Words in German that have different meanings based on their context

Words in German that have different meanings based on their context

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 7, 2022

Learning how German words and phrases are used in different contexts is crucial because you wouldn’t want to be caught in a situation (especially at work) where you’ve misunderstood what’s happening.

I’ve compiled a long list of commonly used multi-meaning German words and their definitions for you to dig into, so you can work towards German fluency!

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Most frequently used German words with multiple meanings 

To add to your vocabulary toolbox, let’s dive into some more, often confusing German vocabulary words. Don’t worry, you’ll be expert level in no time! 

das Pony vs der Pony

To start off, “das Pony” is a baby horse you might see at a farm and “der Pony” is fringe hair style. You know, the type of bangs you had back in 4th grade? Yeah it’s basically the same. All that’s different here is the sneaky German article!

das Tor vs der Tor 

Next, “das Tor” could be used in this statement: He scored the final goal at his soccer game, while “der Tor” is a noun that’s synonymous with fence. Here again, it all comes down to the article used.

das Stift vs der Stift

When we translate “der Stift” you get a pen. Sometimes it’s used to refer to a crayon or a pencil, too. On the other hand when you place “das” in front you get a “monastery.”

die Leiter vs der Leiter 

My next example is “die Leiter”, which is a ladder. On the other hand, “der Leiter” is a leader or manager. Think about it like this, you wouldn’t want to die on a ladder would you? By using mnemonic devices it can be easier to recall certain words so joint that one down for later! It’s also important to note that often “der Leiter” can also refer to a supervisor, head of a company, director, or a principal. 

die Bank 

This is a homonym, or a word that sounds the same but has a different meaning depending on context. It could mean either a credit institute or a bench you sit on in a park.

Let’s see these in context:

English: I sat on the bench at the park and watched the beautiful sunset.

German: Ich saß auf der Bank im Park und beobachtete den wunderschönen Sonnenuntergang.

English: I needed to withdraw money at the bank.

German: Ich musste Geld bei der Bank abheben.

der Hahn

Here’s a funny one: “der Hahn” can refer to a faucet that water comes out of in your kitchen sink or the animal that says- cock-a-doodle-do! Yes you guessed it, a rooster. No idea why German uses the same word here.

die Decke 

Up next: “die Decke” could mean the top of your room (your ceiling), but it could also mean blanket. In the same manner, “die Decke” could also mean a cover. In the end, both instances mean to cover something, but the context makes it clear

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die Blume 

This one is a triple threat because it has three different meanings: flower, beer foam, and a bunny’s white tail. If someone uses the word “das Tier”, or animal in the sentence, they’re most likely referring to a bunny’s white tail. 

Let’s say you’re out for drinks with your co-workers and “die Blume” is mentioned. In this scenario, you can assume they’re speaking about the foam in the beer. Interestingly enough, it’s standard and expected to have “die Blume” in your draft beer, unlike in other countries where it might be frowned upon. And lastly, if someone mentions a garden or plants, they’re probably referring to a flower. 

bis vs der Biss

The first “bis” is a preposition which is typically used for time and placed expressions. The second “Biss” is a masculine noun (der) that means bite. Let’s look at an example:

German: Als Tres den Fuß in den Bach hielt, spürte er, wie ihm etwas in den Zeh biss.

English: When Tres put his foot into the stream, he felt something bite his toe.

Quick note: generally when a German word has a double s as in “ss” it’s pronounced a bit longer than with one s, so if you want to be super particular, these words are pronounced just a tad bit differently.

hast vs hasst

Hast is a singular second person verb that means “to have” while hasst is the second or third person verb that means “to hate”. This needs some clarification so let’s try some practice sentences:

English: You have a lot of flowers in your garden.

German: Du hast viele Blumen in deinem Garten.

English: You really hate snakes.

German: Du hasst Schlangen wirklich.

Here again we have the slight pronunciation difference with the singular and double “s”.

ist vs isst

The first ist is a common German word meaning “to be”. Er ist nett, or he is nice. The second isst is a form of the verb “to eat”. 

Let me illustrate further: He eats a cookie or Er isst einen Kuchen. 

If you’re a fan of puns, you can also say “Man ist was man isst” (“You are what you eat”).

die Seite vs die Saite

These are both pronounced the same but “die Seite” means side, while “die Saite” translates to string.

You can gain a further understanding here:

English: A string on my guitar broke.

German: Eine Saite an meiner Gitarre ist gerissen.

English: We live on the opposite side of the river.

German: Wir wohnen auf der gegenüberliegenden Seite des Flusses

das Lied vs das Lid

The first homophone, “das Lied” is a noun that can be used to describe music or a song. The second word, “das Lid” is a cognate because it means the same in English as it does in German – it’s short for eyelid (the flap of skin over your eye). 

das Becken

Another triple threat! This one has three meanings. To start, it could translate to pool as in the one you swim in, but it could also mean your pelvis bone or musical cymbals. 

der Flugel 

der Flugel could mean wings on a bird or grand piano. 

Here are a couple of examples:

German: Dieser Vogel hat wirklich große Flügel.

English: That bird has really large wings.

German: Hast du schon von meinem neuen Flügel gehört?

English: Have you heard about my new grand piano?

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