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I would like to know if this expression's an offense

Wo hast du dich herumgetrieben?

Is it used to scold somebody?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

The verb "herumtreiben" or the corresponding word "Herumtreiber" primarily means "act as a vagabond", being homeless or even an outlaw.
For a better understandig of the word "Herumtreiber" visit Synonyme: Herumtreiber

If you ask someone:

Wo hast du dich herumgetrieben?

Then you imply that whatever he did or where he was, it is beyond debate that it was something immodest. As long as you don't say it to a friend of yours, it is very disrespectful. It would be used for someone dishonest or roguish.

If used talking to an adult it can be considered as (strong) insult. One example where someone adult could say this to another adult was if your boss was angry with you and wants to clearly show his anger and / or to humiliate you.
If used talking to a friend it is often used with a smile and a wink, or to express that you don't like what your friend is doing.
When talking to a child it is socially more accepted to use "herumtreiben", especially when it got into mischief. Then - as you said - it is used to scold.

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I don't see why "herumtreiben" should be limited to someone dishonest or roguish. – Robert Dec 10 '13 at 23:17
@Vogel612 I think this is worth another answer. This expression is often used in an humorous way, such as that you mentioned. It's only marginally mentioned in this answer here. – Em1 Dec 11 '13 at 8:13
I disagree with the notion that it is an insult. It's colloquial alright, but nothing stronger than that. – Ingmar Dec 11 '13 at 9:13
@Ingmar Insult may be the wrong word. I'd guess that insinuation and confrontation would fit well. – Em1 Dec 11 '13 at 9:23
@Ingmar Maybe it depends under which circumstances one did grow up. And especially who you are talking to. If it's a friend then I agree it is no insult. If it is someone you don't know i would consider it as insult, because it CAN imply very negative things. – Jbartmann Dec 11 '13 at 9:23

I also know this phrase, either as scolding (as mentioned in Jbartmann's answer) or alternatively as a greeting or "How have you been lately?"-ish conversation starter. I prefer to use it only when the conversation partners didn't see each other for a relatively long time.

In both cases, it is more jokingly said.


A: Hey, das ist ja lang her. Erzähl, wo hast du dich herumgetrieben?
B: Ach, dies und das. Ich war [...]

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It's colloquial and implies that the person being asked is coming (home) late or dirty or drunk. Since it's only used in family context (parents asking children, maybe partner asking partner) I'd not consider it offensive.

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