I have looked at a lot of translation websites and lost of them have said that "gemein" means common but it also says that it means cruel.

Which one is it?

  • 7
    Hint: A word can have more than one meaning.
    – RHa
    Nov 4, 2020 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


Actually it's both. The usage in the sense of "common" is a bit old-fashioned.

This is like the English adjective "mean". It's either common/general or nasty/cruel.

  • 1
    To be fair, the "common" meaning if "mean" is no longer used, see Wiktionary. On the other hand "mean" has about a dozen other meanings to choose from.
    – RDBury
    Nov 4, 2020 at 22:17
  • 1
    Good thing to point to the word "mean".
    – jmizv
    Nov 5, 2020 at 8:27
  • 4
    It is used very commonly in taxonomy (Gemeine Stubenfliege), and remains in composites (Gemeinschaft, allgemein). Nov 5, 2020 at 15:56
  • @RDBury True. I didn't want to make it too complicated.
    – user46657
    Nov 9, 2020 at 16:23

In the time of aristocratical German all non aritocratical people were called "das gemeine Volk" in the meaning of "the crowd of people". So "gemein" was something analog to "normal" or "common", and said from aritocrats with the meaning "nothing special".

Over time this changed to the worse. The meaning changed from "nothing special" to "something with bad behavior" and was now used from all people from all classes. Then the way was short to the meaning "cruel" in "Du bist gemein!" for "You are cruel", as answer when a child hits another, or someone steps intentionally on bugs...

I think a good example for the changing meaning is "gemeine Räuber" oder "gemeiner Dieb", (Räuber, Dieb: burglar) where the meaning is something stronger than "nothing special" but not in general "cruel". For example I could imagine a person in a crowd, that notice someone running away with their money and yelling "Du gemeiner Dieb!" but was not injured by this person. I am not sure, but maybe "gemein" could have in this case the meaning of "naughty".

  • 1
    "when a child hits another, or someone steps intentionally on bugs" - I'm not sure these are the best examples. Note how "cruel" also translates to "grausam", and inflicting damage upon someone without the slightest bit of compassion (which both of your examples might be described as) would usually be considered "grausam", while being "gemein" would be considerably weaker - more like laughing at someone or saying something bad about them. For instance, describing a cruel murderer who tortured their victim as "gemein" would sound rather childish and inappropriate, whereas "grausam" fits. Nov 13, 2020 at 7:28
  • Maybe I had another situation in mind, than I was able to write down. Intentionally step on bugs is for me not the same as a murder torturing their victim. And I would not say that one little children, that one time hits another is "grausam". As native German speaker I heard a lots of children say "Du bist gemein" when they want to verbally give an answer at the playground to someone for example stepping intentionally on their sand-building or comparable. "gemein" is waeker than "grausam" in German, so to be honest, I was a little surprised to read "cruel" as a meaning of "gemein"... Nov 13, 2020 at 9:15
  • ...But in the question was not asked about the meaning of cruel, instead the question was about the meaning of "gemein". Maybe you know a better translation of "gemein" in sense of bad behavior? Nov 13, 2020 at 9:15

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