I have been able to identify two aspects where the English language distinguishes between shame and embarrassment:

  1. Shame relates to having done something wrong, while embarrassment is a result of having done something foolish.

  2. One can be ashamed of oneself without anyone else knowing about it, but embarrassment is usually something you experience in the eyes of others.

I wonder how these nuances are handled in German? In addition to this general question, I also have a more specific question along these lines. I recently tried to translate the phrase “she all but died of embarrassment” in the context of someone who peed her pants while laughing at a joke. I have been given at least three choices for “embarrassment”, which I will perhaps withhold until I see what other people would like to offer.

(The question originally arose in the Yiddish context, where we have in addition to the three German options I know of, at least three Hebrew terms to choose from. I still don’t know which one exactly hits the mark for the case of peeing your pants.)

3 Answers 3


Tricky one. I would use as possible translation in these cases (bold preferred):

Shame relates to having done something wrong:
Scham (maybe even Schande, but that's a really strong word)

embarrassment is a result of having done something foolish:
Peinlichkeit, Scham, maybe even Blamage (strong word again)

ashamed of oneself without anyone else knowing:
Scham (schämen)

embarrassment is usually something you experience in the eyes of others:
Peinlichkeit, Verlegenheit, Scham, maybe even Blamage (strong word again)

Yes, I would say Scham is a possible translation for all four situations, but it really depends on the context to choose the appropriate (not saying "correct" on purpose) word.

she all but died of embarrassment:
Sie wäre beinahe vor Scham gestorben.
Sie wäre am liebsten vor Scham im Boden versunken.

These two are the most common translations for your situation. The first one is almost word by word. Even though I marked "Peinlichkeit" as preferred above, I do not see a good way to use it here. It is "peinlich", but you do not "die", because something is "peinlich".

  • Very nice answer! Yes, the three words recommended to me were scham, verlegenheit, and peinlich(keit): I put the (keit) in brackets because although the word seemed most apt to the situation, it seemed to flow more as an adjective than as a noun. One correspondent indeed also thought of "im boden versunken". I should mention that my other correspondent used "aus" rather than "vor". Would that be equally acceptable? Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 21:46
  • @MartyGreen: I prefer "vor", but I cannot come up with a reason against "aus". Probably both are fine. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 23:19
  • @Takkat: nowhere - I kicked out verbs and adjectives out of my list after realizing that he is asking for nouns here. It made my list much shorter and more comprehensible. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 23:24
  • It's really interesting how there are so many words for shame or embarrassment in German. I found out recently that's there's no real equivalent for our definition of 'shame' in Russian, which is also interesting.
    – hohner
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 11:31

so I think I need to add something that hasn't been mentioned. From a functional point of view Scham and Peinlichkeit are not the same. Scham is something you FEEL, nothing else. It is not applicable for shame in situations like the following:

It's a shame.

It doesn't matter here, why it is a shame. Scham just doesn't work there. The most common translation would be Schande. Peinlichkeit on the contrary is used for the situation. You can see or do it, you can blush because of it but you can't really feel it. Thus these 2 words are not at all interchangeable for simple functional reasons.

As far as the respective verbs are concerned there are:

sich schämen - Ich schäme mich (für etwas).

peinlich sein - Mir ist etwas peinlich.

The former is definitely stronger here. They can be translated to

I am ashamed of... I am embarrassed because...

Which of the German ones is more appropriate depends mainly on the strength of the feeling than on considerations of why you feel that way or the question whether someone else is aware of your feelings or not... this statement is based on my personal perception of the words though.

You must be careful with peinlich by the way. The person who feels it is NOT the subject but is in dative case as in the example above.

Ich bin peinlich.

This does not mean "I am embarrassed". It is derogatory meaning "I am awkward."

  • If I'm understanding you correctly, that's a very good point. Would not Schande/Scham also be similar to Peinlichkeit/Verlegenheit in describing the event/emotion? Ich habe wegen des Schandes gefuhlt gross scham; ich habe wegen des Peinlichkeits gefuhlt gross Verlegenheit? I hope I've constructed grammatically correct examples. Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 2:10
  • The pair Scham and Schande makes sense but Verlegeheit is not always connected to a Peinlichkeit and it is limited to being a feeling as Scham is. We don't say "Ich fühle Verlegenheit." we say "Ich bin/komme in Verlegenheit.". We might be there because we don't know what to say or do in a situation or because someone is flattering us. You could experience this as embarrassing, yet it is not always a Peinlichkeit by objective standards. Quick grammar: second verb to the end and all the nouns we are discussing are female. Hence: "Ich habe wegen der Schande große Scham gefühlt."
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 16:04
  • I thought I was so smart for remembering (?) that wegen took the genetive case. And I actually caught myself on the verb order but then I thought, "nah, they can't be all that serious about that." I guess I was wrong. But seriously, these are very nice insights into the nuances. The question of Verlegenheit aside, I wonder if I am correct in understanding that a Schande is a scandalous deed, and a Peinlichkeit is an embarrassing situation? So you don't "feel" schande, and you don't "feel" peinlichkeit. You fall into a state of verlegenheit on account of a peinlichkeit...nischt wahr? Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 17:38
  • 1
    wew you are really diggin' here :). Let's try it this way: Schande is a reason to feel shame, independent who's fault it was. It is not as much connected to a person as Peinlichkeit. -The trash on the streets is a Schande for this city. And also father, manager, could say it to his son, drug addict, -You are a Schande for this family. Schande is never used in plural. The deed expl. you suggested doesn't cover that.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 18:43
  • Peinlichkeit is a reason to feel embarrassment or shame and it is usually connected to a persons deed (or appearance). This word does have a plural in use. You can do several Peinlichkeiten.Persons are not called Peinlichkeit. Check out the linguee dictionary... it gives you examples in context... here is the link for Peinlichkeit: linguee.de/deutsch-englisch/uebersetzung/peinlichkeit.html This dictionary is awesome if you are advanced in German. But I think you pretty much got it :)
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 18:50

There is also a newly created word "fremdschämen". It is not in the Duden I think, but it is used quite a lot. It explains the way one feels, if someone else is making a fool of himself. You feel ashamed seeing him while doing it. I heard it the first time from a juror in a casting show, saying it to a girl who did an awful performance.

Here is a definition: fremdschämen in Wikitionary

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