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German word of the day: Toben

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected]
German word of the day: Toben
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

You’re as likely to hear this word on a stormy day as you are around small children.

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Why do I need to know toben?

This versatile verb can be used in a variety of settings, encompassing emotions ranging from rage to joy.

What does it mean?

Toben has two main meanings. The first essentially implies to go wild, whether that be with enthusiasm or anger. An audience of a Taylor Swift concert could vor Begeisterung toben (“go wild with excitement”) but a person can also vor Wut toben, or rage with anger when they are extraordinarily upset about something. 

As those in northern Germany probably know well, toben is also applied to a wild wind or other strong natural phenomena like a hurricane. It’s probably not the most pleasant time to head outside when der Wind tobt (the wind rages).

All German-speaking parents will be very familiar with the second meaning, which simply means to frolic around. It’s used for any sort of animated play, including that which becomes as unruly as the stormy wind. At this level, you could also say Radau machen (making a racket).

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According to German dictionary DWDS, usage of the word dates all the way back to around 800 BC, stemming from the word tobōn, which similarly meant to be beside oneself, usually with rage or another intense emotion.

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Here’s how it’s used:

Er tobte vor Wut, als er erfuhr, dass er zu Unrecht gekündigt worden war.

He raged with anger when he found out he was unfairly terminated from his job.

Über der Nordsee tobte ein Orkan, als die tobenden Wellen gegen die Felsen schlagen.

A hurricane raged over the North Sea, as wild waves crashed on the rocks.

Die Kinder tobten stundenlang auf dem neuen Spielplatz herum.

The children frolicked around for hours at the new playground. 

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