The meaning of “unheimlich”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: December 25, 2022

unheimlichHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day, and this time we will have a look at the meaning of:



Inspector Awesome was badly hungover. And that was well deserved. “One coffee please… and make it strong.” he said to the guy at the counter. “Do you mean just like a coffee or a Latte?” the guy asked. Inspector Awesome wanted to puke. ‘I’ll Latte your face, you hipster serving jerk’, he thought but he had enough composure to not show his contempt. “Just coffee, no milk thank you.”
Back in his office he sat down at his desk and started his daily routine of staring out the window. It was good coffee. He hadn’t had work in a while and slowly his savings were eaten up. ‘I need a job and I need one fast’ he thought, as he spotted the little paper on the floor. Someone must have slipped it under the door. Whoever had written this, he or she sure had a nice handwriting. Hoping for it to be a she, Awesome started to read… 

“They say you’re the best. Prove it! Find out what this means.
Heimlich nachts in der Kirche sein ist unheimlich unheimlich.
It may or may not be German
It will be well worth your time if you succeed. But if not… … …!”

That was not exactly the job offer the inspector was waiting for but then again people have always had a tendency to deliver their assignments in weird ways.  After all, this would at least give him something to do so why the hell not.
He wrote ‘Ok.’ on the flip-side and then opened his door to throw it back into the hallway. And for a moment he felt like he was not alone there… maybe it was just his pounding headache.

Inspector Awesome had no idea what the phrase on that note was supposed to mean. He himself spoke 2 languages: English and Fist and so far he had been able to communicate his needs alright. But it shouldn’t be too much of a deal. As far as he knew, all languages originated from English so he just had to find the common roots.
And so he went to a place he hadn’t visited in a while… the library. After a couple of hours of being there and approximately 10 minutes of concentrated reading he had found out 2 things. The language on the note was indeed German and the very core of unheimlich was the word das Heim. Inspector Awesome started to take some joy in this case despite the fact that he had to… read.
Das Heim apparently had been derived of the English word home but the stupid Germans were not able to comprehend the full scope of home. So there were lots of situations where the English home does NOT translate to the German Heim but to something else… for example something  hause. Awesome hoped for someone to explain the difference between house and home to them at some point. As a matter of fact, Heim seemed to be part of a compound noun most of the time.

  • Ich gehe heim.
  • I am going home.
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  • Auf der Heimfahrt habe ich geschlafen.
  • On the journey home I slept.
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  • Die Mannschaft hat Heimvorteil.
  • The team has home advantage.
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  •  Meine Oma ist im Altenheim.
  • My grandma is in the old peoples home.
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Inspector Awesome tried to find a rule when Heim is appropriate but he couldn’t find any. All he came to realize was that it was strongly dependent on the region. In Berlin people go nach Hause and they are zu Hause  but somewhere else in Germany they go Heim and they are Daheim. But that didn’t matter after all. The core idea of Heim was home.

was kind of interesting. It seemed to be a weird, deformed English –ly but  those dumb Germans didn’t get  this one right either. Instead of having some logic behind it they just randomly slap it to words . Adding -lich to a noun seemed to make that noun an adjective with the meaning like that thing. For example menschlich means human(ly) or sächlich means like a thing, a really funny way to say neuter. So with that logic applied the word  heimlich should be homelike… but this much inspector Awesome had learned already about German… it is not logical at all and you’re always in for a let down. This one was especially frustrating. German also had the words heimelig and heimisch. The former means homelike or cozy and it is not used very much and the latter means at home in the context of feelings or origin.

  • Das Hotelzimmer war sehr heimelig.
  • The hotel room was very cozy.
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  • Ich fühle mich in Paris sehr heimisch.
  • I feel very “at home” in Paris.
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Heimlich however, though of course related to those words, has shifted in meaning. Based on what Inspector Awesome had read on the Web, this shift occurred around the time when the famous Frederic Curtain, after having spilled a bucket of water, hang up his carpet in front of his windows to dry. This invention soon spread and peoples home has become a private secluded space. Inspector Awesome could relate. He too did a lot of things at home he wouldn’t do in public… like walking around naked, burping openly or dance to 80s music.
So what one does at home behind the so called “Curtain’s” is mostly unknown to other people unless they are with you or you tell them… to your colleagues at work it is a secret. And this was very meaning of heimlich …  (in) secret or secretly  and people don’t associate home with it unless they consciously think about it.

  •  Thomas trifft sich heimlich mit Sarah.
  • Thomas secretly meets with Sarah.
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  • Mein heimlicher Lieblingsfilm ist ein bisschen peinlich.
  • My secret favorite movie is a little embarrassing.
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  • Der kleine John liest heimlich unter der Decke ein Comic.
  • The little John secretly reads a comic book under the blankets.
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The inspector looked at the note.“Heimlich nachts in der Kirche sein ist unheimlich unheimlich.” Based on his investigation so far the first part was “Secretly … night …  church something something something.”  Awesome was content. He had progressed way faster than he had expected… by being in the library.

Now he needed some fresh air to think. It had already gotten dark. The heat of the day was still trapped in the buildings so it was not too cold. Inspector Awesome bought himself another coffee and started to wander around, his body through the slowly street canyons and parks, his mind through the land of language.
Now all that was missing to unheimlich was the prefix un. English has that too, so there is a good chance that German just copied it. With the limited vocabulary he had, inspector Awesome tried out some combinations to verify his theory that un basically means not. Ungesund is unhealthy, unwise is unklug, unrealistic is unrealistisch and unsexy is unsexy. It really seemed to be the same and unheimlich would be not in secret. But was it really? Secretly… night … church… not in secret not in secret… that just didn’t make sense. But the coffee had made him wide awake and creative. The Inspector decided to forget about heimlich for a second and go back to the beginning …home… home plus like plus not. Secretly … night … church … not like home not like home. That still seemed weird but not as contradictory. Being at a church does mean that you are not at home after all. And maybe Germans say it twice because they have no word for very or totally. So just as a wild guess it could be “Secretly being at church at night is totally not being at home.” That had some sense.
But still… something just didn’t add up.  This was just a stupid sentence. Why would anybody bother to even utter such a thing. Maybe he had overlooked something. He stopped and sat down on a bench in the little park he was in. It was unusually quiet, so quiet, that Inspector Awesome could hear the sizzling noise of his burning cigarette. A cloud veiled the moon and if not for the faint yellow light of a street lamp the park would have been pitch black. Inspector Awesome took another drag on his cigarette… sizzzzzzle… an owls howl disrupted the silence. ‘Now this really is not a place like home,’ the Inspector thought and then it struck him… THAT was the meaning. An eerie, uncanny somewhat creepy place like this one was not how you want your home to be, not homelike –  unheimlich. 

Inspector Awesome was happy. He hurried back to his office, ran up the 7 flights of stairs ready to write everything down when he saw the person… someone in a large dark coat  waiting in front of the door. Awesome reached for his gun, but then he realized it was a woman. And a pretty one at that. Awesome tried to hide his out-of-breathness. “Well good evening …” he said. The lady, she was probably about 35 years old, look at him surprised. “I am your … client,” she said.
Her voice was dark, full and yet very tender. It was the kind of voice, Awesome would have liked to say good morning to him.
“What is your name lady?” Awesome asked. She looked right into his eyes and said “Would it satisfy you to know that it is something like Lisa Lascious … detective?”
“That is ALL I need to know.” he said.
“So hon’… did you find out what I want to know?” she asked.
The inspector told her everything he had found out and ended his narration with a cool “… so yeah… piece o’ cake ‘mam. Unheimlich means uncanny or creepy.”
“You did indeed find out a lot… but what about the other meaning?” she said and gave him a look that made him feel like a little boy.
“What … what other meaning? ” he asked.
“Well then I will tell you… used as an adjective unheimlich does mean creepy or uncanny but German also use it as an adverb….”
“Ad-what?” Awesome asked. He really had had enough jargon for that day and wanted her to speak English. She looked slightly amused and continued her explanation.
“Forget adverb then… Germans use unheimlich in a different way too. It works pretty much like our very or so or incredibly. For example..

  • The car is going really fast.
  • Das Auto fährt unheimlich schnell.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Film war unheimlich schlecht.
  • The movie was incredibly bad.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop


  • You are incredibly masculine.
  • Du bist unheimlich männlich.
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So…unheimlich is basically just to underline a statement.” the lady said.
“Ok… well that doesn’t make any sense to me. Why are they using this word for that?” Awesome asked.
“Oh detective, now you are disappointing me. It does make sense in 2 ways. You could argue that Germans really are creeped out a bit by a bad movie or a fast car or a masculine man like … you. That theory would give the literal translation

  • The movie was uncannily bad.

But you could also see unheimlich as the opposite of heimlich. The movie was bad and that was very overt and obvious – anything but a secret. The literal translation in that case would be:

  • The movie was ‘unsecretly’ /obviously bad.

Either way it is not so far away from a mere emphasizing very, don’t you think inspector?”
Inspector Awesome was confused. A part of him was incredibly bored by all that talk about language, but another part found it kind of sexy to have a womanly  woman like that  explain grammar and etymology to him while her eyes were telling a completely different story. He couldn’t think of a clever response so he just said: “Yes… ‘mam… ”
She came closer so he could smell her perfume… vanilla, just what he liked best.
“So the sentence I gave you, inspector… what does it mean? Tell me.”
She was right in front of him now. He couldn’t think straight anymore. Desperately he tried to remember the words of that stupid phrase, but she was impatient.
“It’s ok sweety, I guess I’ll just tell you…

  •  Heimlich nachts in der Kirche sein ist unheimlich unheimlich.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop


  • Secretly being in church at night is really creepy.” she said.

Awesome didn’t really care anymore; the salacious sound of her voice, her scent, her body right under her coat.
“You failed, inspector.” she said with a sudden harsh tone. “You failed!… but, you have failed sexily… DO ME inspector!”  She kissed him passionately and pushed him towards the office door. “Do me…!” They entered, her coat dropped on the floor revealing a perfect body in nothing but underwear. “Do me…!” she said again as she pushed him toward the table…
It took him a while to realize where he was, but then it all came back to him. He was in the library studying for the important German test the next day when he must have fallen asleep. What a crazy dream.
“Do me a favor young man and wake up… !”. The old library lady looked at him with concern.
“Oh… uh… It’s ok… I .. I’m awake.” he mumbled.
“Thank god… you were so passed out, it was even a bit unheimlich. I was about to call a doctor.” she was obviously relieved.
“Oh no don’t worry… I just was unheimlich tired ‘mam. Sorry if I scared you. Are you closing?”
“Yes, it is past midnight already.” she said.
So Jim went home and although he hadn’t learned quite enough he knew one word for sure – unheimlich and he was certain, he would never forget it.

So… this was our Word of the Day. Thanks to Jan, who suggested this word in a comment.
Questions? Comment! Suggestions? Comment!  I am out for today :).
I really hope you liked it and see you next time.

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