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I've found it very helpful to learn words by learning the "essence" of the individual words (ie, understanding the unifying "theme" of a given words across its various definitions) but I haven't been able to do that with "treiben."

According to Wikipedia, "treiben" can mean "to drive (livestock)," "to propel," "to urge," "to fuck," "to drift; to float about," "to sprout," and "to do, to get up to." Oh yeah, and apparently you use it to say "do sports." ("Sport treiben")

Could someone offer some guidance/clarity?

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    Does the etymology help? dwds.de/wb/Treiben
    – Iris
    Feb 28, 2019 at 12:51
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    It's "Sport treiben", not "Treiben sport"
    – Iris
    Feb 28, 2019 at 12:53

3 Answers 3

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I'd argue that the essence of the word goes into the direction of "to push" or "to drive/direct".

You are having one force (e.g. a shepherd or a stream) that is pushing an object to a new destination. It can be a struggle (e.g. the plant that sprouts through the earth). And it can also be an intrinsic force that inflicts struggle onto oneself (e.g. when exercising sport).

Note that the outcome is not necessarily clear. The general direction is apparent, but the path to it and the eventual result can manifest in different ways.

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Treiben is mainly in the use of "sth being driven" (by external force). This applies to the translations of your list

  • to drive (treiben / antreiben)
  • to propel (antreiben)
  • to drift (treiben)
  • to float (treiben)
  • to sprout (austreiben, der Trieb(by plants))

The other meanings are well... a bit derived. "To fuck" - "Es miteinander treiben" comes from "Triebe" in the meaning of the nature of animals/humans to reproduce. Their nature "drives" them to want to have sex.
"Sport treiben" and "ein munteres Treiben" comes afaik from two influences: In sports, the trainer (or in military the sergeant) makes their crew to do sport("jemanden antreiben" - "to motivate/force so.). Second influence is childs games like tag, where they chase each other, in this meaning also a kind of "treiben".

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    I don't think "es mit jemandem treiben" has much to do with "Trieb". The expression is in line with many other uses of "treiben" as "machen" (as in "Sport treiben" and basically means "to do it with someone" or "to do it together", "it" having a sexual connotation as in many other turns of phrase across language barriers.
    – Endre Both
    Mar 1, 2019 at 7:08
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If you look at the list of meanings on DWDS, it is indeed long, but it is divided into two big groups, denoted by Roman numerals. The first group is indeed all related to its cognate to drive (not a car, however). Your examples:

"to drive (livestock)," "to propel," "to urge," "to drift; to float about," "to sprout,"

For urge, compare driving someone to do something. The one with a twist on this list is to drift/float, where the meaning has changed from drive to be driven. Notice that drift is also related to drive.

The other group is variants of to do sth, to occupy oneself with sth, but only used for certain things. Here we have Sport treiben, to do sports, and indeed es mit jemandem treiben, to do someone (not an exact translation).

For more fun, look up: antreiben, betreiben, umtreiben, vertreiben. And probably more.

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