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I'm trying to grasp the difference between Kugel and Ball.

So I took such spiky toy ball kugel thing:

spiky toy ball kugel thing

and went to ask a German person what that was. "It's a Ball", he said. "Because it's shaped like a Kugel, but a Ball is serving a greater purpose and is not about the geometric shape." (He really said that!)

So I asked him if a marble ball is more of a Ball than a Kugel. This is what a marble balls looks like:

marble ball

He said, that's definitely more of a Kugel over a Ball. I asked him if marble balls had no greater purpose and he said he didn't know. :(

Well, now I'm super confused.

Somewhere I have read that every Ball is also a Kugel. And a Ball is made of flexible material. But that's not true in all cases, is it? I couldn't really find a satisfying answer to that on the Internet.

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It’s rather hard to grasp. Let’s attempt to approach it from different angles.

In their maths classes at school, around year 9 German pupils learn about the sphere which is always called Kugel in maths class.

The marbles are definitely not Bälle, they are Murmeln or Schusser (and give or take probably twenty other regional names). You could describe their shape as Kugelförmig though.

In divination, you would always use a Glas- (for the cheapskeets) or Kristallkugel, never a -ball.

In sports, there are two kinds: Those that are Kugeln and those that are Bälle. Examples:

  • Fußball, Hockeyball, (Tisch-) Tennisball, Federball, Squashball, Handball, Faustball, Schlagball, Wurfball, Wasserball, Volleyball, Golfball, etc.

  • Bowlingkugel, Billiardkugel, Kugelstoßen, etc.

If I had to extract a rule here, it is Ball if it is somehow thrown or propelled and the main incentive. The Bowlingkugel is just the tool to throw a strike. The Billiardkugel doesn’t actually ever touch your hand and the main way of manipulating it is with the queue. But it breaks down with Kugelstoßen which is basically propelling the damn thing (and hoping it hits the sand and doesn’t starve before that). Learn those that use Kugel and treat Ball as the standard case in sports.

Note, however, that journalists with synonymitis may also use Kugel to refer to a ball of the Ball type above, most often in football.

When children play, they will always play Ball and not Kugel. (They might kugel (verb) around, though.)

Some decorative dust-collector is a Kugel much like the divinator’s tool above. Unless of course it is a porcelin football, in which case the Fußball takes precedence.

Moogles have a Kugel on their head, not a ball. Likewise Kokonoe Rin has Kugeln in her hair.

Maybe the final conclusion is that a Ball is something that you can perceive as a toy or that you can throw and play with — this covers quite a few cases but not all of them.

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    Journalists like to write Kugel sometimes in football reports, probably for variation’s sake. Example: Lazaros schnappt sich 30 Meter vor dem Kasten die Kugel, tritt an und zieht ab. (Eurosport.de) – chirlu Dec 15 '15 at 20:01
  • @chirlu kugel in this case is the geometric figure, and the ball is an object in the shape of a kugel – WayneEra Dec 16 '15 at 7:46
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Kugel is the translation of sphere. And most of the objects you play with are called ball, e.g. Fussball, Handball etc. I think it isn't that wrong to say that the hard materials like metal or glass are called Kugel and the softer ones ball. At least I can't think of any one that doesn't follow this rule.

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    Billardkugel, Bowlingkugel are made of hard materials. A Golfball or Tischtennisball is made of hard material too, but calling them -kugel is wrong. I'd say that something, that's not a perfect sphere (has small knobs or bumps, can be compressed, has seams) is a ball. – try-catch-finally Dec 14 '15 at 16:37
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    @try-catch-finally A plasric Fußball`may be more like a perfect sphere than a *Bowlingkugel with its three finger-holes. Maybe a Kugel is more for rolling and a Ball for bouncing (I know that bouncing occurs in billard and bowling, but those are more exceptional movements)? - Apart from that, a bullet is also a (Gewehr/Pistolen(Kanonen-)Kugel, supporting the hard material theory ... – Hagen von Eitzen Dec 14 '15 at 17:02
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    No, at least for mathematicians, a Kugel is a ball, while a sphere would have to be called a Kugeloberfläche (or of course simple a Sphäre). – Carsten S Dec 14 '15 at 17:14
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    @M.Zuberbühler and that three-dimensional object is called a ball in English, so that has a broader meaning than the German Ball, which is probably the reason for the question. – Carsten S Dec 14 '15 at 20:05
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    Sorry, it is sometimes hard to avoid math lingo. By two-dimensional I meant “eine Fläche”. It is not surprising that our non-technical language is lacking in this regard, since three-dimensional bodies have much more direct correspondences in the natural world then surfaces or lines, which are more obviously only idealisations. – Carsten S Dec 14 '15 at 20:13
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I put the mathematical definition of Kugel aside. Others have elaborated on this quite enough. Instead, I focus on what makes a Ball (usually shaped like a Kugel) different to a Kugel. This can easily be answered by looking at various definitions of Ball.

Quoting Wikipedia:

Ein Ball ist ein rundes, üblicherweise kugelförmiges, seltener ovales, elastisches Spielzeug oder Sportgerät aus Leder, Gummi oder Kunststoff.

Quoting Duden:

kugelförmiger, gewöhnlich mit Luft gefüllter [elastischer] Gegenstand, der als Spielzeug oder Sportgerät verwendet wird

First off, it may have a shape like a Kugel but this is not necessary; think of American football or Rugby. And it may be inflated with air.

But there are two main criteria which makes an object being called a Ball rather than a Kugel. The first criterion is that it's used as toy or for sports. This alone doesn't differentiate between Ball and Kugel, since some Kugeln are used for sports and games, too.
The second criterion, however, is the key difference to Kugeln. Bälle are elastic. The degree of elasticity may vary. Some balls are still hard to form whatsoever, others break right away when you try to crush them. But they are elastic. This is not true for Kugeln (think of billiard balls, bowling balls, marble balls). Try to form them!

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    How would you explain: "Golfball"? – Iris Dec 15 '15 at 9:26
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    @Iris "The degree of elasticity may vary. Some balls are still hard to form whatsoever" A golf ball is still made of elastic material and though you can hardly form it with your hands. Golfbälle sind elastisch, oder sieh das Video hier (Ja, ich glaube, das ist gefaked ;) ) Aber hier gibt's das ganze etwas seriöser. – Em1 Dec 15 '15 at 9:32
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    De facto, müsste man eher in Frage stellen, ob bspw. Billardkugeln sich nicht eventuell auch verformen. Ich habe in Physik nie aufgepasst, aber ich wette, sie tun's. – Em1 Dec 15 '15 at 9:39
  • At least this explains weirdnesses like the Schlagball versus Kugelstoßen. But it’s kinda funny to think of a Medizinball as elastic xD – Jan Dec 15 '15 at 21:14
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Kugel

There are similar words in German language, like »Kogel« (round top of a Hill), »Kogge« (broad but short sailing ship), and all of them belong to a family of words round the word »Keule« (cudgel) which is a stick with a thick, round end, and the Englisch word cudgel in fact also is related to this family. In other languages there are similar words for »Kugel«: Danish kugle and Dutch kogel.

So, from it's etymology a »Kugel« is something that is round and hard.

A Kugel can be:

  • A mathematical sphere plus it's content.

    Sei K eine Kugel mit dem Radius r und E eine Ebene, die K tangential berührt.

  • A hard object that is shaped like a sphere.

    Die Kugel am oberen Ende eines menschlichen Oberschenkelknochens hat die Größe eines Tischtennisballs.

  • A bullet.

    Die Kugel prallte am Geländer ab und traf dann den Schützen selbst.

The meaning »bullet« comes from medieval times, when the first guns was invented. The bullets of guns in those times was shaped like balls, and they was hard, so they was named »Kugel«. Later the shape changed, but the name stayed.

Ball

Sometimes you can read, that the German word »Ball« (as well as the englisch »ball«) has it's origin in the greek word βάλλειν (ballein) which means »to throw«. But this is wrong. The word »Ballistik« (the science of throwing) comes from βάλλειν, but not »Ball«. The true etymology is a little bit complicated, but very interesting:

The Middle High German word and the Old High German are the same: »bal«, and this is also the Dutch word. The English word »ball«, the French »balle« and the Swedish »boll« have all the same origin, as well as the english »ballock« which literally means »little ball« but means testicle. They all come from the Indogermanic word »bhel«. And »bhel« means: to swell, to well up, to bulge, to blow up.

So »Ball« (in German as well as in English) means: A thing that is blown up.

And so also the english »balloon« and the German »Ballon« have the same etymologic root as »Ball« and »ball«.

Also intersting is, that the indogermaic word »bhel« also transformed to the greek word φάλλος (phallos), which is the greek word for the penis, and this is also something that can swell.

But there is another word that comes from »bhel«: The German words »blähen« (to belly) and »blasen« (to blow). The original meaning of both word was: to swell something, to make it bigger (primarily, but not exclusively, by blowing it up with air). And this meaning is still vivid in the word »blasen« when it is used in the meaning of fellatio.

So, under this aspect (»Ball« = a thing that is blown up) it becomes much clearer what »Ball« can mean:

  • A device in sports, that is filled with air, but does not need to be in the shape of a sphere.

    Im amerikanischen Football wird ein ovaler Ball verwendet.

Derived from this usage many round sports devices are called »Ball«, even if they are not really blown up. It is rare, but the balls used in Billard and Bowling sometimes are also in German called »Bälle«, but more common still is »Billardkugel« and »Bowlingkugel«.

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    I love the "swollen", "blown up" connotation with testicles! – Stephie Dec 15 '15 at 8:42
  • As others have remarked, Kugel is not a mathematical sphere. – Martin Peters Dec 15 '15 at 8:54
  • @MartinPeters: I added »plus it's content«. Is it better now? – Hubert Schölnast Dec 15 '15 at 12:00
  • @HubertSchölnast Content does not sound good, and it would be its . Maybe solid ball will do. – Martin Peters Dec 15 '15 at 12:46
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The confusion may be sorted a bit if we have a look at the etymology of both words.

  • Ball
    goes back to the indo-european root *bhel- in the meaning of inflated, swollen. It is the same root for the English ball, and we also find it in the greek φαλλός (phallus).
  • Kugel goes back to the indo-european *gugā for a bent or curved body.

So whenever we use Kugel there is a reference to the shape of the body (as also used in the mathematical term) whereas when using Ball we refer to the consistence, and springiness of a mostly spherical body.

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I think some of the confusion might derive from the different use of the word of "ball/Ball" and "sphere/Kugel" in English and German:

Ball: in German, "Ball" is related to the construction of the item, i.e. it has a shell and something in the centre (typically air), and is designed to bounce back. Hence a football is a "Ball", but a snooker ball is a "Kugel". There is a slight connotation of that a "Ball" is designed to play games, but I think this rather derives from the fact that they usually are used this way, rather than this being part of the inherent meaning of the word.

Kugel: is a "sphere" in the mathematical sense. In the everyday sense however, it is a ball (English) which is solid, i.e. fully filled with material and does not have a shell. If I did not know the word for Jan's mentioned "Murmeln", I would definitely call them Glaskugeln (and not Glassbälle).

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