Where do these two sayings come from? If you take a closer look at them, it seems for me, at least, they are completely random. "Off and close" ("ab und zu")? "Off and on" (ab und an)?

How did these weird words in these combinations come to their meanings of "occasionally" and "now and then"?

  • "Ab", "an" and "zu" do not mean "off", "on" and "closed" in most cases, especially in these sayings.
    – Eller
    Jun 15, 2016 at 21:44
  • Well, yes. Actually, I'm a native german speaker (and have no idea which else they mean here). So: what exactly do they mean in those sayings?
    – heraklit
    Jun 15, 2016 at 21:48
  • This is one very good example a native speaker would never asks about. I did some research on the web but unfortunately I can not tell you the etymology of this phrase. Your literal translation by the way is incorrect. "Ab und zu" and "ab und an", these words can possess mutiple meanings according to the context. E.g. "an" can mean "at" in a prepositional context (e.g. at the door (an der Tür)) or "to" (e.g. I talk to my friend(ich wende mich damit an meinen Freund)) or "on" in a temporary context (e.g. on a Wednesday (an einem Mittwoch)) etc. So it has many meanings, always condsider the cont
    – Glasfaser
    Jun 15, 2016 at 22:01
  • You might also want to list hin und wieder which is synonymous
    – tofro
    Jun 16, 2016 at 9:30

2 Answers 2


Das wird höchstens der Versuch einer Antwort, über die wichtigste Frage bin ich mir nämlich selbst nicht ganz klar und kann nur spekulieren.

ab und zu, hin und wieder und ab und an müssen Gegensätze sein, damit sie in Richtung "manchmal" funktionieren.

"Schauspieler geht ab" und "Fahr doch zu" (Also im Sinne von "vorwärts" und "rückwärts") sind Überbleibsel früherer Bedeutungen, also von Richtungen die gegensätzlich sind. Zu "hin und wieder" weiss der Grimm

verblaszter, von bewegungen die unregelmäszig bald da bald dorthin gehen

Und für "ab und an" liest man Ähnliches

Wie es kommt, dass man die Ausdrücke in einer sozusagen "zeitlichen" Bedeutung verwendet (Das Englische verwandte "now and then" funktioniert ja auch so) ist mir nicht ganz klar. Dadurch, dass wir im Deutschen verschiedene Richtungen verwenden, kommt möglicherweise eine gewisse "Zögerlichkeit" zum Ausdruck, die manchmal bedeuten soll.


I would suggest that you seek the answer in the sky.

We have two expressions in Danish "af og til" and "i ny og næ".

"Af" is short for "aftagende" = "Waning". "til" for "tiltagende" = "Waxing". "Ny" is short for "nymåne" = "waxing gibbous" and "næ" is "næ måne" = "waning crescent". Originally "i ny og næ" would be something happening twice a month - Not exactly every 2 weeks but spaced fairly evenly. "Aaf og til" would be an activity you would be doing all year but with increasing and decreasing intensity. Like "waxing and waning " still means in english. In danish, however, both expressions are now used for something that happens occasionally. /Mads

  • 1
    Welcome to German.SE. As far as I understood the question it looks for the etymology of german phrases. As far as I understand your answer - there is some Danish phrase with a light connection to English. No German. So unless you just forgot the linking to searched phrases - this is no answer to given question. Jun 23, 2021 at 9:14
  • @ShegitBrahm The question is answered in the first sentence.
    – Olafant
    Jun 23, 2021 at 11:31

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