Reading Kluge's Etymological Dictionary (published 1881, translated into English 1891) the word Ungeziefer has this description:

Ungeziefer, noun, 'vermin', from the equivalent late Middle High German ungezibere, unziver, noun; properly 'unclean beast not suited for sacrifice'. It is based, in fact, on Old High German zëbar, 'beast of offering', which is connected with the equivalent Anglo-Saxon tîfer. The terms borrowed in Romance, Old French toivre, 'cattle', Portugese zebro, 'ox, cow', prove that zëbar was applied to large animals, and that the word was widely used in Old Teutonic.

How transparent was the religious connotation of this in the beginning of the 20th century? How transparent is it today amongst Germans?

Wiktionary and Wikipedia also lists the word Geziefer with about same meaning as the negated word: "lästige, unerwünschte, schädliche kleine Tiere, vor allem Insekten". This word however, I didn't find in Kluge's dictionary.

I'm interested in the religious connotation because, Franz Kafka, a jew, has the protagonist in the novella The Metamorphosis, transformed into a "ungeheuren Ungeziefer". Could this, mostly understood as a beetle or a vermin, also be understood as ritually unclean (although I think unrein is the word used in the Torah)?

1 Answer 1


Nowadays there is zero religious connotation with that word, simple as that. It's clearly understood as vermin, no more and no less.

In the Third Reich, calling Jews "Ungeziefer" was part of the dehumanizing propaganda war against them. Theoretically, that could make for a strenuous religious association, but even then, the intention was clearly to portrait them as vermin.

  • Von Rechten heute noch gebräuchlich: Linke als Zecken zu verunglimpfen. Von Linken im Gegenzug für Investmentfonds: Heuschrecken. Den Zusammenhang "Ungeziefer - Luzifer" habe ich aber auch bis jetzt nicht wahrgenommen. Mar 27, 2013 at 0:10
  • @userunknown: Could you write in English for those of us not speaking German?
    – citizen
    Mar 28, 2013 at 17:51
  • @citizen: I'm sorry, but I have to answer no. Of course I could look up Zecken, verunglimpfen, Gegenzug, Heuschrecken. Ungeziefer and Luzifer have to stay in German, but I'm surely not able to find the right expression to translate "Rechte" and "Linke", as the terms are used in Germany, to British or American English. I guess similar terms are used very differently there. Mar 28, 2013 at 20:41
  • Let me try: Right wingers call left wingers "ticks" and left wingers call international investors "locusts". Apr 1, 2013 at 20:57

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