German word of the day: Gift

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

This famous false friend has very different meanings in English and German - but it wasn't always that way.


What does Gift mean?

When English speakers give or receive a present in Germany, they might want to take a moment to remember how the word gift is translated: Das Geschenk.

Because if they use das Gift instead, they might see some facial expressions ranging from perplexed to shocked - indeed, this false friend means poison, toxin or venom.

At least they don’t have to be as careful as they would in Norwegian, where ‘gift’ can mean either poison or to be married (okay cynics, insert some bad jokes here). 

How did it originate?

Interestingly, Gift was originally used in Old High German to mean, well, a gift, present or endowment and kept this meaning until the 15th century when it translated to a dowry for a bride. But literature lovers will note that Gift was still used as a present in Schiller’s works, which date until the 18th century.

According to some linguists, the drastic change in meaning could be attributed to Gift’s previous use as a dose (or giving) of medicine, but also euphemistically describing something poisonous.

It explains the origin of the expression, “Die Menge macht das Gift.” (“The quantity makes the poison”) For example, a “dose of salt” is not deadly or even damaging if you eat a small amount of it, but it can be if over-consumed. 

Nowadays, the word is frequently used as a noun, adjective and adverb, and is also built into other words. Entgiftung (detoxification) is used just like in English, or the removal (‘Ent-’) of something toxic (Giftung, a standalone word also meaning toxification).

READ ALSO: The complete A-Z guide to German prefixes and what they mean

Colloquially, especially in southern Germany, it’s also used to mean anger or hatred. 


Here’s how it’s used:

Blausäure und Arsenik sind starke Gifte.

Hydrogen cyanide and arsenic are strong poisons.

Klapperschlangen sind als giftig bekannt.

Rattlesnakes are known to be poisonous.

Der Mann steckt voller Gift.

The man is full of anger.


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