The meaning of “winken”

winken-meaningHello everyone,

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



Winken looks a lot like to wink. But that’s deceiving as this old Goethe** poem tells us.

Under the tree, I sit,
and I think:
“Winken” and “to wink”

are like red and pink.
(**: poem might not have been written by Goethe;
Goethe might have actually hated it)

What the poem is trying to tell us is this: red and pink are somewhat similar colors. Yet, a red shirt and a pink shirt are TOTALLY different things… fashion-wise. Trust me. I’m an expert.
And it’s the same with winken and to wink. They have similar ideas and yet they are completely different things translation-wise. So, today we’ll find out what winken is why it is so similar to to wink. And that’s not all. Winken comes of course complete with a bunch of prefix versions and as if that isn’t enough already there are some cool, useful related words in family. Curious yet? Moderately? Well, that’s curious enough. In we dive :)
Winken and to wink are NEVER translations for each other. But on a more abstract level they’re the about the same thing:  signalling someone.  But while winking is done with the eye, winken is done with the hand. Or a tissue. Or a fence post. The last one is more of an idiom though. Anyway, some of you might have guessed it… winken means to wave. 

  • Das Kind winkt dem Schiff.
  • The kid waves at the ship.

Winken is a bit more narrow than to wave in so far as that it doesn’t work for thing just waving by themselves. A flag waving in the wind for example. That would be flattern (very agitated) or wehen (slow movements) or something. Winken really has this focus on signalling and it’s done by people. Celebrities, police, lovers, friends, and goals. Wait, goals?
Yeah, that’s the one more abstract use. Goals and prices can also “wave” at you.

  • Den Siegern winken ein Verwöhnwochenende am Meer und eine neue Kamera.
  • Lit.: To the winners are waving a blah-weekend and a camera.
  • A weekend of relaxation at the sea and a new camera beckon to the winners.
  • Auf dem Gipfel winken dem Kletterer ein deftiger Eintopf und ein Grog.
  • On the mountain top a hearty stew and a grog are awaiting the climber.

Phrasings like these are SUPER common in brochures and flyers probably because the image is kind of cute. Just think of the stew on top of the hill waving at you like “Hey, I’m up heeeere. Come and eat me!”.
Cool, so winken is about waving at someone in order to signal something. And that idea is present in all the related words.
The prefix versions are all pretty straight forward. Zuwinken is basically just a more direct sounding version of winken.

  • Ich habe dir zugewunken
  • I waved at you
    (more idiomatic and down to earth sounding than “Ich winke dir”)

Then, there is a whole bunch of prefix versions that specify a direction that the waving communicates. Like… rüberwinken is “to signal someone by a waving gesture to cross something”, raufwinken is “to signal with a waving gesture to come up on something”. I think you get the idea.

  • Der Polizist winkt den Raser raus.
  • The police man signals the speeder to pull over.
    Lit.: The police man waves the speeder out.
  • Der Zollbeamte hat uns einfach durchgewunken.
  • The customs official just waved us through.

And last but not least, there is abwinken. Literally, it means to wave off, so it’s kind of about signalling someone to stop. In practice it’s used in a general sense of expressing disinterest or saying no, be it by actually waving or by saying “no thanks”. And there’s the very common expression bis zum Abwinken, which is a positive sounding way to say that there is more than enough of something.

  • Thomas bietet Maria etwas von seiner selbst gemachten Suppe an, aber sie winkt dankend ab.
  • Thomas offers Maria some of his homemade soup but she just passes on it.
  • Hier gibt es Bier bis zum Abwinken.
  • We have more beer than you can drink/more than enough beer.

The noun for winken is der Wink which is something between a signal and a hint. And here we meet the fence post again :)

  • “Ich suche ein Diätbuch für meine Freundin zum Geburtstag”
    “Oh… so als Wink mit dem Zaunpfahl oder was”
    “Haha, genau.”
  • “I’m looking for a diet book for my girl friend.
    “Oh, like a not so subtle hint, or what?”
    “Haha, exactly.”
    (the idiom is based on the idea that waving with a fence post is very “visible”)
  • Dass Maria die Bahn verpasst hat, war ein Wink des Schicksals. Sie ist dann nämlich gelaufen und da hat sie dann Thomas getroffen.
  • The fact that Maria missed the train was a twist of fate/ a sign of fortune. Because she decided to walk, and that’s when she met Thomas.

Both these idioms are very common and the Wink in  Wink des Schicksals we actually has some overlap with the English to wink. Like.. fate makes the train leave and then turns to Maria like  “Come on, you REALLY should walk. Who knows. There might be a surprise for you ;)”.
And that brings us to the origin of winken and the question we can ask about all false friends: Why? How the heck did it happen?
Who messed with the meaning?
It all started with the ungodly ancient Indo-European root weng and weng was about bending. The Germanic languages kept the root but they shifted the meaning toward  put at an angle/to tilt. And that’s pretty much what you do when you wave your hand. You repeatedly put it at angles. That’s how the idea of signalling came in and while German stayed with the hands, English eventually shifted to eye signals because… reasons. And bam, a new pair of false friends was born. Thanks a lot English. Well, okay, there are worse pairs, I guess.
Anyway, now before we wrap up, let’s look at two other useful German that comes from the same family. And those two are really all about the core idea of “at an angle”. The first one is der Winkel which  is the German word for angle, the second one is the verb wanken, and wanken is what you’ll do after you put a few pints “at an angle”…. waving from left to right :).

  • Thomas wankt nach hause.
  • Thomas stumbles home. (walks home waving from left to right)
  • Der Turm wankt im Wind.
  • The tower sways/teeters in the wind.
    (does teeter sound too light weight?)
  • Der Konzern gerät durch die Abgasaffaire ins Wanken.
  • The corporation starts to totter because of emission-gate.
  • 90° sind ein rechter Winkel.
  • 90° are called right angle.

Wanken is also part of the word wankelmütig which is an adjective for people who often switch their choices. And if you’re a car nerd you might have heard of the Wankel engine… but I don’t really know what that is. The word Winkel is also often used in context of (remote) corners, and there’s even the word anwinkeln which means to put at an angle or, in context of body parts, to bend.

  • Bei Gewitter versteckt sich die Katze im hintersten Winkel der Wohnung.
  • When there’s a thunder storm the cat hides in the most remote corner of the flat.
  • Maria winkelt den Arm an.
  • Maria bends her arm.

And I think that’s it for today. Hooray. This was our German Word of the Day winken. It’s NOT to wink, instead it means to wave in sense of waving at someone and it’s based on the idea of putting your hand at an angle.
As alw… what? .. oh you’re right, I keep saying that winken doesn’t mean to wink. The German word for to wink is zuzwinkern 

  • Thomas zwinkert Maria zu.
  • Thomas winks at Maria.

As always, check out the vocab for a few more words and of course if you have any questions or suggestions you can leave me a comment. I hope you liked it, see you next time and …winke winke.
(This is a very childish way to say good bye… don’t use it with colleagues, bosses or tinder dates :)

** vocab **

winken + Dat. – wave (at someone)
zuwinken + Dat. – wave at someone (more direct sounding, less literary)
rauswinken – signal to pull over
hereinwinken – signal to come in
abwinken – express disinterest/say no
bis zum Abwinken – more than enough, galore
der Wink – the hint, the signal
der Wink des Schicksals – twist of fate, wave of fortune (always used for positive twists)
Wink mit dem Zaunpfahl – an overly obvious hint

das Winkelement – official term of the former Eastern German Republic for little flag that people had to want to wave with at parades. No wonder the state didn’t last… inventing words like this :)  (here’s a picture)
die Winkekatze – Maneki-neko, waving cat, welcome cat… German has only one word for it

der Winkel – the angle, also: corner (usually for remote corners)
der Schlupfwinkel – a small retreat
der Winkelzug – the dodge, the shady move (often in context of lawyers)
spitzwinklig – acute-angled
stumpfwinklig – obtuse-angled
der Winkelmesser – goniometer, protractor
anwinkeln – bend (standard word for arms and legs)

wanken – wave from left to right (drunk people, buildings, governments, also: convictions etc)
wankelmütig – fickle, inconsistent ( lit: of a “wavy” mood)
der Wankelmotor – Wankel engine, rotary engine

flattern – flutter, wave (by itself)
wehen – blow (for wind), wave (slowly)

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