German phrase of the day: Um des Kaisers Bart streiten

If you're stuck in a fruitless argument, this German phrase might be just the thing you need to get out of it.

German word of the day
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Why do I need to know “Um des Kaisers Bart streiten”

Because it not only has an interesting history behind it, but can also be a useful way to end a conversation that’s going nowhere. 

What does it mean?

Um des Kaisers Bart streiten literally means to argue about the emperor’s beard. You may already have heard the word Kaiser, meaning emperor, when visiting a museum or learning about German history. Streiten, meanwhile, means to argue or quarrel. It can be helpful to think of the English word “strife” here as a way to remember it.

As you might expect, the phrase doesn’t actually refer to conversations about imperialists’ facial hair. Instead, it’s used to describe debates over trivialities or things that don’t really matter – usually without any hope of finding a resolution. A colloquial alternative would be “um Nichtigkeiten streiten”, which means to quarrel over nothing. 

The idiom became the theme of a poem by the 19th century poet Emanuel Geibels titled Von des Kaisers Bart. In the poem, three young men argue in a pub about whether Frederick the Great’s beard was blonde, red or white – and end up in a sword fight.

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Lügen haben kurze Beine

Where does it come from? 

There are various theories about the origins of the phrase. One theory suggests that the emperor’s beard is a distortion of the Latin phrase “de lana caprina rixari”, which means to quarrel over goat’s wool, i.e. about nothing. The analogy relates to the fact that “lana” (wool) was such a vague term that it was unclear whether it referred to sheep’s wool, the wool of other animals, or even material from plants. Since “Geißbart” (goat’s beard) in German sounds rather similar to “Kaisers Bart”, some academics believe that the Latin phrase transitioned from goat’s wool to emperor’s beard over time. 

There are also some quite literal instances of scholars having meaningless arguments over emperors’ facial hair. For example, historians are said to have argued fiercely over whether Emperor Charlemagne wore a beard or not. 

Use it like this: 

Die beiden streiten mal wieder um des Kaisers Bart.

The two of them are arguing about nothing again.

Man sollte nicht um des Kaisers Bart streiten.

One should not quarrel about trivialities. 

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German word of the day: Rücksicht

Here's how to take this thoughtful word into consideration.

German word of the day: Rücksicht

Why do I need to know Rücksicht?

Because it’s a commonly used word and knowing what it means – and practising it – will make you a better person.

What does Rücksicht mean?

Rücksicht is a feminine noun which means “consideration” or “regard”. It’s made up of the shortened form of the word zurück meaning “back” and Sicht – which means view. So literally, it means, back view, or looking back.

This literal meaning tells you something about how the word is used in German – if you look back to see what’s happened to your friend, you are taking them into consideration.

If you want to really make sure you don’t forget what Rücksicht means – you can watch the following video of Germany’s 1983 Eurovision song contest entry. The catchy ballad – called “Rücksicht” – came in place 5 of the competition that year. 

How to use Rücksicht

When using Rücksicht, bear in mind that it is usually paired with specific verbs and prepositions.

The most commonly used set phrase is Rücksicht auf etwas/jemand nehmen, which is used to mean “to be considerate of” or “to take care of” someone or something. For example:

Radfahrer müssen auf Fußgänger Rücksicht nehmen.

Cyclists must be considerate of pedestrians.

Er nimmt Rücksicht auf die Bedürfnisse seiner schwangeren Frau.

He takes care of his pregnant wife’s needs.

Rücksicht is usually followed by the preposition auf, but it can be preceded by a number of prepositions to compose different phrases. 

Mit Rücksicht auf for example, means “in view of” and ohne Rücksicht auf means “without consideration for”, while aus Rücksicht auf means “out of consideration for.” 

Here are some examples:

Führungen dürfen aus Rücksicht auf die Teilnehmer nicht aufgenommen werden.
Out of consideration of the participants, tours may not be recorded.
Er will tun, was er möchte, ohne Rücksicht auf die Anderen.
He wants to do what he wants, without considering other people.