German word of the day: Mutterseelenallein

Today’s German word of the day refers to a feeling so intense that the English language lacks a direct equivalent.

German word of the day: Mutterseelenallein
A woman completely alone at a beach in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Photo: DPA

“Mutterseelenallein” is a word used to describe a state of complete and utter loneliness.

Whilst the word “allein” can have positive connotations – picture a winter evening spent alone with a hot chocolate and a good book – “mutterseelenallein” refers to an isolation so extreme it causes nothing but despair and anguish.

“Mutterseelenallein” can be broken down into three German words: “die Mutter” (mother), “die Seelen” (souls) and “allein” (alone). 

A direct translation into English would be “mother’s souls alone”. When taken literally, this makes little sense to English speakers, but the story of the word’s origins provides the key to its true meaning. 

READ ALSO: Eight German words that can’t be translated in English

The term actually comes from a French idiom popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, “moi tout seul” (just me). During this time, a group of French Protestants known as the Huguenots were forced to flee to Berlin to escape religious persecution in their home country, and they used the term “moi tout seul” to express the immense isolation they felt as a result.

Berliners heard the idiom so often that they assimilated it into their daily language. However, they interpreted the phrase as “Mutterseelen” (mother’s souls) rather than “moi tout seul”, and therefore added “allein” to ensure the phrase made sense in German, eventually yielding the word “Mutterseelenallein” used by Germans today. 

Although the reference to “mother’s souls” occurred largely by misunderstanding, it ties in surprisingly well with the feeling the word seeks to describe. When you are “mother’s souls alone”, you feel as though there is not a single person in the world you can turn to (not even your mother).

It became so widely used in the 19th century that it even appeared in the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm (see the example below).

Nowadays, however, the word has lost some of its emotive value and is often used more casually in everyday speech. 


“Nun war das arme Kind in dem großen Wald mutterseelenallein.”

And so the poor child (Snow White) was completely alone in the huge forest.

“Ich war mutterseelenallein zu Hause.”

I was totally alone at home.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


German phrase of the day: Lügen haben kurze Beine

This phrase tells you why you should try not to lie.

German phrase of the day: Lügen haben kurze Beine

Why do I need to know Lügen haben kurze Beine?

From the serpent in the Bible to the spectacular fall of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (see the Spiegel cover below with the title ‘one lie too many’), lying has always been morally and socially unacceptable.

Yet everyone lies. Anyone who says otherwise is probably telling fibs. Past research has suggested people lie once or twice per day on average. So, the Germans have found a unique way of tackling lies with this proverb.

What does it mean?

Lügen haben kurze Beine (which sounds like this) literally translates to ‘lies have short legs’. In English you might say: ‘the truth will out’ or ‘lies won’t get you far’.

This proverb was reportedly first found in a German dictionary as early as 1663. As you might expect, this saying is based on the idea that someone with shorter legs can’t run super fast – the metaphor being that a lie won’t escape, it will be found out.

The moral of the story is that honesty is the best policy because nothing can run away from the truth. This symbolic proverb is taught to many German children by their parents. 

But what about white lies? In German, they are pleasingly called Notlüge (emergency lies) and we all know that sometimes not telling the whole truth is appropriate or needed in certain social situations. We’ll look at this in more detail in a future word of the day. 

Use it like this:

Irgendwann wird er mein Geheimnis entdecken, denn Lügen haben kurze Beine.

At some point he will discover my secret, because the truth will out. 

Lügen haben kurze Beine, vor allem im Internet.

Lies can’t get far, especially on the internet.

Ich rate Ihnen, heute die Wahrheit zu sagen. Lügen haben kurze Beine.

I advise you to tell the truth today. Lies won’t travel far.