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I want to learn the different shades of meaning and frequency of use of the following verbs that have the meaning of to die:

  • ableben
  • abtreten
  • erlöschen
  • krepieren
  • sterben
  • versterben
  • verenden
  • eingehen
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Is it intentional that some of the most commmon expressions are missing in your list: "sein Leben verlieren", "umkommen"? Somebody may want to add these to their answers. –  Takkat May 3 '13 at 17:18
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maybe you should secure copyrights on the title, could become a bestseller ... –  bummi May 3 '13 at 21:45

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

As suggested, here an extensive list, sorted by tone and kinds of death. There are several entries in the thesaurus which I am not familiar with – feel free to add them.

Tone:

  • euphemistic and formal: ableben, das Zeitliche segnen, dahingehen, dahinscheiden, davongehen, entschlafen, uns verlassen, von uns gehen, heimgehen, abberufen werden, die Augen für immer schließen, die ewige Ruhe finden, sein Dasein/das Leben vollenden
  • formal: versterben, sein Leben lassen, den Tod erleiden, sein Leben/die Seele aushauchen, verscheiden, jemandes (letzte) Stunde hat geschlagen (diejenige des Toten), den Weg allen Fleisches gehen, aus der Welt gehen/scheiden
  • neutral: sterben, fallen, umkommen, ums Leben kommen, vom Tode ereilt werden
  • colloquial: den Löffel abgeben, dran glauben müssen, draufgehen, hopsgehen, ins Gras beißen, abtreten, über den Jordan gehen, über die Wupper gehen, in die ewigen Jagdgründe eingehen
  • disrespectful (and colloquial): abkacken, abkratzen, abnippeln, krepieren, verrecken

Kind of death:

Everything unmentioned is general purpose, with exception to self-inflicted deaths. In formal context (funeral, death announcement, etc.) all formal verbs turn to general purpose.

  • quiet death (illness, old age): ableben, dahinscheiden, entschlafen, verscheiden, jemandes (letzte) Stunde hat geschlagen, vom Tode ereilt werden (not for old age)
  • deceased is of older age (not necessarily the cause of death): das Zeitliche segnen
  • non-quiet death (accident, violence): umkommen, ums Leben kommen, hopsgehen
  • painful or gruesome death: krepieren, verrecken
  • death while in military: fallen

Only the following are applicable to self-inflicted deaths, e.g., suicide or Darwin Award candidate:
davongehen, uns verlassen, von uns gehen, versterben, sein Leben lassen, sterben, umkommen, ums Leben kommen, den Löffel abgeben, abkacken, den Weg allen Fleisches gehen, über den Jordan gehen, über die Wupper gehen, aus der Welt gehen/scheiden, die ewige Ruhe finden, sein Dasein/das Leben vollenden, in die ewigen Jagdgründe eingehen

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...And then there are the terms that describe dying of a specific cause:

  • verhungern
  • verdursten
  • ertrinken
  • erfrieren
  • ersticken
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  • sterben is neutral and can be used for every kind of death. Also this is by far the most used.

  • ableben is a little bit elevated or euphemistic. It is usually used for quiet and slow deaths, i.e., by illness or old age. For example, this would usually not be used for somebody killed by an explosion.

  • versterben – if used in inofficial context: same as ableben, except for the euphemistic touch. If used in official context: same as sterben.

  • abtreten actually means to resign, to surrender one’s post or to exit. It is only used colloquially in the context of dying and at least with a grain of irony or metaphor.

  • erlöschen is only used for dying in combination with Leben. In this case this a very formal style.

    Sein Leben erlosch. – He died.

  • krepieren has a disrespective note and also implies a painful or miserable death.

    Krepier, du Schwein! – Die, you bastard!

  • verenden is usually only used for animals. If used for humans, this implies disrespect for the dying person.

  • eingehen is almost only used for plants and lower animals, where it implicates a slow death. I have never seen it used for humans.

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I agree concerning 'ableben', as you said, it's used for a slow and peaceful death, not for a dramatic death –  Martin Hansen May 3 '13 at 16:51
  • ableben - neutral, same meaning as 'to die', verb form is very uncommon, almost exclusively used as a noun
  • abtreten - has nothing to do with death, it means 'to resign'
  • erlöschen - somewhat archaic, very uncommon, spiritual (like a candle stops burning)
  • krepieren - aggressive, informal, dramatic, used to refer to a slow and painful death, rather not used to refer to the death of a person you respect or love
  • sterben - neutral, most commonly used word, same meaning as 'to die'
  • versterben - neutral, commonly used in death announcements of respected or beloved people, in the sense of '... passed away'. You would rather not use 'versterben' for a person you hate or disrespect.
  • verenden - neutral expression, used for animal deaths, not for human deaths
  • eingehen - neutral, used for deaths of animals and especially plants

If you refer to the death of a person in a formal context, like in an encyclopedia or newspaper article, you would most commonly use 'sterben' or 'versterben'. 'ableben' has the same neutral meaning, but it's far less common and rarely used in its verb form.

Animal deaths are usually referred to with 'verenden', but if it's a pet or otherwise respected/beloved animal, you would use 'sterben'.

Deaths of plants are always referred to as 'eingehen'.

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