The adjective rich in present-day English used to be spelled rice in Old English and its meaning was then actually broader than it is today.
For instance the adjective rice could mean "wealthy" as it still does today but also "powerful" or "mighty" and even "kingdom".

From this observation come a few questions:

  1. Could it be that the noun Reich and the adjective reich have a common origin in German?
  2. If yes then do we have an idea about which one did come first? Reich/kingdom or reich/wealthy?
  3. Did reich also mean "mächtig" or even "gewaltig" in the past in German (or possibly does it still mean either today)?

The origin of reich according to the German Wiktionary:

Das Adjektiv lässt sich auf das althochdeutsche rīhhi und das mittelhochdeutsche rīch oder rīche (edel, mächtig, von vornehmer Herkunft) zurückführen. Diese beiden ja-Stämme lassen sich wahrscheinlich [...] als Ableitungen vom germanischen Substantiv rīk- (Herrscher, Fürst) auffassen. Dieses Substantiv wird als eine Entlehnung aus dem Keltischen eingestuft.

Die anfängliche Bedeutung des Adjektivs reich ist damit vermutlich ‚königlich‘ oder ‚fürstlich‘ und verändert sich im Laufe der Zeit erst zu ‚vornehm‘ und ‚mächtig‘ und schließlich zur heutigen Bedeutung ‚viel Geld und viele Güter besitzend‘, wodurch es zum Gegenwort von arm wird.

The noun Reich originates from the Old High German rīhhi, and is related with reich.

queme thin rihhi,

is the line "dein Reich komme" in the Old High German version of the Christian Lord's Prayer (Vaterunser).


Das althochdeutsche rîhhi entspricht auch schon dem ursprünglichen Gebiet (zu gebieten), lat. imperium „das unter dem Befehl stehende“. Die Bedeutung von rîhhi umfasst „Regierung; Herrschaft, Gewalt; reich, mächtig; hoch“, so erhalten etwa in Ostarrîchi (dem Vorläufer Österreichs).

Answering your questions

  1. The words have a common root in Althochdeutsch (a Celtic loan word)
  2. The meaning "wealthy" is younger.
  3. The word had the meanings mächtig, gewaltig in Old High German; today these meanings are not common if the word is not used in an expression/compound word which might suggest mächtig.
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  • +1 Thank you for this learned and precise answer. I had the idea that wealthy came as a second meaning to mighty also because money is a more recent phenomenon than sheer might. I'd probably argue that the actual introduction of money could be the cause of the specialisation of reich in wealthy. But since this is a phenomenon common to many languages German, Dutch, English, Spanish, Italian and French to name just a few, it is probably an early phenomenon. Please note that all these languages have a Celtic substrate but only Dutch and German still use Reich as "kingdom". – Alain Pannetier Jun 17 '11 at 22:32
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    For completeness, the scandinavian languages use it as Kingdom too: Rike for kingdom in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian; rikas for wealthy in Finnish (probably from Swedish). – Pekka Jun 18 '11 at 13:05

To answer your first question, according to Duden, they indeed have the same, celtic origin:

mittelhochdeutsch rīch(e), althochdeutsch rīhhi, eigentlich = von königlicher Abstammung, aus dem Keltischen, vgl. altirisch rī (Genitiv: rīg) = König


middle high german rīch(e), old high German rīhhi, originally = of royal descent, from celtic, cf. old irish rī = King

I don't know for sure about 2.; Re 3. I have never come across "reich" meaning either "mächtig" or "gewaltig". As far as I know, the scope of the word is limited to the condition of being rich.

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  • There still is reich in the sense of mächtig like e.g. in fettreicher Käse, ereignisreicher Tag. – Takkat Jun 17 '11 at 20:22
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    @Takkat that doesn't sound right to me - you can't use "mächtig" here, can you? "reich" in that context means "full of", not "powerful" – Pekka Jun 17 '11 at 20:23
  • @Pekka: it may be the other way round: there is that saying "diese fettreichen Speisen sind mir zu mächtig" - that means they are rich in fat - therefore they are considered "mächtig". – Takkat Jun 17 '11 at 20:28
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    @Takkat still, I don't see the connection. There are contexts where "mächtig" is very close to "reich" - like in your example, or when saying "dieses Programm hat eine mächtige Suchfunktion", which usually means it is very feature-rich - but you can't substitute one word for the other 1:1. – Pekka Jun 17 '11 at 20:31
  • But @Takkat interestingly, Leo offers "mächtig" as a translation of the english "rich" so you may be on to something. I don't know. – Pekka Jun 17 '11 at 20:33

I would translate reich as wealthy (rich) and Reich as "Commonwealth." So in that regard, they would be related.

Put another way, reich refers to the wealth of an individual. Reich could refer to the wealth or well being of a much larger group of people.

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  • This doesn't really answer the question on etymology, though. – Tim Jun 17 '11 at 21:10
  • @Tim N: I would argue that one meaning is a broader version of the other meaning, and therefore they are the same word used in two somewhat different ways. – Tom Au Jun 17 '11 at 21:15
  • Ok, I see what you mean. – Tim Jun 17 '11 at 21:16

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