Sign up ×
German Language Stack Exchange is a bilingual question and answer site for speakers of all levels who want to share and increase their knowledge of the German language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I found this (

sich einer Sache unterstehen sich anmaßen, erdreisten, etw. zu tun
niemand unterstand sich, ihr zu widersprechen

So sich einer Sache unterstehen means sich anmaßen etw. zu tun?!

Where does this phrase (sich einer Sache unterstehen) come from and what does it mean literally?

Can these sentences

Er unterstand sich ihr zu widersprechen.
Untersteh' dich nicht ihr zu widersprechen.
Untersteh' dich!

be translated as follows?

He dared to contradict her.
Don't dare to contradict her.
Dare/Arrogate it!

share|improve this question
Yes, the translations are correct. But note that the last one "Untersteh' dich" is almost exclusively used in an ironic sense (to prevent someone from daring something) or in (mock) rebuke. Also it is slightly old-fashioned. – Hulk Mar 19 '14 at 12:11
old-fashioned? I don't think so - I hear it rather frequently. – Thorsten Dittmar Mar 19 '14 at 13:52
Perhaps my feeling comes from mostly hearing it from (grand-)parents using it to gently rebuke children. – Hulk Mar 19 '14 at 13:56
Another thing probably worth mentioning is that it is usually used for daring to go against social conventions/laws or facing someones wrath. I wouldn't use it for courageously dealing with a danger caused by a natural disaster (wagen works for both situations). – Hulk Mar 19 '14 at 14:21
The imperative „untersteh dich!“ is written without an apostrophe. – Loong Oct 9 '14 at 14:23

2 Answers 2

to dare is one of the meanings of unterstehen. The verb wagen is a possible synonyme. This meaning is documented since the 16th century.

Er unterstand sich, es zu tun. / Er wagte sich, es zu tun.

He dared to do it.

The tricky thing with unterstehen today is when used in imperative sentences:

Untersteh’ dich!

The same with the verb wagen:

Wag es [dir]!

Despite looking like a demand or invitation, both sentences are actually threats not to do something and have the meaning of the english Don’t you dare!

I can’t really explain why the definition changes from dare to not dare when used as an imperative, but I think of it as a non-expressed hint to consequences:

Untersteh’ dich [und du wirst sehen, was passiert]!

Wag es dir [und du wirst sehen, was passiert]!

Dare it and you’ll see what happens!

Since the imperative is the mostly used form of unterstehen I could imagine that in a few decades the meaning will completely change from dare to not dare, but that’s just pure speculation.

Other meanings of unterstehen include to accomplish/achieve which is documented since the 8th century and no longer in use today and to be under sb or to be subject to sb/sth, documented since the 17th century. Here’s an example sentence:

Ich unterstehe der Abteilung Rechnungswesen.

I’m under the accountants' section.

share|improve this answer
The dir in Wag es dir is dialect. Normally you'd say Wage es! or Wage es bloß nicht! – Thorsten Dittmar Mar 19 '14 at 13:50
@dulange Do you have a reference for the historical usage? Are the examples quotes or your own creation? – Hulk Mar 19 '14 at 13:54
@Hulk About the historical usage I read so on the German Wiktionary page refering the Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen by Wolfgang Pfeifer. The examples are just spontaneous creations and may contain colloquial language as pointed out by Thorsten. – dulange Mar 20 '14 at 10:52
@dulange thanks for the clarification. I was mainly asking because the combination of wage es with dir sounds very strange or even wrong to me, and I was wondering if it was some kind of out-dated or region-specific usage. – Hulk Mar 20 '14 at 11:50

I'm Austrian, and I have never in my life heard the word "unterstehen" except in imperative form to mean "don't you dare". So if you use this word in Austria, chances are you won't be understood, or misunderstood.

In other words, the thing dulange predicts has already happened here.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.