German word of the day: Überwintern

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected] • 9 Jan, 2023 Updated Mon 9 Jan 2023 17:02 CEST
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Photo: Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

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.

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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Imogen Goodman 2023/01/09 17:02

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