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What's the difference between Boden and Erde? As far as I know, they both mean soil and/or dirt. I would really appreciate it if someone could be very specific in the differences.

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Boden is ground, land, or floor. As 0x6d64 mentioned, when put into a compound word it can mean the bottom of [whatever the first word or words are].

Erde is more specifically earth. This can refer to the ground outside, soil, or the planet (when you say the Earth, die Erde).

(Tangentially, Erdboden is very specifically the ground outside, made of dirt, e.g. the surface of the Earth.)

My impression is that Boden refers more to the surface or layer, and Erde more to the physical substance. I’m not a native speaker though I’ve been studying in German for more than five years now, so if this impression is wrong, someone please let me know.

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    'I have never really heard "Erde" used for an indoor surface.' - I have. In some parts of Northern Germany, "Was machst du da auf der Erde?" asks why someone is sitting/kneeling/lying on the floor (inside or outside alike). – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '15 at 8:20
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    Other uses of "Boden": Tortenboden (the baked bottom or middle layers of a cake), Hosenboden (the part of trousers where you sit on), Regalboden (the horizontal board in a shelf or cupboard where you put things). – 0x6d64 Jun 15 '15 at 10:41
  • I've only ever been in the south, and I would say "Was machst du aufm Boden?" but I'll edit. – Rinari7 Jun 15 '15 at 13:05
  • Note that the scientific word for "soil" is "Boden" and not "Erde". Nevertheless, we use "Blumenerde" for our balkony plants. – Roland Jun 15 '15 at 13:36
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    "Erdboden" can also be used in a rather wide sense, meaning "somewhere in or around the world". No matter whether we are referring to a person standing outside or an astronaut on the ISS, none of them is "vom Erdboden verschwunden" unless they actually disappear without a trace, despite the astronaut was quite far from Earth already. – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '15 at 13:54
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+50

I think the general rule is that Boden is used scientifically and mathematically in a sense of a system, the "overall thing". Erde is used scientifically and chemically as a part of that system but also religiously and philosophically.

If you want to be very specific, I guess one option is to check out what meanings Duden has to offer for:

  • Boden

    • 1) Erdreich, Erde admittedly, that sounds very similar to the other word in question, but as the differences are subtle, you have to bear with me. This meaning is that of ground being used in agriculture. If you describe your ground as fertile or being well suited for a certain plant then you are talking about Boden. This includes the overall system, including insects living in the ground, moisture, granularity, ....
    • 2) Grundfläche im Freien oder in einem Innenraum this meaning boils down to "what's underneath you when you are standing somewhere". Mathematically you could say that there is some spatial dimension that you would consider "up" and whatever you would define to be the reference point, where this "up" dimension is zero, that would be the Boden. Compare this to how the term ground level is an expression for a point of reference of height, but keep in mind that strictly it is not a translation in this sense. ground level is an absolute point of reference, comparable to how we measure the height of mountains based on the sea level as an absolute reference point. This meaning of Boden is more closely translated with floor. Mathematically speaking, this meaning is the point of reference of your local relative coordinate space. If your flat is in skyscraper, you are standing on the floor, the (Fuß-)Boden, even though the ground level is severel hundred meters (feet ;) ) below you. I would like to make it clear that Boden does not have the same meaning as Grundfläche which is area. If you want to say how big your flat or house is, the totally area of space is a measure to do this. "123 m² (or ft²) Boden" would not be a valid statement, at least in terms of real estate.

    • 3) Grundlage this means "the base of" something. Whereas meaning Boden.2 was more about the spatial reference point, this meaning is more about the ideological/argumentative/political/juristic reference point. The Boden der Tatsachen is a very important phrase that is the center point of this meaning. When your live is based on illusions/wrong assumptions/dreams and you face the facts and you are brought (back) down to earth or knocked out of the skies, you are not literally falling (in a spatial dimension), but you are told where you started from an where your reference point is.

    • 4) Gebiet this is the political meaning of owning/controlling or having influence on a certain area. Gaining land area in a war can be described as Boden gut machen loosely translated to "gaining more ground". Note that this meaning is figuratively not restricted to physical land, but generally to power or influence. In general Boden can be considered to be a metric for power. Whereas Boden.3 has the meaning of the reference point, this meaning Boden.4 is how much you gain or lose relatively. Say for example your are the leader of a political party that is based on the constitution (Boden.3: Auf Grundlage der Verfassung) but in the election you lost ground against other parties (Boden.4: Boden verlieren)

    • 5) unterste Fläche von etwas this is again a spatial meaning comparable to Boden.2, but less in terms of a reference point but more of a lowest possible spatial limit. An example being the floor of the ocean, the Meeresboden

    • 6) Tortenboden the base of a cake. The only important meaning of this word.

    • 7) Dachboden another word for attic, as you can see Dachboden includes Boden

  • Erde
    • 1) aus verwittertem Gestein this is the chemical substance, the dirt but also the rare earth materials.
    • 2) fester Boden, Grund, auf dem man steht; Untergrund the meaning of structural integrity. This is borderline to Boden. Both statements die Erde bebt or der Boden wackelt would be valid during an earthquake.
    • 3) begrenztes Gebiet, Land, zu dem eine emotionale Beziehung besteht I guess this is what translates to "home-turf", a piece of land that one feels emotionally attached to.
    • 4) irdische Welt; Welt als das von der Menschheit bewohnte Gebiet a religious meaning of the Present: spatially, temporarily and spiritually, the "here"
    • 5) dritter Planet unseres Sonnensystems that huge rock that is racing around the sun that we are all sitting on
    • 6) Leitung zum Erden the ground wire, often as GND. A bit of an odd ball as it is a point of reference for a scientific system (electrical engineering) but being used as Erde, not Boden. This is the point to which all voltages are referenced to. If you say something has "5 volts" that means it has so many volts with respect to ground. In a sense, this is comparable to ground floor in terms of height, but for voltages.
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"Boden" would be translated to "ground" or the bottom part of something.

"Erde" is, apart from "the Earth" (our planet), a other word for "Humus".

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    In Northern Germany, "Erde" can also mean "ground". – O. R. Mapper Jun 15 '15 at 3:37

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