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German word of the day: Überwintern

When you feel like cold, dark winter is dragging on longer than it should, this poetic German word can help you see it through until spring.

German WOTD
Photo: Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Why do I need to know überwintern?

Because überwintern is a wonderfully apt verb to describe the endurance test we face in the colder months in Germany, and it also has a scientific meaning that may come in handy when talking about the animal kingdom. 

It can crop up anywhere from articles about pensioners escaping the German winter to poems by famous German authors. 

What does it mean? 

Überwintern means, in some ways, exactly what it sounds like. It can be translated as “overwintering”, though a much more commonly used English equivalent would be “hibernating”. 

Unlike the verb “to hibernate”, though, the German überwintern also has a much broader connotation. It can be used to describe simply getting through the winter, overcoming the winter months, or spending the winter months somewhere else. 

With energy prices soaring, some people in Germany have been tempted to überwintern somewhere affordable and hot, like Greece, this year. Of course, you can also use the phrase more generally to discuss how some animals (and people) get through the winter months: by hibernating somewhere warm and cosy.

In his Sonnets to Orpheus, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke also used “überwintern” in a metaphorical sense to talk about overcoming something that feels impossible, and proving your own strength.

Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Anticipate every farewell. You must put it behind
you as this passing winter will pass.
Yet, among the winters one winter will come so endless
that overwintering it proves that your heart can survive.

Given how close überwintern is to überwinden – which means “to overcome” – there is something beautifully poetic about using the word this way.  

Use it like this: 

Ich überlege mir, ob ich dieses Jahr in Spanien überwintern sollte. 

I’m thinking about spending the winter in Spain this year. 

Bären überwintern aufgrund sinkender Temperaturen, weil sie Energie sparen wollen. 

Bears hibernate due to falling temperatures, because they want to save energy. 

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For members


German phrase of the day: Die Butter vom Brot nehmen

If you're looking for a German phrase that describes one of the most heinous and anti-social crimes imaginable, look no further than this one.

German phrase of the day: Die Butter vom Brot nehmen

Why do I need to know this phrase?

Die Butter vom Brot nehmen (pronounced like this) is another classic example of Germans using food to describe almost any situation in life – and in this case, you can use it to call out people who always seem to be trying to get the better of you. 

What does it mean?

While normally there’s a fairly accurate equivalent to German sayings in English, in this case it’s a little harder to find a direct translation.

As you may realise, die Butter vom Brot nehmen quite literally means: “taking the butter from the bread”. It’s used to describe situations where someone takes something important from someone else, behaves a bit cheekily or tries to get one over on another person in some way. For instance, if there’s one dog at the park that always steals your dog’s ball, that would be a key example of a canine butter-thief. 

You may wonder why this scenario is so emotive for the Germans. Aren’t there worse things to take from someone than a bit of butter? 

Well, one reason could be that butter is viewed as a key component of any Abendbrot ritual: it’s the salty, fatty bit of deliciousness that can perfectly complement your salami and Sauergurke (pickled gherkins) when you’re tucking into a few slices of rye as a light evening meal. And if you find you don’t have at least an inch of butter on both sides of your belegtes Brötchen (filled bread roll), as a German you may well ask for your money back.

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Erste Sahne

What else should I know?

If you’d like to start using this fun expression, it’s important to note that you’ll need to use the dative case with it, as in jemandem die Butter vom Brot nehmen. This often applies when something is being given or taken, and means you’ll use dative pronouns such as dir, mir, ihr and ihm to talk about the person losing out rather than their accusative forms of dich, mich, sie and ihn.

Use it like this: 

Willst du mir jetzt auch noch die Butter vom Brot nehmen?

Now you also want to get the better of me?

Er ist ein Typ, der sich die Butter vom Brot nicht nehmen lässt. 

He’s a guy that doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody.