Attention, rhetoric question ;)

I came upon suboptimal and thought about its meaning and origin. Is it an anglicism, German euphemism, slang...? The meanings some online dictionaries provide are quite contrary (suboptimal in Urban Dictionary, leo.org, Duden, OpenThesaurus, dict.cc).

They range from shite to not perfect (which is the meaning I had in mind). It seems to have quite contrary meanings in English and German or maybe this is due to arbitrary machine translations. Is there an explanation?

I especially like the Urban Dictionary explanation, as its voting system provides a rough estimate on how accurate a definition is perceived.

Basically suboptimal means nothing you couldn't say with already existing German or English words. I read it first in a German article. But nowadays, it seems to be common term.

  • What is irony? Du bist ein Held! Jul 26, 2011 at 13:56
  • @user :) The problem compared to suboptimal is, you wont find a dictionary stating its meaning is Versager! Thats actually what i found interesting on suboptimal ;) Normally this ironic meaning is bound to a aphorism/proverb imo(?)...thinking of similar ambivalent adjectives like suboptimal...
    – Hauser
    Jul 26, 2011 at 14:17
  • Ich habe schon bessere Erwiderungen gelesen. ;) Wo ist das Proverb? Jul 26, 2011 at 14:22
  • 2
    8th place for Word of the year 2005 :)
    – balpha
    Aug 31, 2011 at 9:23
  • 1
    People, who does (or may) not use negativ words (politicians, bankers, liars, etc..) uses the word suboptimal often. It is not seldom an another word for shit. Straight answers do not need that word.
    – user19546
    Dec 21, 2015 at 14:29

2 Answers 2


I can't really give any other sources for the meaning than the ones you have already given - the literal, official translation is "less than perfect" or "less than optimal". But since it is a Latin term for something that can just as easily be said with German words, some people consider it somewhat fancy and high-brow, which is why it's commonly used as an understatement, as in the Urban Dictionary definition: what they're literally saying is "This is slightly less than perfect," what they're meaning is "This is shite."

It's considered funny for the same reasons people like to use the famous Queen Victoria quote "We are not amused" when someone's actually quite upset - because it's a very understated, "fancy" way of saying it, there's a strong contrast to what you clearly actually mean, which is something more emotional and possibly more crass, like "This is really shit" or "We're really upset."

  • 3
    +1, couldn't agree more. We use it rather humorously here when something is a total failure, as well as when it's just not perfect. Can't keep a serious expression when saying it though, since it's really high-brow when you could just say what you actually mean, as you explained :) Jul 26, 2011 at 8:19
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    Good explanation. I too use it in both senses (literally less than perfect and as an understandmant: it's really bad). It's sometime hard to grasp which one is meant, but usually the context makes it pretty clear. Jul 26, 2011 at 8:41
  • 3
    Good answer, "considered funny" being the main point for me. I have to admit: I find that the word has been used so much that the joke has worn out. Jul 26, 2011 at 9:34

As you have already linked, "suboptimal" is a relatively new expression in German that was officially listed in the Duden from 2004.

Interestingly the usage of "suboptimal" is not very much different in English as compared to German; we can see this from Google Ngrams:

"Suboptimal": usage in German:

enter image description here

"Suboptimal": usage in English:

enter image description here

This is what makes me believe that it is not loaned from English but in both languages simultaneously loaned from Latin optimum prefixed with Latin sub-.

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