I know that there have been many questions regarding translating "comfort" and "discomfort" between German and English, and I've probably read all of them on the internet thus far :) However, this seems to be a case where this can be a rather difficult thing to translate one for one, where certain subtle feelings are invoked which require the knowledge of a native speaker. Therefore, I have decided, for the time being, to just stick to a couple of rules, so that I can make sure I don't make a mistake.

My question refers to the subtle difference between gemütlich and behaglich.

As far as I can tell, gemütlich describes the comfort of a situation/a mood/atmosphere/something external. Now, it seems like behaglich has some overlap here, but more refers to the FEELING that somebody has in this situation. Hence, we get words like "Unbehagen", a feeling of disease/discomfort. Maybe I'm completely wrong here, but let's consider two example sentences:

  1. Ich habe ein behagliches Gefühl, weil meine Wohnung gemütlich ist.

  2. Ich habe ein gemütliches Gefühl, weil meine Wohnung behaglich ist.

Does sentence one sound better than sentence two, or is my "theory" completely wrong?

2 Answers 2


A shelter in the woods may be behaglich if there's a rainstorm outside but in no case it's gemütlich. You don't want to be in that moldy shack but facing the alternative …

Gemütlich is feeding your Gemüt, your soul. So, a bench in the woods can be gemütlich if it's sound and surrounded by a dozen giant fir trees, though it might be a bit cold there in the shade. That's what behagliche clothes are for.

  • 3
    Very interesting example. If I were to try my best to translate them into English, or at least the meaning, could it be the case that gemütlich is comfortable, and behaglich is comfortING? The shack is comforting, it provides comfort, but is not comfortable. The clothes are comforting, they provide comfort from the cold...
    – Mark
    May 28, 2018 at 1:35

In the first part of this answer, I’ll try to show you how (and: how differently) behaglich and gemütlich were used in the past, and how they developed into what they are now.
Hopefully, this will help you develop a feeling about when to use which word: this is difficult if all of your examples come from modern dictionaries.

In the second part, I’ll comment on the theory in your question.

Part 1

Behaglich and gemütlich have different origins, and they retain different meanings until today: gemütlich is related to the gemüt, one’s disposition or nature. The etymology of behaglich is not really apparent (it could be related to the old Germanic word hagan: protect, foster, nourish).

A bench can be gemütlich or ungemütlich to sit on, but that is not an absolute quality as it depends on your situation. Whether it is comfortable is not an inherent quality. However, the context of reaching that spot, sitting down, taking a break, having a picnic, enjoying the scenery etc. can make the whole situation gemütlich or behaglich, and this is where the two words overlap.

The »Deutsches Wörterbuch« by the Grimm brothers (DWB) offers numerous literary examples (many more than quoted here) for behaglich, but none of them supports using behaglich to describe a piece of furniture or other specific object:

wer redlich ist im herzen und mit dem munde frei,
der wisse, dasz bei hofe behäglich [comfortable] er nicht sei.

sag nur wie trägst du so behäglich [even-tempered]
der tollen jugend anmaszliches wesen? (here and below, toll means crazy)
fürwahr sie wären unerträglich,
wär ich nicht auch unerträglich gewesen.

baue nach lust dein feld,
nach deinem bedarf dein haus,
und sieh auf die tolle welt
behaglich [untroubled] zum fenster hinaus.

For example, a room with a fireplace could be described as gemütlich or as behaglich, and here, both words point in a similar direction: behaglich doesn’t necessarily mean it’s snowing outside, and gemütlich doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a comfortable armchair next to the fire, although both could be true. Instead, both words here could mean that the whole setting is calm and inviting.

The DWB defines gemütlich (this is the relevant definition) as:

3) genehm, lieb, willkommen, dem wunsch und sinn entsprechend u. ähnl.

What does this mean? It means that the word is used mainly to describe how one feels about something:

Charlotte v. Stein:
wenn es ihnen gemüthlich ist [if it is convenient], so grüszen sie auch Göthe von mir.

es war mir gar nicht gemüthlich, dich heute zu verlieren, und so hab ich mich deines Fritzes bemächtigt [I was displeased about not being able to see you today, so I met your Fritz instead]

In particular, it mentions the attributive use:

b) auch mit attributiver, also flectierter verwendung des adj., obschon selten

as with behaglich, the examples are manifold, but the only example referring to a specific spot is by Goethe:

traten wir in den garten um das grab des edlen greises (Gleim), dem nach vieljährigem leiden und schmerzen, thätigkeit und erdulden, umgeben von denkmalen vergangener freunde, an der ihm gemüthlichen stelle [the spot that the deceased liked] gegönnt war auszuruhen.

From following the shift in the last example, we can deduce the contemporary usage. Note how the subject (emphasized) changes:

Es war ihm gemüthlich, an diesem Orte zu verweilen.

still antiquated:
Die Bank ist mir gemütlich.

Die Bank ist gemütlich.

The meaning of the word gemütlich has changed from describing whether something accords to one’s gemüt to being a positive adjective to describe objects. Its old meaning remains in the phrase »Mach’s dir gemütlich«, and we know how that famous sentence from »Life of Brian« was translated:

Sit down. Have a scone, Make yourself at home. You klutz!
Setz dich. Nimm dir 'n Keks, machs dir schön bequem. Du Arsch!

Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us that the »Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache« (DWDS) lists »bequem and behaglich« as the first meaning of gemütlich.

Part 2

You wrote:

gemütlich describes the comfort of a situation / a mood / atmosphere / something external.

Yes. The old usage of gemütlich relates to one’s gemüt, and that is internal, but it expresses the gemüt in regard to something external. Nowadays, it is used to describe objects, but the origin of the word still shines through, since whether or not something is gemütlich is not absolute but depends on your gemüt.

Now, it seems like behaglich has some overlap here, but more refers to the FEELING that somebody has in this situation.

Yes, there is an overlap. But as you may see in the examples for behaglich (first part of the answer), substituting gemütlich for behaglich wouldn’t work in these cases.

You further asked if the following was true:

  1. gemütlich describes objects, behaglich does not. Ein gemütlicher Stuhl, not a behaglicher Stuhl.
  2. Both can describe atmospheres. Eine gemütliche Wohnung, eine behagliche Wohnung.
  3. Something is "behaglich" if it leads "gemütlich".

Strictly speaking, I believe you are correct about point 1, but nowadays there is an overlap in meaning, particularly in the spoken language. I agree with point 2, but again, this is umgangssprachlich. Imagine you are invited to a friend’s for the first time. You see his room and say one of the two sentences below, and, colloquially, both should work:

Du hast es hier aber behaglich.
Du hast es hier aber gemütlich.

You will hear gemütlich more often than behaglich, and the connotations of the two may be a bit different, but it will also depend on the person you talk to, on local speaking habits etc., so I wouldn’t say there’s a hard rule.

Finally, you asked:

As I attempted above, maybe behaglich is comfortING, and gemütlich comfortABLE?

As to gemütlich and comfortable, you are correct.
However, as far as I understand comforting, it means to cheer up or to console: both imply that you’re not well to begin with. This is not the case with behaglich. You can feel perfectly at ease and still think a room or situation is behaglich or pleasant.

If I had to name a German word with a meaning close to behaglich, I’d suggest heimelig, which the Leo dictionary translates as homey, homely, haimish, if that helps.

  • 1
    Phillip, thank you for this fantastic explanation. I must admit, translating some of the given texts, however fascinating, was a challenge in itself :) If I were to summarize my thoughts about your post, I would say: 1. gemütlich describes objects, behaglich does not. Ein gemütlicher Stuhl, not a behaglicher Stuhl. 2. Both can describe atmospheres. Eine gemütliche Wohnung, eine behagliche Wohnung. 3. Something is "behaglich" if it leads "gemütlich". As I attempted above, maybe behaglich is comfortING, and gemütlich comfortABLE? Thanks again, and I look forward to your reply!!!!
    – Mark
    May 28, 2018 at 19:23
  • 1
    @Mark Thanks for your positive feedback, I appreciate it, and sorry, I didn’t want to bombard you with dusty German quotes :-) Later, probably not today, I’ll edit my answer as it needs some tuning, and while at it, I’ll also respond to your comment. Right now, I can only say this: I believe that you’re correct about point 1, but many things are possible in context, and language constantly changes, so I wouldn’t take it as a strict rule. You are right about point 2: both can describe atmospheres. I’m not sure about point 3, but I’ll think about it.
    – Philipp
    May 29, 2018 at 12:24
  • I look forward to it! I found the following sentence in the internet: "das Gericht war eine Offenbarung für mich, schmecken unglaublich exotische doch irgendwie zugleich behaglich vertraut." My guess here would be,..."comfortingly familiar". The meal brought a feeling of comfort, hence "comforting (ly)". Gemütlich would not work here, correct?
    – Mark
    May 29, 2018 at 15:00
  • @Mark I finally got around to editing that answer ;) Also, the sentence in your last comment has some issues, grammatically speaking. I assume you mean something like „Das Gericht war eine Offenbarung, es schmeckte exotisch doch zugleich irgendwie behaglich vertraut.“ You’re correct about “comfortingly familiar”.
    – Philipp
    Jun 7, 2018 at 8:32

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