertreibt es damit ganz schön in Fernsehen und Rundfunk.) And I cannot really get to like it because I do not really understand what is meant by it. My mind tries to put in “Untertreibung” at the place but that just sounds either stupid or is totally not what is meant.
So I believe it is just used as a replacement for “statement” = “Aussage”/”Erklärung” in German that somebody thought would sound more modest or humble if he put this “under-” before it. So this word got a life of its own like Handy and lost connection to the English heritage. Or maybe this meaning is also present in English and I just don’t like the word for its inflationary usage. Anyway I had to think of this word when I read your article.

To make up for my rambling here some other prefixes of “treiben”:

“hintertreiben” = “to schemingly act against something”
“Meine Frau hintertreibt meine Bemühungen einen schönen Fußballabend zu haben, indem sie staubsaugt.” = “My wife undermines my efforts to have a nice football night by using the vacuum cleaner.”
or as an adjective: “hintertrieben”
“Meine Schwester ist ein hintertriebenes kleines Miststück.” = “My sister is a devious little bitch.”

“vorantreiben” = “to drive something further”/”to make something advance” (This does not have a completely new notion. It is just this “voran” which always has something to do with “advance”)
“Der Manager treibt das Projekt voran.” = “The manager presses ahead with the project.”

“umtreiben” = “to be plagued by something”
“Es treibt mich um, dass ich meinen Schlüssel nicht mehr finden kann.” = “It nags me that I cannot find my key.” (a really strong nagging that is)
“Ihn treiben schlechte Visionen seiner Zukunft um.” = “He is plagued by bad visions of his future.”
or as an adjective:
“umtriebig” = “active/to be on the go” (is probably closer to “rumtreiben”)
“Er ist ein sehr umtriebiger Mensch.” = “He is a very active person.”
“der Umtrieb” = “activity” (with a really negative connotation) (I don’t know. I think there should be a better word than “activity” but I can’t really find one.)
example: “Er wurde wegen gefährlicher, verbotener Umtriebe gegen die Staatsgewalt festgenommen.” = “He was arrested because he resisted arrest.” (lit: …, because of dangerous and forbidden activities against the authorities.) ;)

Maaan, this word has quite a lot of prefixes.

Aoin D
6 years ago
Reply to  person243

“activity” (with negative connotation) could be “bustle” – i.e. activity that makes a big display of “busy-ness” and energy.

6 years ago
Reply to  Aoin D

No, I don’t think this word gets the idea of “Umtrieb”. You do not have to make any noices or to move in any way for “Umtrieb”. It is about an “action” that somebody else thinks was evil, wrong, bad, outrageous. A synonym could be “Taten” = “actions/doings” but “Umtrieb” is almost like a cuss. People who say this are spitting out the word or are reflecting about something that they cannot comprehend anymore. So I think “activity” was really the wrong word here.

Aoin D
6 years ago
Reply to  person243

Collins dictionary suggests a translation for the plural “Umtriebe” as “machinations”, a word I always imagine benefiting from having the word “Machiavellian” in front of it.

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

“Zurückhaltung” seems to work better, thanks. Wir machen auf Understatement. = Wir halten uns (ein bisschen) zurück. Man setzt hier auf Understatement. = Hier hält man sich eher (ein wenig) zurück.
Are you sure that this is used like this in English? When I google for it, it only shows examples for “the understatement of the century” “that would be a huge understatement”. Ah, here: “the British understatement”(which seems to be a type of polite language speech) I see that “understatement” in English is not as strong as “Untertreibung” in German. “Understatement” in German … does it also only mean the language? “eine zurückhaltende Sprache”? To keep your tone down and try to be modest.
Yes, I think, I understand the word now. It is not about “Untertreibung” that is going on but about “Untertreibung/Zurückhaltung” in the language or what you express, what you want to say or show but won’t do because that would seem inappropriate. Right?

6 years ago

*CRASH* ——— *BANG!!!!!* ———– *CLUNK*

That Mani, is the sound an extremely heavy Penny, made up of years of not knowing how to directly interpret treiben, dropping and landing on the land of clarity.

Great post!! Thanks Mani!!!!

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Why not “übertriebener großer Penny”?

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ja, auf jeden Fall! Danke!

6 years ago

Wow. This is such a useful post. I’ve never understood how “Sport treiben”, “übertreiben”, and “Betrieb” could possibly be related, but you’ve helped a lot. The etymological underpinnings really clear up why certain roots appear in seemingly disparate words. Thank you so much!