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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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:

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

“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.

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.

“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.

“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)

for members :)

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“Lit.:” I just wanted to go outside and let myself drift.” (would that be idiomatic ?? Danke)”… it wouldn’t sound completely odd, but would make more sense if water was involved… for non-water related drifting, we might add the word ‘around’ … ‘to drift around’, like at a Flohmarkt, but even then we are more likely to say ‘to wander around’. Wonder where we get that word from? ;) Perhaps drifting is a little more aimless than wander :)


“treiben” here is not only to wander around aimlessly but also to not have a purpose or aim for that. So you would not use it at a “Flohmarkt” there is the word “schlendern” for taht(see for the Style-special “laufen”). Maybe “going with the flow” is another way to say this. Think of a 1960s activist who already has enough drugs in his bloodstream to kill a horse saying: “Peace, bro. Just go with the flow.” = “Friede, Bruder. Lass dich einfach mal treiben.”
Often you only use it in the context of thoughts: “die Gedanken treiben lassen”. Thus not thinking about anything particular but “to let one’s mind wander”, but in a relaxing and aimless way.


I thought the same thing: “drifting around” is more idiomatic. To “drift” (as in a drifter,) without the “around” is sort of like someone who by habit has no direction, no goals, no purpose all the time. It’s not quite like someone who just wants to “go with the flow” on just a particular day or so.


I think that ‘wandering’ is purposeful; we do it ourselves deliberately and actively, even if aimlessly – whereas ‘drifting’ is something that happens to us when we do nothing and allow ourselves to be passively pushed around by external forces.


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!


*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!!!!


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

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


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

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.


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


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?


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 ” ?

Judith Walters
Judith Walters

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.


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.


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!


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


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)


Danke …wieder


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..?

Judith Walters
Judith Walters

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.


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

parul patel

This is amazing.


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?