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There are different German nouns for a corpse. Most used are

  • die Leiche
  • der Leichnam
  • der/die Tote
  • der/die Verstorbene

A Google Ngram shows a trend towards "Tote" being increasingly used over "Leiche"

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but this does not say anything on the usage of any of these alternatives.

Are there differences in meaning or connotation? Is there a context where we would prefer to use one over the other term or are these all just interchangeable synonyms?

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I'm not sure how Ngram handles sing./plural forms, but Tote is also a plural form: Es gab drei Tote. –  splattne Jan 20 '12 at 14:38
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2 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Generally, those cover two different aspects:

  • Leiche/Leichnam are used to refer to the dead body. "Die Leiche wurde aus dem Autowrack geborgen."
  • Der Tote/die Verstorbene is used to refer to the person, that has died. "Der Verstorbene war ein guter Freund von mir".

I'm not aware of any major difference in meaning between Leiche and Leichnam, they are mostly synonymous. The same is true for "Der Tote" and "Der Verstorbene", except that "Der Verstorbene" has a slightly more personal touch: in the news you'll usually hear about "die Toten", when they talk about some accident. If a well-known person has died, then it's more likely that they'll refer to him or her as "der/die Verstorbene".

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Good explanation! Additionally, one could state that it's usually no problem to substitute "Leiche" by "Verstorbener", but not the other way - talking about the "Leichnam/Leiche" in the context of a funeral would usually be quite crude. –  tohuwawohu Jan 20 '12 at 11:06
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According to the the Duden, "Leichnam" is on a higher stylistic level than "Leiche", and I agree. An example: I'd say "der Leichnam wurde aufgebahrt", not "die Leiche". Of course that's not a major difference. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 20 '12 at 12:20
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An additional note: "der Verstorbene" is more respectful than "der Tote"; the closest English equivalents are "dead person" and "deceased". Consider for example the sentence "Der Verstorbene bittet, von Blumenspenden abzusehen." It would be inappropriate to use "der Tote" in this context. –  Martin B Jan 23 '12 at 13:05
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"Tote" is the word used to describe people who died or got killed in the News on TV, Radio and other media.

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+1 but still "Leiche" is also used in this context: "Die Zahl der Toten nach dem Schiffsunglück in Italien steigt immer weiter: Taucher haben in dem Wrack der „Costa Concordia“ fünf Leichen entdeckt.", Focus –  Takkat Jan 20 '12 at 11:24
    
shure it is used... to describe the bodies (other then the number of persons involved)... the use of these words in media could explain the statistics –  blindfold Jan 20 '12 at 12:05
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