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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

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 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."
    Both words are synonymous. Leichnam is a bit more formal. An undertaker wouldn't use Leiche in front of the deceased's relatives.
  • Toter/Verstorbener are used to refer to the person, that has died. "Der Verstorbene war ein guter Freund von mir".
  • Toter is used to refer to a person, that has been violently killed in an accident or by murder or in war.
  • Verstorbener is used to refer to someone who has died (peacefully) of natural causes such as old age or an illness.
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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

"Der Tote", "der Verstorbene" refer to a person who is unfortunately dead. "Die Leiche", "der Leichnam" refers to the physical remains.

"Der Tote" is not necessarily a corpse. For example, people killed in an explosion with no corpse left. Same for "der Verstorbene". You wouldn't use this word for someone dying in an explosion, only for natural / non-violent death, but the body could be cremated. "Leiche" or "Leichnam" means there is actually a corpse.

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A "Leichnam" is a dead human body, whereas a "Leiche" can also be a dead animal.

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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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2  
+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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