I recently started learning German through Duolingo and Busuu.

I came across the word groß a few times now but I'm not sure how to tell the difference between:

The man is tall vs The man is big (heavy weight).

Der Mann ist groß vs Der Mann ist groß.

Do day-to-day German conversations use different words to differentiate weight from height?

  • 4
    'Groß' does not mean heavy weight. – RalfFriedl Feb 26 at 6:58
  • @RalfFriedl Peter ist groß = Peter is tall. But: Dein Stück Kuchen ist größer als meines. = Your piece of cake is larger than mine. Diese Schiff ist riesig groß = This ship is huge - meaning also: heavy. What I want to say is: I think the meaning of groß changes with what thing it is referring to. – Christian Geiselmann Mar 5 at 11:11
  • The word "groß" means big/large. Something big may or may not be heavy, but if you want to express that the ship is heavy, you would use a word like "schwer". – RalfFriedl Mar 5 at 15:09

Peter ist groß.

This almost exclusively refers to his height. Peter might as well be an XXXL-sized guy, but if you wanted to refer to his weight, you would say something like breit (wide, can also mean he just has wide shoulders), schwer (heavy), dick (large), fett (fat, derogotary) or übergewichtig (overweight).

  • 1
    A more common English translation for "dick" would probably be "large". – Henning Kockerbeck Feb 25 at 20:37
  • 2
    Thank you for the explanation! I suppose my confusion came with saying something like die Pizza ist groß whereby groß would mean large. I will remember that pertaining to a person, groß means tall. – Andreas Campan Feb 25 at 22:36

Groß (in its literal meaning) indeed indicates great spatial extent, not necessary (only) vertically. It is in its generality the German equivalent to "big". A big rock, a big house etc. will probably be wider but also higher than average.

With people though, the meanings of these two words have specialized in opposite ways: In German the literal meaning of groß typically translates to tall (but see the next paragraph for an exception) while in English big translates to German dick. One reason may be that English (but not German) provides a more specific adjective, tall, specifically for height; if one wanted to emphasize height one would use that, so the general big is used for the other spatial dimension. (For some reason in neither language high or hoch are used for persons.)

Another aspect is that big (as opposed to fat) is a mild euphemism; if I'm not mistaken we are lacking an equivalent in German. Dick is pretty blunt, though not as pejorative as fat. This gap can on occasion be filled with groß: If you google "Große Größen" (for clothes) you will not find clothes for tall men: The second hit is "Kleidung in großen Größen – Maximaler Modespaß für Kurven" :-) — obviously one wanted to avoid calling the customers dick and emphasized the attractive part of body fat, namely the curves, as one would in English.

As an aside, this is a common error for Germans who learn English. Big and groß are practically equivalent except when it comes to the dimensions of human's bodies.

  • This isn't really about "false friends", as there are no homophones involved (unless you really stretch it with big/dick, though really the only false friend candidate here is "dick", but for very different reasons). The problem is really more, as you stated, that both German and English lack some words with a certain specificity present in the respective other language. – Sty Feb 26 at 13:32
  • @Sty Ah, I see what you mean -- "big" simply does not exist in German, so how can it be a friend? But you got the idea that it appears to be the exact counterpart of groß until it isn't. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 26 at 13:41
  • I get that and have experienced (and perpetrated) that misunderstanding myself often enough, but I'd think this is more due to the way "big" is often introduced as "groß", at least in English language lessons in the German school system without going into the finer details of its usage limitations. Of course that's only based on my personal experience here, though. – Sty Feb 26 at 13:47
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    "kräftig" I hear used as a euphemism for heavy people, though it means "strong". – Helena Feb 27 at 7:36
  • Re high: In English, high can be used for tall buildings, but they all rest on the ground and are of varying height. People are (relative to buildings) more-or-less the same height, so high doesn't apply to their own height, but where they are placed spatially. – Andrew Leach Feb 27 at 9:16

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