The word ‘Gewalt’ German for ‘violence’ | Expand your vocab

Banners held by demonstrators in the GDR, 1989: Keine Gewalt! No violence - Photo: WDR
Banners held by demonstrators in the GDR, 1989: Keine Gewalt – No violence – Photo: WDR

Words – Wörter – express everything, including the not so nice things in life.

Gewalt is one of those words. It’s feminine – die Gewalt – that’s because of the origin of the word and has nothing to do with its meaning.

Intriguingly, the word Gewalt spans two areas expressed in English by different words.

Gewalt can refer to violence or brutality, but in addition to that,

Gewalt can also denote power, authority and control.

I’ll never forget news reports about a hijacked plane.

“Die Passagiere sind in der Gewalt von Terroristen.”

They were ‘under the power’ of the terrorists, almost like a magic spell – ein Zauberspruch

German often has a fascinating way of expressing things, that’s impossible in English.

ein Gewaltakt is an act of violence.

Gewalt anwenden = to use force

Gewalt über Leben und Tod haben is to have power over life and death.

Gewalt is especially associated with sexual violence – sexuelle Gewalt – and the verb vergewaltigen means to rape.

Kein schönes Thema – not a very nice topic, but we hear the word Gewalt most evenings on the news.

Gewalt is not just exercised by criminals or terrorists

die ausübende Gewalt = the executive

die gesetzgebende Gewalt  = the legislature or judiciary

elterliche Gewalt = parental authority. It doesn’t mean they use corporal punishment!

There is also

höhere Gewalt  – higher authority, an act of God, often referred to in English by the French term force majeure. It can refer to a catastrophe or natural disaster, as opposed to a man-made one.

Something that’s gewaltig is simply very very big

ein gewaltiger Schritt in Richtung in Kohleausstieg – a gigantic step in the direction of giving up coal.

ein gewaltiger Sturm – a very big, powerful storm

In Yiddish there is a phrase ‘oy gevalt’ which is an expression of dismay and worry. It’s like ‘oy vay’ but stronger.

But let’s end on a positive note.

gewaltfrei – free of violence or non-violent.

And let’s not forget what pro-democracy protesters in East Germany wrote on their placards nearly 30 years ago:

Keine Gewalt – No violence

And übrigens – by the way – I’ve dug out one of my old German language videos. This one is a simple explanation of the German cases with some very basic graphics.

Click here to watch the video

Try to do or watch or practice some German every day.

Bis zum nächsten Mal!

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