Word of the Day – “das Zeug”

zeuge-meaning-germanHello everyone,

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

das Zeug


I’m pretty sure most of you have seen this word – as a part of the word Flugzeug. Flugzeug means plane and the literal translation is… flight stuff.
When they find that out, many people go like “Wow, that’s so funny. Stuff to fly with. German is hilarious.”
But when you think about it, you gotta ask yourself … really?! Like… is that really possible? Were the engineers back in the day really like,

“Yeah, this miracle here, a machine to fly with. What should we call it?”
“Flight … uh… stuff. Flightstuff.”
“Yeah, that’s great!”

Well, today, we’ll find out how the name came about. And not only that. We’ll also learn what other Zeug there is and I can promise you… it’ll be surprising stuff. So … are you ready to take a look at the surprising, fascinating world of Zeug?

Today, Zeug by itself really does mean stuff.  It works best for tangible stuff but it’s not limited to that so you can find it used for abstract stuff, too.

  • Ich hab’ mir heute was gekauft, womit ich den Herd saubermachen kann…  echt aggressives Zeug.
  • Today, I bought something that’ll help me clean the stove… really aggressive stuff.
  • Billiger Kaffee schmeckt oft genauso gut wie teures Zeug.
  • Cheap coffee often tastes just as good as the expensive stuff.
  • Wenn Thomas richtig nervös ist, fängt er an, wirres Zeug zu brabbeln.
  • When Thomas gets really nervous he starts to blabber incoherent/crazy stuff.

Zeug has a tendency to sounding a little disrespectful. Or at least devaluating… more so than stuff, I’d say.

  • Maria hat so viele Geschenke bekommen… sie weiß gar nicht wohin mit dem ganzen Zeug.
  • Maria got so many presents… she doesn’t know where to put all that stuff.
    (sounds a little dismissive of all the cool presents she got)
  • “Willst du auch Salat.”
    “Nee, geh weg mit dem Grünzeug.”
  • “Do you want salad, as well.”
    “No, go away with that green stuff.
  • Räum dein Zeug weg.
  • Put your stuff away.

I feel like “stuff” in these examples is mainly used for the lack of a better word. Zeug on the other hand, in these examples anyway, borders on crap.

Now, looking at this negative tone, the word Flugzeug is even stranger. Flight crap. I mean… sure, travelling with EasyJet and Ryan-Air isn’t exactly a Spa experience, but overall they’re pretty reliable pieces of technology, right?
The solution to Flugzeug and all the other Zeugs we’re about to see lies in the original meaning of the word.

Zeug wasn’t always just stuff.  And it’s actually part of a very, very well known family…. the ziehen-family…. ziehen, Zug, Zeug. Quite obvious.
Now you’re all like “Wait, ziehen means to pull. What the hell???”
Well, the original meaning of Zeug was kind of like this:

thing you “pull to you” to do something

And people basically used “pulling something to you” to mean to use. Maybe think of Zeug as “the (thing) drawn upon”, if that helps you make a connection.
So…  a Zeug was basically a thing you use for a task, a tool. A Flugzeug is flight tool. And there are many many more words like that.  A Werkzeug (“work tool”) is a tool, a Fahrzeug (“fare tool”) is a vehicle, a Spielzeug (“play tool”) is a toy and a Feuerzeug (“fire tool”) is a lighter. Actually, lighter is a great one to remember the connection to ziehen… the lighter is what you PULL out of your pocket when you need fire.
Now, Zeug as a stand-alone word has for the most part lost that whole tool-notion, but there are a few nice expressions where it’s still alive.

  • Thomas hat das Zeug zum Unternehmer.
  • Thomas has what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
  • Das Team hat sich für das Projekt echt ins Zeug gelegt.
  • The team really buckled down/hustled for that project.

The second one is probably based on the idea of getting ready for battle by putting on armor. Because armor and weapons where also called Zeug 200 years ago.
Yeah… it was used for a lot of stuff. That’s probably why it ended up meaning stuff :).
Anyway,  the idea of “thing drawn upon for a task” was the core idea of Zeug for more than 1200 years. Enough time to grow out some new words; small blossoms at first, but soon solid branches of meaning.
“Emanuel, blossoms don’t grow into branches, they grow into flowers.”
Oh… uh… whatever.

“zeug” – the creator

Suppose you want to do something and you need a Zeug (tool) for it – what do you do? You get it from somewhere. This was the idea of the verb zeugen. “Getting what you need to get the job done”.
Now, what if the thing people needed didn’t exist yet? Like… imagine there’s an evil dragon pillaging your village and to kill it you need a magical sword. But there’s none to be found. Not even on Amazon Prime. You’ll then go to the smith and the sorcerer and tell them to create one ASAP.
Yeah, stupid story, I know. The whole point is that zeugen slowly took on the meaning of producing, making, creating and this idea is still alive today.
The verb zeugen itself has narrowed down quite a bit, though and is only used in sense of creating one thing…. life, babies.

  • Im Dezember werden die meisten Kinder gezeugt.
  • December is the month in which the most babies are “made”/conceived.
  • Wird man durch Selbstbefriedigung wirklich zeugungsunfähig?
  • Can you really become impotent from masturbation?

But there’s also erzeugen and this is much more broad and common and means to create, to produce. 

  • Biogasanlagen erzeugen Strom aus Scheiße.
  • Bio gas plants create energy from shit.
  • Die extrem einfache, trockene Sprache des Autors erzeugt eine ganz eigene Spannung.
  • The very simple, dry language of the writer creates a very unique suspense.
  • Lärm erzeugt Stress.
  • Noise leads to/creates stress.

As you can see, erzeugen is used for more abstract creations or products. Anything pretty much, except pieces of art. It’s not “creative” enough for that.
In context of machines and factories, herstellen or produzieren are usually the better words.  But the noun das Erzeugnis also works for factory products.

  • Ein Produkt, dass in Deutschland hergestellt wurde, darf die Bezeichnung “Deutsches Erzeugnis” tragen.
  • A product that has been manufactured in Germany may carry the label “product of Germany“.
  • “Hey, was heißt denn das Kürzel auf deinem T-Shirt?”
    “MilchErzV? Oh, das steht für Milcherzeugnisverordnung.”
    “Oh. Bist du ein Hipster?”
  • “Hey, what does the abbreviation on your t-shirt stand for?”
    MilchErzV? Oh, that stands for the German word for dairy product regulations.”
    “Oh. Are you a Hipster?”

Milcherzeugnisverordnung….. man,  legal German. That’s where the real compounds dwell. And if words like this make you tired, you better get a big mug of coffee because one of the main uses for the next idea of zeug is … at court.

“zeug” – the witness

Some thousand or so years ago in a village somewhere, Thoralf the farmer had an inkling that his neighbor secretly let his sheep graze on Thoralf’s land. But he needed proof.
So he thinks of a ruse; he puts a bit of coal dust on the part of the field next to his neighbor’s land.
A few days later, the grass on Thoralf’s land is again magically a bit shorter, he complains to the village counsel. Of course, the neighbor denies the allegation. Lush as his land is, he says, he doesn’t need anyone else’s. A good point, the counsel members say.
But Thoralf explains what he did and asks that a sheep be brought in. And when the people saw that there was coal on its hoof, they know Thoralf  was telling the truth.

Now you’re like “What the hell does that stuff have to do with Zeug?”.
Well, we’ve learned that the very core idea of Zeug was “something you “pull” or use as a means to an end”.
Well, in our story needs a “tool” to prove his story. A piece of evidence. And back a thousand years ago, Zeug could mean just that. A tool to prove your story. 
Now,  today Zeug does NOT mean proof anymore. But the idea is still alive in the related words.
For starters, there’s the verb zeugen. Yes, again. Zeugen von means to give evidence, to bear witness.

  • Das Fehlen eines Salzstreuers auf den Tischen zeugt von großem Selbstvertrauen des Kochs.
  • The absence of a salt dispenser on the tables testifies to/ is a sign of a great self-confidence on part of the chef.

This zeugen is kind of fancy sounding, though.
The more dry and more common version is bezeugen.

  • “Wer hat den Kaffee alle gemacht? Thomas, du schon wieder???”
    “Nee, diesmal nicht. Ich war den ganzen Vormittag nicht einmal in der Kaffeeküche. Melanie kann das bezeugen.
  • “Who finished the coffee? Thomas, was it you again???”
    “No, not this time. I haven’t been in the kitchen once all morning. Melanie can testify/bear witness.

Note that bezeugen always needs an object. So you have to bezeugen something. It’s not the general to testify in front of a court and it is also not to witness in the sense of seeing something. For that, you’d say to be a witness which brings us right to our next word: der Zeuge – the witness. In the original sense of someone you “pull” to court.

  • Ich war’s nicht. Ich habe Zeugen.
  • It wasn’t me. I have witnesses.
  • Laut Augenzeugenberichten hat das Einhorn auf den Autobahnrastplatz uriniert bevor es in den Wald verschwand.
  • According to eye witness reports the unicorn urinated on the parking lot of the highway rest area before disappearing into the forest.

Then, there’s the noun das Zeugnis, which is something that bears witness to something – a testimony or certificate. The most common use is within the context of school: the paper with your grades.

  • Maria hat ihr Abschlusszeugnis verloren.
  • Maria has lost her leaving certificate/diploma.
  • Weil morgen Zeugnisausgabe ist, macht der kleine Tim freiwillig den Abwasch, bringt den Müll raus und hängt die Wäsche auf.
  • Because students are getting their school certificates/report cards tomorrw, little Tim voluntarily does the dishes and brings out the trash and hangs up the laundry. (lit.: “issuing of report cards”)

And last but not least, we have the verb überzeugen which is what evidence usually does: to convince.

  • Thomas hat mich überzeugt, Deutsch zu lernen.
  • Thomas has convinced me to learn German.
  • Der Schauspieler ist in der Rolle sehr überzeugend.
  • The actor is very convincing in the role/plays the role very convincingly.
  • I’m sure you can do it.
  • Ich bin überzeugt, dass du das schaffst.
  • Marias Chef ist sehr von ihr überzeugt.
  • Maria’s boss is very fond of her.
  • Nein, das geht gegen meine Überzeugung.
  • No, that goes against my conviction.

And you know what’s really cool? Überzeugen actually brings us full circle, back to the beginning and the idea of pulling. Because… when you convince someone, you pull them over to your side :).

And since we’re back to where we started that means we’ve finished our tour. This was our look at the meaning of das Zeug and the long list of vocab below really bears witness to the usefulness of the family.
What would be really, really awesome now would be a crisp recap to sum up all the crazy ideas so… if you find one somewhere let me know and I’ll put it here ;).
Yeah… I’m an ass, sometimes.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions about what we’ve learned today, or if you want to try out some examples, leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it, and see you next time.

** vocab **

das Zeug – the stuff (bias toward tangible stuff, slightly dismissive)
das Grünzeug – salad, leafy greens (often but not always dismissive)
das Knabberzeug – nuts and crackers and stuff like that (affectionate)

das Werkzeug – the tool
das Spielzeug – the toy
das Flugzeug – the plane
das Fahrzeug – the vehicle
das Feuerzeug – the lighter
das Nähzeug – the sewing kit
das Flickzeug – the patch kit (for bikes)
das Bettzeug – the sheets
das Dreckszeug – crap
das Teufelszeug – witches’ brew (for liquor), infernal stuff

zeugen – to make babies
zeugungsfähig – fertile, procreative (only in a biological sense!)
erzeugen – produce, create (not for art)
der Erzeuger – super technical, detached sounding term for biological father
das Erzeugnis – product

der (Augen)Zeuge/die Zeugin – the (eye)witness
zeugen von – testify to/be a sign of
etwas bezeugen – testify to, bear witness to
das Zeugnis – the certificate, the grades (at the end of a school year), rare also: testimony
überzeugen – to convince
überzeugt – convinced, also: sure, fond
überzeugend – convincing(ly)
die Überzeugung – conviction (NOT in sense of law), believes
aus Überzeugung -out of conviction


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