As far as I can tell, these words are pretty much synonyms. "Wittern" seems to be more related to hunting, like smelling out prey, but I'm not sure.

5 Answers 5


If used verbatim, "wittern" refers more to detecting a smell over a distance. A similar English expression would be "to get wind of something", which also includes the idea of the wind or the air transporting the smell to the nose. "Riechen" is more general. If you for example take a bar of soap in your hand and smell at it, you'd "riechen" the fragrance, but not "wittern" it. Maybe, if the soap store has a lot of strong frangrances, you'd "wittern" them as soon as you open the door ;)

"Riechen" can either be used intransitively with the "sender" of the odor as the subject (Die Seife riecht gut "the soap smells nice") or transitively so that the origin of the odor is the object (Ich rieche die Seife "I smell the soap").

Figuratively, both verbs can be used to express that you detect something, for example

Er wittert die Chance, etwas Geld zu verdienen.

Das riecht nach einem Betrugsversuch.

  • 4
    best answer. I'd also add that "wittern" is typically used for animals and only rarely do we say that a human "wittert" something, except when speaking metaphorically.
    – Tom
    Jul 12, 2021 at 13:23

Your impression is partly correct. The meaning of passively "riechen" and "wittern" have a lot of overlap, with "riechen" more in everyday use.

"riechen" can occur actively, that something smells, and passively through olfactory receptors.


"wittern" is indeed a bit hunting jargon, to smell the air if it carries a scent, or to have a premonition or anticipation that something is about to happen.



"Wittern" has a concrete meaning and a figurative one. The concrete meaning is overlapping with "Riechen" but the process of perceiving a smell is more active and more subtle/sensitive. And usually it's related to sense the smell of someone or something that poses a (potential) threat or that is a potential prey. The context is usually serious.

It's (usually) not used for catching the smell a nicely flowering scent or comparable.

"Wittern" is also kind of an active process. A hunting dog can start and try to "witter" before he actually has smelt anything.

In a figurative sense "Wittern" stands for the notion/intuition/inspiration that something is an indicator of something else, though it's at all not obvious.

And usually it's something of importance in a negative or positive way. You would not use "Wittern" for perceiving something trivial.


"Wittern" also has a meaning apart from "riechen". But it is taken out of the hunting context.

It can also mean something similar to "to have a feeling something is up/wrong". If I am remembering correctly it can also be translated to "smell" in this sense.

"Ich wittere Verrat" -> "I smell treason"

  • 1
    "Wittern also has a meaning apart from riechen" - Isn't that the case with "riechen" as well? "Ich rieche Ärger" ("I sense trouble", somewhat related to "smells fishy" -> "sounds strange") or "Ich kann dich nicht riechen" (-> "I don't like you").
    – NullDev
    Jul 12, 2021 at 18:06

I woud say that normally you use “riechen” for humans while “wittern” is mostly used for animals like dogs.

"Hunde nehmen Witterung (eines Tieres) auf" "Das riecht aber streng sagt Hans"

But it depends a little on the usage/meaning. Like said by @henning-kockerbeck "eine Chance wittern" is a "human usage" for wittern. But right now I don't remember another "human usage" for wittern.

  • Du verschiebst die Fragestellung hier aber auf ein Substantiv (Witterung), wo bei einem richtigen Satz ein Artikel stehen würde (Hunde nehmen die Witterung auf) und analog "den Geruch" ebenso stehen kann. Beim zweiten Beispiel benutzt Du den Passiv (der Käse riecht ja nicht mit seiner Nase, also kann er auch nicht wittern, allenfalls verwittern). "Animals like dogs" ist auch ein merkwürdiger Gegensatz zu Menschen. Nicht nur Jäger wittern Beute, sondern auch Gejagten die Gefahr (wie das Reh). Jul 14, 2021 at 11:43

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