I found this on dwds.de:

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!

  • 1
    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, 2014 at 12:11
  • 2
    old-fashioned? I don't think so - I hear it rather frequently. Mar 19, 2014 at 13:52
  • Perhaps my feeling comes from mostly hearing it from (grand-)parents using it to gently rebuke children.
    – Hulk
    Mar 19, 2014 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, 2014 at 14:21
  • The imperative „untersteh dich!“ is written without an apostrophe.
    – user9551
    Oct 9, 2014 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 3
    The dir in Wag es dir is dialect. Normally you'd say Wage es! or Wage es bloß nicht! Mar 19, 2014 at 13:50
  • @dulange Do you have a reference for the historical usage? Are the examples quotes or your own creation?
    – Hulk
    Mar 19, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 11:50

I am very surprised about dulange's answer:

At least I know the word "unterstehen" as "not to dare" and therefore the exact opposite of "wagen".

Indeed it may be that the reason for this difference is that I know the verb only in two situations:

  1. As imperative:

Unterstehe dich, das zu tun!

If Dulange says this sentence he means that the ironic way. So both Dulange and me mean the same: "Don't dare to do this!"

  1. In first person singular future:

Ich werde mich unterstehen, dies zu tun!

I think people having Dulange's understanding of this word saying this sentence also mean it the ironic way: They actually say: "I won't do this."

When I heared people saying this sentence they have the same melody in the voice as when they say:

Klar werde ich das Geld zum Fenster rausschmeißen!

("Sure I will waste that money." - meaning that they will not waste that money.)

I have to admit that I never heared the word "sich unterstehen" in other contexts - although I wrote something different before I edited the answer.

What remains is that the verb "sich unterstehen" always implies that someone dares/does not dare to do something illegal, nasty, obscene ... while the word "wagen" does not say why something must be dared (because it is illegal or because it is dangerous).

  • Unfortunatelly, the online dictionaries support the Dulange's answer. For example, pons says for the meaning of the word: so unverschämt oder mutig sein, etwas zu tun, was negative Konsequenzen bringt. The meaning of the word may change regionally? Jun 3, 2017 at 18:06
  • @AdInfinitum Please see my edited answer. Jun 3, 2017 at 19:27
  • Thanks for the editing your answer. I self am not a native speaker of German and that is why, I made a friend (whose German I trust so much) of mine read your answer and she approved what you have written (+1). Jun 3, 2017 at 20:02

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.


Untersteh dich bzw. unterstehen sie sich.

Bedeutung:Hör auf, bzw. hören sie auf.

Unterstehen ist verwandt zu unterstellen oder unterordnen. http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/unterstehen_unterliegen_erdreisten_wagen

Wenn etwas untergestellt ist ist es untergeordnet im Gegensatz zu übergeordnet. https://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/unterstellen

Dass heisst zum Beispiel. Ich sage einer Person oder weise diese an sich zu unterstehen. In dem Fall meine ich: Hören sie auf mit dem was sie tun. Ordnen sie sich mir unter und leisten sie meiner Anweisung Folge.

Nachdem die Person sich dann unterstellt hat, meiner Anweisung Folge geleistet hat, steht sie mir unter. Sie hat sich also unterstanden, sie Folgt mir und meiner Anweisung.

  • 1
    Neben dem inhaltlichen Blödsinn enthält Ihr Posting mindestens 17 Rechtschreibfehler. Das ist schade, zumal in einem Forum über Sprache. Jun 3, 2017 at 14:40

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