Word of the Day – “verpeilen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. And after last our intense look at auf last fart-night this time we’ll take it easy and…  Wait, I meant fortnight. Fart-night is what I had yesterday. Beans for dinner
you know.
So yeah, obviously we’ll definitely take it very easy and and have a look at a cool little word that’s 100% colloquial. So you won’t find it in newspapers and definitely not in your textbook.  Get ready for a look at



And to understand verpeilen, we’ll first look at peilen. And to understand peilen we’ll first need to look at ei. And to understand ei, we’ll first need to look at hen. And to understand hen… okay okay I’ll stop the stupid right now.
Pure, raw facts delivered at light speed from now on. Ready. Goooo

Peilen originally was seaman’s language and it is based on the noun der Pegel. Not much is known about the origin of it but we do know that it’s related to pail, a rare English word for a bucket, and that at its core, a Pegel was about   the following: “how high a liquid is“. Sounds rather specific and strange but think about,  for seamen that was actually an important thing. In shallow waters, it does matter how much water there is under the keel and on open sea it does matter how much rum there is in the barrel.
Pegel has broadened a little bit over the years but water and alcohol are still the most important contexts for it.

  • Die Stadt ist erleichtert, weil der Pegel des Flusses wieder sinkt.
  • The town is relieved because the water level or the river dropping again.
  • Der Lautstärkepegel ist zu hoch.
  • The noise level/volume is too high.
  • Dass der Alkoholpegel im Flugzeug schneller steigt, als am Boden, ist ein Märchen.
  • It’s a fairy tale that the alcohol level in the blood rises more quickly in airplanes.
  • Pegeltrinker trinken nicht um betrunken zu werden, sondern um normal zu funktionieren.
  • Delta alcoholics/level alcoholics don’t drink to get drunk but rather to function normally.

Now, the verb peilen was originally about the act of gaugeing the Pegel. But the sailors soon started using it for other measurements, too,  and over time it shifted focus a bit toward the idea of direction. There’s a nice figure of speech that captures the vibe of peilen pretty well… über den Daumen peilen. It expresses the idea of giving a rough estimate for something.

  • “Wie viel wird deine Australienreise ungefähr kosten?”
    Über den Daumen gepeilt 2000 Euro.”
  • “How much will your trip to Australia roughly cost?”
    “2000 Euro by rule of thumb/as a rough measurement.

Just think  of a sailor pinpointing the position of the ship by looking at the stars over his thumb. There’s a fair chance to get off course a bit. And that brings us to verpeilen. The ver- adds its notion of wrong to the direction-idea of peilen. and in colloquial everyday German it has come to be a very very common option for to forget.

  • Ich hab’ voll verpeilt, dass ich morgen arbeiten muss.
  • I completely forgot that I have to work tomorrow.

Wait whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? How did we get to the meaning to forget again?
Well, remember the sailor measuring the position of the ship? And originally, verpeilen simply meant to mis-measure. The step to the colloquial meaning it has today is simply to see your life as ship. And in the example above you just got it a little wrong. You thought you’re merrily sailing toward day off island when you were headed right for working bay. You’ve verpeilt (mis-calculated) your current position, if that makes sense.  That’s the underlying .. uhm… logic and that also kind of helps understand why verpeilen does NOT work for forgetting objects. Like… your phone on the table. Verpeilen only works as a translation for to forget in sense of events or stuff you’re supposed to do.

  • Ich habe verpeilt, mich nach meinem Umzug umzumelden, und jetzt muss ich Strafe zahlen.
  • I forgot to notify a change of address after I moved and now I have to pay a fine.
  • Ich verpeil’ Freitag abend immer, meinen Wecker für’s Wochenende auszumachen.
  • I always forget Friday night to turn off my alarm for the weekend.

But the related words are commonly used to express the idea of a general forgetfulness or certain mental confusion.

  • Der Physik-Professor ist so verpeilt, er verwechselt ständig Einstein und Bohr.
  • The physics professor is so out of it/dopey, he always confused Einstein and Bohr.
  • “Thomas ist heute mega verpeilt.”
    “Ja, gestern war Whisky Tasting.”
    “Oh, verstehe.”
  • “Thomas is really confsued/out of it today.”
    “Yeah, there was a Whisky tasting yesterday.”
    “Oh, I see.”
  • Ich bin so ein Verpeiler, ey.
  • I’m sooo forgetful/such an idiot (small scale stuff).

All these phrasings are super common in daily life among all age groups pretty much and you should definitely add them to your active vocabulary. So next time you forget something or you’re just a little confused, try and use verpeilen. Your friends will be really impressed :)

A few more words on peilen before we wrap up. The verb isn’t used much at all, but there are a couple of things worth noting.
First of, peilen can be used as a slangy alternative for to understand. It’s by no means as mainstream as verpeilen though.

  • Ich hasse Mathe – ich peil das einfach nicht.
  • I hate math – I just don’t understand it.

And then, there’s the prefix version anpeilen, which expresses the idea of to (roughly) shoot for/aim for something. 

  • Das Startup peilt den Sommer für die Veröffentlichung der App an.
  • The startup sets their sights on/aims at summer for the release of the app.
  • Die Partei hat das angepeilte Ergebnis verpasst.
  • The party missed the result they had set their sights on. (lit.: “the targeted result”)

And that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of verpeilen which went from a noun that was about the very important question of how high a liquid is into German colloquial mainstream.
As always, if you have any questions or if you want to try out some examples with verpeilen, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Btw: there’s a verb picheln which also comes from der Pegel and which is a slang verb for drinking alcohol. Can you make the connection :)?

** vocab ** 

der Pegel – the level of liquid, also: level of blood alcohol
der Pegeltrinker – the delta alcoholic
der Schallpegel – the volume (of sound, technical)

anpeilen – aim for
verpeilen – to forget (events, stuff you need to do, NOT objects)
der Verpeiler – person who is forgetful, confused
verpeilt – confused, out of it (not in a serious sense)


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