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I am not an active student/user of the German language. Still I would like to know more about the precise meaning of the phrase "abhanden gekommen" as in Rückert's Lieder "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen".

A typical English translation I've seen of [Rückert stuff] is "I am lost to the world" but I am wondering if there are alternative/better translations for the phrase "abhanden gekomen sein" and possible connotations?

FWIW I am aware of the German Grammar but I don't speak/write it on a regular basis. I am not really looking for a translation to English; any insight in German would serve just as well. (I can handle the German.)

Any insight appreciated.

  • 2
    lost to the world is a perfect translation. abhanden kommen. gone astray might maybe be closer to abhanden kommen, but doesn't really go well with the world. – tofro Feb 16 '17 at 21:18
  • @tofro Thanks. When I write I am lost to the world this could mean I (the subject) haven't a clue about what's going on in the world. Alternatively, It could mean (if I'm right) that the world [active agent] considers me (the passive object) a lost case. Any thoughts? – null Feb 16 '17 at 21:35
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    There was no active part on my side - World just somehow lost sight of me, forgot about me even existing or I have otherwise gone lost. – tofro Feb 17 '17 at 6:48
  • @tofro Thanks for the clarification. The English translation does not provide any insight into to meaning/grammar of the German words, which is why I was asking. I think I have a better understanding of the words now. – null Feb 17 '17 at 9:29
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»Abhanden kommen« is a synonym of »verlieren« (to lose something).

In the poem of Rückert you find a somehow unusual usage of this phrase. Normally you use it this way:

Dem Hirten ist eines seiner Schafe abhanden gekommen.
The shepherd has lost one of his sheep.

Mir ist meine Geldbörse abhanden gekommen.
I lost my wallet.

So the pattern is:

(A person in dative case) (a form of sein) (something in nominative case) abhanden gekommen.

The standard word order (subject at position 1) is also possible, but in this case less usual:

Eines seiner Schafe ist dem Hirten abhanden gekommen.
Meine Geldbörse ist mir abhanden gekommen.


Rückert used the phrase in a way where not a person is losing something, but where the world is losing a person. And this person who is lost by the world is the first-person narrator. So ...

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.

is in English:

The world lost me.

And it means:

I am no longer a part of the world.


Addendum

jemandem ist etwas abhanden gekommen

does not exactly mean »jemand hat etwas verloren«. It can mean:

  1. jemand hat etwas verloren (somebody has lost something)
  2. jemandem wurde etwas gestohlen (something was stolen from somebody)

To be even more precise:
It means, that you at some moment realize, that something is no longer in your custody. You can know that you've lost it (you felt your keys slip through a hole in your pocket, herd it fall down and saw it vanishing in the gully), you also can know that it was stolen (you saw the thief pick your keys from the table and run away), but you also can have no idea whether you lost it, or if it was stolen (in the morning you locked the door with your keys when you left your home, but now the keys are no longer where they used to be). In all three cases you can say

Mir sind meine Schlüssel abhanden gekommen.

  • Thanks. The answer is really insightful. Just one more question. Does the mir is meine boerse abhanden gekommen really mean the same as I've lost my purse or somebody has stolen it? – null Feb 16 '17 at 22:00
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    It simply means it's gone. For whatever reason. – tofro Feb 17 '17 at 6:43
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    Thanks. In the Dutch language, which I happen to know because it was the first language I learnt, we have a phrase afhandig maken: it also has the af (ab: direction away), the hand (Hand: hand), and maken (machen: to make) aspects. However, it's only used in the context of stealing or taking from somebody without consent, – null Feb 17 '17 at 9:34
  • Re-reading this answer, I just want to let you know it's very good. – null Feb 17 '17 at 18:51
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As you already supposed, and the other answers also do point out, "abhanden kommen" can be translated as get lost. But since you asked for the connotations I want to add some information concerning this aspect of your question.

"Abhanden" is the contrary to "vorhanden", which means "present". The literal translation of "vorhanden" would be - as you already might have guessed - "before hand", but it does not mean beforehand, but rather at hand. So "vorhanden" is something which is present to be used, to be taken in hand. And "abhanden" is quite the contrary "off hand", absent. (Also see Pfeifer)

For the connotations of "abhanden kommen" the meaning of the prefix "ab-" is significant as well. In german "ab-" means something like "away" or "off" (see the first meaning in https://www.dwds.de/wb/ab-). To get a taste of the prefix you might find it helpful to take the following examples onto your tongue:

  • "abgeben" - to cede, or: to emit
  • "ablehnen" - to refuse
  • "abtreiben" - to abort
  • "abstoßen" - to reject

So, we already have something. But when it comes to "abhanden", the third meaning mentionend in https://www.dwds.de/wb/ab- - the meaning of a gradual process - is also relevant:

allmählich, nach und nach. Beispiel: abblassen (to pale out), abkühlen (to cool down), abmagern (to macerate), abstumpfen (to deaden), abzahlen (to aquit [a debt]) [english translations by me]

In the term "abhanden kommen" "kommen" as a verb of movement even stresses the latter connotation of a slowly, gradually change. The example of Erich Kästner's poem Roland Illig cites in his answer makes heavy use of this connotation: Even if the speaker states that the love of the both got lost suddenly ("plötzlich"), the use of "abhanden kommen" suggests that this was in fact a steady process with only its result being sudden to the both. (I would argue that the contradictory tension between the processual connotation of "abhanden" and the "plötzlich" (sudden) is marking the perspective of the speaker who analyses the lovestory of the two from the outside).

I think that in Rückert's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen the use of "abhanden kommen" shall allude the concept of a slow and gradually process (a struggling I would say) as well.

Of course all this is merely interpretation and thus open to dissent. But I think that's partly due to the question asking for connotations.

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This quote from a poem by Erich Kästner covers the typical usage:

Als sie einander acht Jahre kannten
(und man darf sagen, sie kannten sich gut),
kam ihre Liebe plötzlich abhanden.
Wie andern Leuten ein Stock oder Hut.

Abhanden gekommen means something is lost or gone, probably for good. It is no one's fault, it just happened. The exact circumstances of the disappearance are unclear.

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One thing hasn't been mentioned yet:

Das Buch ist abhanden gekommen.

It emphasizes that it went lost, but nobody knows exactly WHO lost it and HOW it got lost.

  • Correct. I thought, that implication was also included in the translation "get lost" which is also a passive constrution. – jonathan.scholbach Feb 17 '17 at 14:41
  • Thanks. I figured that out today by speaking with a Swiss native. This additional insight completes my question (I think). – null Feb 17 '17 at 18:10
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The most exact translation for "abhanden kommen" I can think of is

somehow go out of reach

This covers the uncertainty of the cause as well as the full range, so for a purse it could mean:

  • I put it somewhere myself, and simply don't remember currently, where it was
  • I lost it
  • Somebody stole it

As pointed out by Hubert, abhanden is the opposite of vorhanden or zur Hand, and all contain Hand as the range, where something can be grabbed.

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'abhanden kommen' indeed has a subtle connotation that is hard to explain. It is implying that the loss is somewhat tragic. Or poetic.

The phrase you mention is even more unusual as it subtly states that 'I' am not part of this world any longer and that this is a real loss to the world.

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    Nothing poetic, nothing tragic, in my opinion. Just gone. In case you have your purse lost or stolen in the tramway without even knowing why, you might say "Mein Geldbeutel ist mir abhanden gekommen" to avoid a wrong suspicion. – tofro Feb 17 '17 at 6:57

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