Literally translated, selbstbewusst means self-conscious (selbst → self; bewusst → conscious), but in actuality, it means self-confident, which is quite the opposite.

What is the history of the words in English and German, and how did they develop so different meanings? Does it play a role how self-awareness is judged¹ in Germany vs. USA/England?

¹ It seems that self-conscious/selbstbewusst can also mean self-aware in English as well as German.

  • possible duplicate of Is "selbstbewusst" a negative word?
    – Robert
    Mar 18 '15 at 23:00
  • Possible duplicate of german.stackexchange.com/questions/6846/…
    – Robert
    Mar 18 '15 at 23:00
  • 1
    @Robert I don't think that this is a duplicate. That questions seems to be about what the colloquial meaning of selbstbewusst is. I already know the answer to that, my question is about the etymology of selbstbewusst vs the etymology of self-conscious.
    – tim
    Mar 18 '15 at 23:07
  • I think a better translation for "selbstbewusst" is confident, that might improve your understanding as well. Mar 19 '15 at 14:16

The literal meaning of both self-conscious and selbstbewusst is awareness of oneself. A priori this can go either way, depending on your opinion of yourself.

Let's consider the extreme cases for clarity. If you think of yourself as worthless, you'll end up self-conscious when being aware of yourself. If you think a great deal of yourself it'll make you selbstbewusst instead.

I guess it was primarily historical accidents that made the respective words for self-awareness be used more often in one context in one language and more often in the opposite one in the other. This made them acquire additional connotations.

Cultural factors may have played an important role by skewing the odds. For English I am thinking of social norms in England, where it was considered a good thing to understate your own accomplishments in order to make others feel more at ease. For German I am thinking of the way the military used to influence German society. Even though differences in national character generally pale in comparison to individual variation within each country, they can probably be detected statistically by how they affect language.


Consciousness/awareness/Bewusstsein only means, that one observes or is capable of observing. The reflexivity conveyed by self or selbst means, that one observes oneself or is capable of doing so. Generically self-conscious and selbstbewusst are perfectly synonymous.

The difference comes from what particularly one observes in oneself, or what the result of that observance should be. That is certainly determined by the philosophy or world view that motivates the observance in the first place.

If one observes oneself’s strengths in particular or the observance results in awareness of these strengths, then it may yield self-confidence/Selbstbewusstsein/Selbstvertrauen.

If one observes oneself’s weaknesses and imperfections in particular or the observance results in awareness of these weaknesses and imperfections, then it may yield self-consciousness (in casual meaning).

The German Selbstbewusstsein used to be associated with strengths. But it’s more and more associated with weaknesses (see: healthy living, ecological footprint).

  • 2
    I would disagree that self-conscious and selbstbewusst mean the same thing. The more common meaning of selbstbewusst is one of self-confidence, as in you're confident in your strengths, your skills and your ability to achieve certain things. Also, I would not associate Selbstbewusstsein with weaknesses. Healthy living and ecological footprint are not "weaknesses" per se, also you would translate them as Gesundheitsbewusstsein (being aware of one's health) and Umweltbewusstsein (being aware of the environment), respectively, which only share the Bewusstsein /_awareness_ Mar 19 '15 at 22:17
  • @Raketenolli I wrote, that selbstbewusst and self-conscious are generically synonymous. It was edited by someone else to generally, which is fundamentally different. The usual of meaning of selbstbewusst is of course self-confident.
    – Toscho
    Mar 20 '15 at 9:01
  • @Raketenolli I don't mean, that healthy living and ecological are weaknesses. But they are associated with them: healthy living is a result of observing the bodies weaknesses after unhealthy living (illnesses, lack of fitness, …); a massive ecological footprint is an imperfection for someone who cares about ecology.
    – Toscho
    Mar 20 '15 at 9:03
  • Die Sorge um den ökologischen Fußabdruck mag eine Funktion der Bewusstmachung von antizipierten Folgen des eigenen Handelns sein, aber von Folgen für die Umwelt, nicht für das eigene Selbst - deshalb ist es hier völlig fehl am Platze. Mar 21 '15 at 1:27
  • @userunknown Nein, es ist nicht fehl am Platze, denn, wie du richtig gesagt hast, geht es um „Folgen des eigenen Handelns“, wodurch die Reflexion entsteht.
    – Toscho
    Mar 21 '15 at 13:06

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