Word of the Day – “zwingen”

Hello everyone,

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

zwingen

Imagine a day in late spring. Sunny, balmy, a slight gentle breeze, the birds are singing. And all your friends including your new crush are going to have a BBQ at the lake at which your favorite band will play at sunset. For free. But… you have like the most important paper ever to hand in the next day and so far you’ve done:
nothing.
That’s when it’s time for zwingen.
And no, it does not mean “to screw the paper”. …

Zwingen is about making someone do something they don’t want to do. And not by subtle manipulation. So in one word… zwingen is to force.

  • Der neue Manager, ein Veganer, zwingt die Angestellten dazu, Sojamilch zu trinken.
  • The team manager, who is a vegan, forces/coerces the staff to drink soy milk.
  • “Stell mein Bier wieder hin!”
    “Nein!”
    Zwing mich nicht, dir weh zu tun.”
  • “Put my beer down!”
    “No!”
    “Don’t force me to hurt you!”

  • Maria wurde im Kindergarten dazu gezwungen, Spinat zu essen.
  • In kindergarten Maria was forced to eat spinach.
  • Eine Reparatur der Kaffeemaschine ist zwingend notwendig.
  • Repair of the coffee machine is absolutely mandatory/an absolute must.

I feel like zwingen is actually a little bit stronger than to force. Or maybe it’s just the sound of the word. Zwingen. Sounds like someone is pinching your arm.
And that’s actually kind of where the word comes from. The origin is a Germanic verb that was about the idea of compressing something by force. And wouldn’t that make a lot of sense if this verb was connected to the same ancient Indo-European root as the words zwei and two? Like… you pinch someone’s arm between your fingers? I mean, come on… how much sense would that make? Exactly… all the sense in the celestial sphere. Scientists will say it’s false, that the words are not related. But that’s just their opinion, man. This… this compulsion to be scientifically accurate … it is totally out of control. The word being related feels right, that’s what should matter, damn it.
Anyway, speaking of compulsion… that brings us right to the noun for zwingen der Zwang.
Zwang is part of like a bazillion useful compounds and the translation depends on context but the idea is always that there is some form of forcing going on, either internal or external.

  • Der Komiker leidet unter dem Zwang lustig sein zu müssen.
  • The comedian suffers under the urge/pressure to be funny.
  • Gruppenzwang ist eine starke Kraft.
  • Peer pressure is a strong force.
    (is there a word for peer pressure that is completely independent of age and social group? Just for the group you’re with at a given moment? Thanks a lot :)

  • Wegen dem Stromausfall muss das Team eine Zwangspause einlegen.
  • Because of the power outage the team is forced to take an (unwanted) break.
  • In dem Casino ist Krawattenzwang.
  • In the casino a neck tie is required/compulsory.

  • Krawattenzwang ist auch nur eine Zwangstörung.
  • A Compulsory tie is just another form of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).

  • Thomas findet, dass Maria einen leichten Waschzwang hat.
  • Thomas thinks that Maria has a slight compulsion to wash her hands (ablutomania).
  • Was seinen Schreibtisch angeht, ist Thomas echt zwanghaft.
  • When it comes to his desk, Thomas is obsessional. (Thomas is obsessive when it comes to his desk.)

Those were but a few examples and there are lots of other Zwänge out there. There’s even one for German verbs … the Präfixversionszwang (the compulsion for prefixes :). That’s a super strong one and only few verbs are strong enough to resist it.
Zwingen is pretty strong though because there are only three versions. Aufzwingen is basically to force something onto someone, but it’s pretty rare.

  • Thomas ist mit dem ihm von Maria aufgezwungenen Zölibats-Monat nicht so glücklich.
  • Thomas isn’t that happy with the celibacy-months that was forced upon him by Maria.

Then there are erzwingen and bezwingen. The er- adds the usual idea of reaching something through the action. So it’s mostly a grammatical difference to zwingen.

  • Man kann niemanden zwingen, gute Laune zu haben.
  • You can’t force someone to be in a good mood. (the person forced is the direct object)

  • Gute Laune kann man nicht erzwingen.
  • You can’t force a good mood. (the goal of the coercion is the direct object)
  • Mittels Sexentzug hat Maria einen Opernbesuch erzwungen.
  • Using sex withdrawal, Maria forced/(got) a visit to the opera.

And last but not least, we have bezwingen. The be- does a very vague intensifying here, and bezwingen basically means to subdue. So it’s kind of a general once-and-for-all-zwingen if that makes sense.

  • Thomas hat seine Höhenangst bezwungen.
  • Thomas subdued/overcame his fear of heights.

All right.
So, I’d actually say that’s enough for one day. We’ve covered everything and our heads are filled with plenty of examp… oh… what’s that… there’s another word running toward us. I hope it doesn’t want to get in on this post… oh… oh no, it does want to get in. Hey… hey…

zw… ugh

SIR, we’re full…

zwä… ugh… sorry…. zwä…ngen

Too late, it squeezed itself in. Now you’re wondering what’s this stupidity about? Well, zwängen is an offspring of zwingen and Zwang and it’s about forcing something into a rather tight location. Like a verb squeezing itself into a post that’s already quite full ;).
Technically, zwängen is not a reflexive verb. So you can zwängen something somewhere. A rock formation for instance can zwängen a creek into a narrow path or you can zwängen your belly into those pants that used to fit still totally fit.
But in practice, you’ll mostly see zwängen used with people squeezing themselves in somewhere.

  • Der dicke Mann versucht sich in den vollen Bus zu zwängen.
  • The chubby man tries to squeeze himself into the packed bus.
  • Maria zwängt sich in ihre alte Jeans.
  • Maria forces/squeezes herself into her old jeans.

Oh, and it doesn’t really work in abstract senses. So you can’t zwängen yourself into a certain job, for example. That would be another word. Wait… I can actually see it… it’s running toward us. But now we’re REALLY full. Quick, let’s wrap this up before it gets here :).
This was our look at the meaning of zwingen. It is absolutely NOT related to zwei and two but thinking of it in terms of two fingers squeezing your arm helps a great deal to remember that it means to force, to coerce.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** vocab **

jemanden (akk) zu etwas zwingen – force, coerce
jemandem etwas aufzwingen – force something onto someone

bezwingen – to defeat (sounds a bit pompous)
erzwingen – get by coersion

der Zwang – the compulsion, coercion, pressure
der Gruppenzwang – the peer pressure
der Waschzwang – compulsion to wash yourself
Zwangsstörung – (obsessive) compulsive disorder
Zwangspause – forced break
Zwangsjacke – straitjacket
Zwangsehe – forced marriage
Zwangsversteigerung – forced auction
Zwangsräumung – forced eviction

zwanglos – casual, without pressure
der Zwinger – cage for dogs, castle in Dresden

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