German word of the day: Ungehorsam

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected] • 18 Jan, 2023 Updated Wed 18 Jan 2023 15:54 CEST
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Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Know someone with a rebellious streak? Then this German word will feel all too familiar...

Why do I need to know Ungehorsam?

Because it's a word you may come across anywhere from the parents' evening at school to media reports on recent protests. Plus, it can be used as both a noun and an adjective (though this version doesn't have a capital 'u') so you're basically learning two words in one!

What does it mean? 

In its noun form, der Ungehorsam (pronounced like this) means disobedience, while the adjective form can be used to describe a person (or perhaps a naughty pet) as disobedient. 

Ungehorsam can be used in any situation where someone is refusing to do what they're told, though you're most likely to use it to describe children, teenagers or animals who have a hard time following instructions. With adults, you might use a more euphemistic term, like hartnäckig (stubborn) or eigenwillig (headstrong) to imply that they don't enjoy kowtowing to authority figures. 

Another context you'll often hear Ungehorsam in is in the sense of ziviler Ungehorsam - or civil disobedience. This has been a major tactic of climate activists in recent months, who have used acts of civil disobedience as a means of protest. 

Most recently, in a major act of ziviler Ungehorsam, a group of activists resisted being cleared out of a settlement they had created in the former village of Lützerath. The unassuming hamlet in North Rhine-Westphalia had become a key battleground in the fight against fossil fuels after it was purchased by coal company RWE to make way for a gigantic coal mine.

To stop the some 110 million tonnes of brown coal being dug out of the ground after the residents had been evicted, the activists moved onto the land and created underground tunnels and tree-houses to make clearing the area as tough for authorities as possible. This went on for years. 

After a tense show-down with police, the activists were forcibly (and, many have claimed, violently) evicted from the area last week. But this is unlikely to be the last act of civil disobedience used by eco-protesters to try and get the government to stick to its climate promises. 

READ ALSO: German police to start evicting anti-coal activists from Lützerath this week

It's a pretty long word - how can I remember it?

There are a few ways to remember this word that you may find helpful. One is to look a little bit at the structure of the word and its possible etymology. 

As you probably know, hören in German means "to hear" or "to listen". Meanwhile, the word "gehören" has its roots in a Middle High German word meaning "to listen to" or "to obey". These days, gehören is generally used to mean "to belong to" or "to be part of". 

Looked at like that, someone who is ungehorsam is someone who may not be good at listening to others, or who doesn't quite belong in their social group because they have hard time following the rules. To make it even easier to remember, imagine that person is called 'Sam'. 

Use it like this: 

"Wenn du weiter so ungehorsam bist, gibt's eine Woche Fernsehvebot!"

If you continue to be so disobedient, there'll be no TV for a week!

"Ziviler Ungehorsam sorgt dafür, dass die Klimabewegung mehr Aufmerksamkeit bekommt." 

Civil disobedience ensures that the climate movement gets more attention. 

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Imogen Goodman 2023/01/18 15:54

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