German Prefix Verbs Explained – “zufallen”

zufallen-zufall-meaning-ranHello everyone,

and welcome to another episode of Prefix Verbs Explained. This time we’ll have a look at the meaning of



Fallen means to fall. And zu has two notions in store to add to that: toward-ness and closed-ness. Seems a bit random a couple but those two ideas are actually connected. How? Well, toward-ness was there first, just like in English to, but then the old Germans started using zu in context of moving a door – toward the frame. Until it’s so close to it, it’s closed. Yep, I know that sounds silly but that’s really how zu got that idea of closed.
And doors are actually the perfect context for the zufallen.

Zufallen is what a door does when closes quickly by itself. You know… you’re asking the hot new neighbor for some salt (and flirt like hell) and bam. You’re locked out. Door – best wing man ever.
Besides doors, this zufallen also works for windows and it is super common for eyes in sense of being really tired.

  • Mir ist die Tür zugefallen. Wie krieg ich die ohne Schlüssel wieder auf?
  • My door snapped shut while I was outside. How to open it without a key?
  • Obwohl mir schon die Augen zufallen, gucke ich noch eine Folge.
  • Although I can barely keep my eyes open, I watch another episode.

Coo.. So this was zufallen with the closed-zu. Now let’s get to the one with the toward-zu.
Zufallen, literally “falling toward”, expresses the idea that something is coming to you or upon you. Not for rain, but for abstract things like tasks, work, knowledge or skill.

  • Thomas hatte nie Probleme in der Schule. Ihm ist alles zugefallen.
  • Thomas never had problem in school. Things just came to him naturally.
  • Maria ist die unangenehme Aufgabe zugefallen, den Kühlschrank im Pausenraum sauberzumachen.
  • The task of cleaning the break room fridge fell to Maria.

Now, the fallen gives the whole thing a slight vibe of a force of nature or fate or an accident. And this that is especially present in the noun der Zufall, which is much much more common than the verb itself. Der Zufall is the German word for coincidence. And as different as these two words may look – they are almost the same thing. Coincidence is a prefixed version of the Latin cidere. Cidere is just a form of cadere and that meant… to fall. Tadah. And coincidenceZufall is not the only pair where that shows. An accident is der Unfall, an incident which is der Vorfall and decay which is der Verfall. Oh, and not to forget the word case which in German is der Fall. What a bunch of coincidences :)

  • Was für ein Zufall.
  • What a coincidence.

Now, Zufall is actually much broader and hence more common than coincidence. People basically use it whenever there’s an element of random.
Let’s look at some examples.

  • Ich überlass das dem Zufall.
  • I’ll leave that to chance.

Oh and guess where chance comes from… exactly. Cadere, the Latin to fall. Anyway, back to the examples.

  • Wer Protokoll schreibt wird nach dem Zufallsprinzip ermittelt.
  • Who has to take the minutes is determined by the random principle. /is assigned at random.
  • Ich hatte 5 von 7 Adjektivendungen richtig, aber das waren alles Zufallstreffer.
  • I had 5 out of 7 adjective endings correct but those were all lucky guesses.
  • Thomas stellt seinen MP3-player auf zufällige Wiedergabe.
  • Thomas sets his MP3-player to shuffle (lit.:” random rendition”)
  • Hallo, ich komme aus der Zukunft. Ihr habt nicht zufällig ein iTimeMachine-Ladekabel, oder?
  • Hi, I’m from the future. You guys don’t happen to have an iTimeMachine charger (lead), do you?
  • Wissen Sie zufällig, ob der Bus schon weg ist?
  • Do you (happen to) know (by any chance) if the bus has already left?

Now, as useful and common as zufällig is (and it is really useful and really common), there’s one thing we need to make clear:


It can express the idea of random, yes; it is used in contexts where you’d use random, yes. But it is not gonna be a translation for it.

  • I met that random guy at that random coffee shop I randomly went to.

I can’t stress it enough… don’t use zufällig here. It makes little sense and doesn’t sound idiomatic at all. So what to use instead? Well, the truth is: German does NOT have a good translation for this colloquial random. It’s simply missing. And isn’t a good work around either. If you ask me to translate this:

  • Damn, that Zebra-example was sooo random.

here’s what I’d say:

  • .

That’s right. Nothing. I do not know how to express that in German. Well, okay… maybe something like the kitten was cool or something.
Anyway… even though they’re not as common as random, zufällig and Zufall are really useful and you should take them into your active vocabulary.
And because balance is always important, let’s now look at something that’s …. uh… not all that useful

The r-version

The r-version of zufallen is rzufallen. But the u and the a are silent so you should pronounce it rzfllen. To pronounce this you just need to pull back your tongue while turning it twic… okay, of course that’s nonsense. There is no r-version for zufallen because there never is one for a zu-verb. Sometimes there’s a generic hinzu-version (or a dazu-version) that has its place and use but not really for zufallen. Technically, it exists …

  • Ein Apfel fällt auf den Boden. Ein zweiter Apfel fällt hinzu/dazu.
  • An apple falls to the ground. A second one falls next to it/joins it.

… but it’s not something you need to remember so here’s your countdown to forgetting it…
2 …
Wait, why were we just counting down?

Anyway, that’s it for today. This was our look at the meaning of zufallen and the real takeaway is the word Zufall and zufällig which are about chance, coincidence and randomness. And which are NOT translations for random :).
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

** zufallen – fact sheet **

– snap closed, close itself (doors, window, eyes)
– to fall to somebody

Die Tür fällt zu.
Klavierspielen fällt mir (Dative) zu.

spoken past:
form of “sein” + zugefallen

written past:
fiel zu/ zufiel

related words:
der Zufall – the coincidence
zufällig – by chance, at random

useful phrasings:
Was für ein Zufall – What a coincidence.
Komischer Zufall – strange coincidence
Hast/kannst/weisst… du zufällig…. ? – Do you happen to… ?

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6 years ago

Lucky accident=glucklich zufall ? Ist das korrekt?

6 years ago

In the American south they say all kinds of weird stuff…. like “put up” for “to put something away.” I haven’t heard “pull the door to”, though, maybe because I’m from so far south it’s not the south anymore (oh, Florida, nobody wants you). says “random sampling” is “Stitchprobenziehung” (and “at random” is “stitchprobenartig”), but for a lot of other mathematical related “random ____” it’s “Zufalls_____” (Zufallszahlengenerator, Zufallsfehler, Zufallsabweichung….)…. actually, “Stich” might be an interesting word to go over, it looks like it’s all over the place.

6 years ago

Hi German-is-easy :) Zuerst vielen Dank für die Unterrichte, absolut die Interessantesten zum Deutschlernen! Ich habe mich nur gefragt, ob es bei Ihnen gut ankommen könnte, zwischendurch Ihre Erklärungen komplett auf Deutsch zu schreiben… Je mehr Deutsch man liest, umso schneller erwirbt man diese Sprache – Bei meinem Lieblingsblog wird das besonders der Fall sein, glaube ich :)

6 years ago

In the American South, at least where I come from, people definitely do say “pull the door to”. I’ve heard this and used it all my life.

6 years ago

What about the literal sense of random in statistics/science? Eg ‘a random sample’.

Can you use zufaellig for that?

6 years ago

With regards to use of the word ‘random’ in common American English. I think it has taken on a lot of meanings that don’t have to do with the idea of chance, at least as much. When working with the sentences that you said wouldn’t translate well from English to German it would probably work best to use the different meanings of random that the words have taken on.

For example:
I met that random guy at that random coffee shop I randomly went to.

All the randoms in this sentence do have a vague sense of chance however I think they are more aptly expanded to mean

I met a new guy at that one coffee shop that I on a whim went to.

This usage of random is really common in American English and shouldn’t be hard to translate…
It really just means odd, out-of-place and for a connection of random ‘coincidental’ I think fits.

Damn, that Zebra-example was sooo random.

Damn, that Zebra-example was sooo out of place.

Finally random is also just a colloquial expression to mean wild/spastic when referring to behavior. My vocabulary
and German knowledge isn’t terribly expansive so I haven’t bothered to try and find good translations for these, but I hope
this explains the English usage better and helps to find an apt translation.

6 years ago

I met that random guy at that random coffee shop I randomly went to.
Ich geh so in so’n Coffeshop und treff da so’n Typ. (teenie talk is always in the prensent tense)

6 years ago

Mein wortbuch zeigt wahllos…aber das hat ein negativ konnotanion (had no choice?) als ein Wahl fur “random”…i suppose it dépends because in the deutchland /frankreich grenzen (Luxembourg or alsacien) deutch people accept the french ‘hazard” as a choise for random…aber ich bin nicht sicher.. Danke viel Emmanuel

6 years ago

Kannst du mir zufällig erklären, was der Unterschied zwischen Vorfall und Zwischenfall ist?

6 years ago

I met that random guy at that random coffee shop I randomly went to. = Ich habe diesen Typen da bei diesem Coffeeshop da so getroffen, an dem ich da so vorbeigekommen bin.

I think “da” or “da so” get about the idea here. In the other example: Damn, that Zebra-example was sooo random. = Das Zebra-Beispiel war so verdammt sinnlos.

That probably does not work everywhere and the “da (so)” is really bad German, I think. But I felt complied to finding translations. What do you think? When I was a child we also used the English “random” at school. But that might be outdated or an insider.

6 years ago
Reply to  person243


6 years ago

I realize the more slangy uses of “random” don’t have any workable translation in German, but are there any good workarounds for some of the more literal ways it’s used? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard “nach dem Zufallsprinzip” in real life – is that actually a relatively normal way to talk about choosing something at random? It sounds pretty stiff/technical to my ear.

The other thing I’m wondering about is “random question” – again a pretty colloquial use of “random” – meaning, “I have a question unrelated to anything we’ve just been talking about,” that sort of thing. Is there any way to express that sort of disclaimer?

6 years ago
Reply to  berlingrabers

If it is about mathematics, we use “Wahrscheinlichkeit” = “probability”. If you think about RPG and a random encounter, I would not say “Zufallsbegegnung” or “zufällige Begegnung” that is more for a chance meeting with a real person. Maybe “spontanes Auftauchen” = “spontanous appearance”? For a random decision, the phrase: “Lasst den Zufall entscheiden.”/”Der Zufall soll entscheiden.” = “Let fortune decide.”/”Fortune shell decide.” The other sentence: “Das entscheiden wir per Zufallsprinzip.” is also okay, but I don’t think it is often used. “per Zufall entscheiden” is maybe better.

For the random question, I would just say: “Frage!” or “Kurze Frage!” or “(Kurze) Zwischenfrage!”. Other ways are: “Übrigens” = By the way” and “Nur mal so am Rande.” = “Only as a comment.”

6 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Well, just really what person243 was taking a crack at… Choosing something at random is mostly what I had in mind. Like, say I’m standing in front of a bookshelf, and I’d like to read something, but I’ve never heard of any of the authors or books before, so I just pick one at random and start reading.

There it’s less about a mathematical probability/chance principle than about making a choice when you don’t have any real reasons to choose one thing over the other. How would you translate “I chose a book at random and started reading”?

I think that’s really the only use I was actually thinking of. “Zufall” and related words (or “Wahrscheinlichkeit” in mathematics) seem like they’d cover anything else that’s not slang, even though there might not be a one-to-one translation.

Fred Nel
Fred Nel
6 years ago

“pull the door to” exists in the English language, and an expression that is a little old fashioned. Possibly regional in England.

Aoin D
6 years ago

“Pull it to” – if it is not necessary or possible for the door to be completely shut and latched.

6 years ago

Using ‘to’ does make sense in the closing door version, as I would also definitely say ”pull the door to” in english! Although this is more like nearly closing the door rather than fully closing it.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jason

Interesting, as I also understand the “to” idea behind zufallen, but I would never say “pull the door to”. Maybe it is a regional thing?

6 years ago
Reply to  DantesDame

Same here. I understand it but wouldn’t use it (American).

6 years ago
Reply to  DantesDame

I would certainly say I hear/use it often. I guess it could be regional (Midlands – England)? Usually it’s in cases where you want to stop something getting in or out (e.g. noise/the cold or warm). Can’t count the amount of times my nan asks me to ‘pull the door to’ if there’s a fire going and she doesn’t want to let the heat out!

6 years ago
Reply to  Jason

I’m from the south-east and have no problem with “push/pull/put the door to” (meaning “make it nearly closed”, as others have said). It does seem to be only used with doors and windows – perhaps because they are the only things that one frequently wants to not quite close.