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This question arises from one asked by a native German speaker on SE English Language and Usage. He wished to know whether there was an English phrase equivalent to gefährliches Halbwissen. I provided what I thought was the answer (“dangerous half-truth” — you cannot say “half-knowledge” in English) but this did not fit with an English translation he cited. I consulted my phone copy of Collins German–English dictionary to discover that the word “Halbwahrheit” also exists. So my question is:

Is the phrase gefährliches Halbwahrheit used in German, and, if so, does it have a different meaning from gefährliches Halbwissen?

The implication of the definition the poster provided is that gefährliches Halbwissen is incomplete or superficial knowledge which could be dangerous when applied more widely (e.g. in medical circumstances) even though the actor meant well. In contrast a dangerous half-truth is usually applied to a statement (often made deliberately to deceive) made in the political, theological or philosophical sphere.

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  • @Rha Thanks for the edit Typical mistake on my part. I am a scientist and had great difficulty with written languages at school, although eventually in later life managed the (now discontinued) Kleines Deutsches Sprachdiplom of the Goethe Institut (at second sitting). But I enjoy reading and speaking German.
    – David
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 21:04
  • You cannot say "half-knowledge" in English that's right. But you can very well say something is "half-understood", which is transporting the very same meaning - And that is exactly what "Halbwissen" means.
    – tofro
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 8:07
  • @tofro — But "half-understood" is an adjective, and we are dealing with nouns in the SE EL&U Question. You could say something like "incomplete understanding" but "dangerous incomplete understanding" is not idiomatic. However that is not the concern of this list.
    – David
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 8:19

2 Answers 2

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Both words exist, see DWDS Halbwissen and Halbwahrheit and seem to have a similar frequency. I see no similarity in meaning, however. As you correctly state, Halbwissen may be expressed and acted on good faith, while Halbwahrheit includes ugly stuff like

  • an intended misrepresentation (bordering on fake news)
  • claiming a causal chain which can't be proved

Note, there is a phrase which I consider as much more frequent: halbe Wahrheit, which similarly to Halbwissen may just fail to consider important aspects, just address one side of the medal or similar. (The other side may also be intentionally suppressed, to get rid of counter-arguments.)

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  • Sounds reasonable, especially as you are a mod. I'll wait a little before accepting it. I think I am probably guilty of Halbwissen myself, which makes me wonder whether that makes me a halfwit. Or is that another example of a little knowledge...? Weiss may become wit in low German and then and white in English, but is that only for "eiss", not "iss"?
    – David
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 20:59
  • I don't really see the difference between "Halbwahrheit" and "halbe Wahrheit"
    – Lykanion
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 9:09
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Let us first clear the meanings before trying a translation. First off: you added "gefährlich" (dangerous), but that wasn't even necessary. Both words, "Halbwissen" and "Halbwahrheit" have strongly negative connotations and both are considered to be bad. The element of dangerousness is already implied and only emphasized by adding it explicitly.

  • Halbwissen: means the problematic state between complete layman and expert. A layman would shy away from doing something, an expert would do it but would know all the problems maybe arising from doing so and take them into account. Somebody with a "Halbwissen" will know how to do it but lack the experts circumspectness, causing a catastrophe.

You may have heard about the Dunning-Kruger-effect where people with no competence at all know they know nothing and experts tend to underestimate their competency level but people in the area between tend to overestimate their competence. This is what the word is about.

  • Halbwahrheit: means something not outright wrong but lacking certain parts of information (usually to spin something). "Half-truth" is a good translation. If I tell you that I own a big company, it will leave the impression that I am rich. If I would add that the company is bankrupt that would change this impression dramatically. So, telling only the first part would be telling a "Halbwahrheit" or a "halbe Wahrheit" - not a direct lie but not the whole truth either.

To answer your question: "gefährliche Halbwahrheit" (the genus is female as "Wahrheit" is female and geman compound nouns always have the genus of the last part) can be used and sounds perfectly idiomatic, although one could leave out "gefährlich" (dangerous), because this is already implied. Whoever tells "Halbwahrheiten" has malignant intentions anyway and should be considered dangerous by default.

"gefährliches Halbwissen" (das Wissen is neuter) is a common phrase in German and describes exactly what you said: doing things with superficial competence and the danger that can cause. One can use it without the "gefährlich", e.g.:

Auf dem Gebiet habe ich nur Halbwissen.

meaning "I am (somewhat knowledgeable, but) no expert".

A probable translation (but without the connotations that has in German) would be "smattering". English is not my native language but "half knowledge" is, according to my dictionary, also an idiomatic expression.

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