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I recently came across a use of "bauen" with "Unfall", which seems odd to me. (For full the context it was "Du bist rausgefallen, nachdem du einen Unfall gebaut hast.") The dictionary translation (summarizing DWDS & Wiktionary) of "bauen" is "to create, build (up), construct". Or it can mean to base something on (with "auf"), or several other similar meanings I won't go into here. In English you can say you "caused an accident" or "had an accident", but you wouldn't say you "created an accident", and even less that you "constructed an accident". (Ironically, you can "recreate or reconstruct an accident", but that's a different meaning.) I'm thinking there are three possibilities:

  • the phrase is not idiomatic at all and "bauen" has a different meaning than I expected, something like "to cause to exist" perhaps.
  • "bauen" is a light verb here with little independent meaning, so analogous to "have" in "to have an accident".
  • "einen Unfall bauen" is simply an idiom where the meaning of the phrase cannot be deduced from the words alone.

The light verb option would not imply blame, only that the accident happened. But from the wider context I think that blame is implied so that option can be ruled out. So is it one of the other two options or am I completely misunderstanding something?

My research also turned up "Mist bauen" which I gather means "to botch, to blunder". This seems to be the same sort of thing as "Unfall bauen". Using the DWDS-Wortprofil I generated a list of nouns that are frequently "gebaut", but these two were the only ones I couldn't get to fit the dictionary meanings. I also found a question here relating to the phrase "einen Türken bauen", which I gather is simply an idiom, and a politically incorrect one at that.

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4 Answers 4

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"Mist bauen" and "einen Unfall bauen" are youth slang (Jugendsprache) of the 1960s. Cool kids decided to use "bauen" in the sense of creating or causing something really bad, and this became part of universal slang (Umgangssprache) over the years. "Scheiße bauen" (to fuck up) is also very popular, with the same meaning as "Mist bauen", just a bit more coarse.

Google ngram

A little different in meaning, but same wry use of "bauen":

einen Joint / eine Tüte / eine Zigarette bauen (roll a marihuana joint or a cigarette)

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    That meaning of "bauen" as "to cause something" is much older than 1960 - It actually was one of the core notions of the Germanic/Gothic "bhû", where "bauen" was derived from.
    – tofro
    Feb 17 at 13:42
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    @tofro In modern German, bauen does not mean "to grow" or generally "to make", and it hasn't for hundreds of years. To say that there was a direct line from Germanic uses of "bhû" over Luther's use up to "Mist bauen" and "einen Unfall bauen" would be quite daring. I have trouble believing that.
    – HalvarF
    Feb 17 at 14:14
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    I like the youth slang idea. (This is what happens when you practice a foreign language by watching cartoons.) The Ngrams seem to prove that the phrase dates back at most about 50 years. Other likely seeming combinations don't seem to be used though; I tried "Skandal bauen", "Schaden bauen", "Lärm bauen", "Stau bauen" and "Tod bauen". The conclusion I'm drawing is that the phrase is one of a group of related idioms.
    – RDBury
    Feb 18 at 9:13
  • In my mind "bauen" includes both a somewhat active role (the accident didn't just "happen" to him, he actively caused it, likewise when he f*cked up) and perhaps even an element of staging, as opposed to a simple, straight-forward act. Feb 19 at 15:13
  • One could argue that if the meaning @tofro mentioned wouldn't have been already contained in "bauen" the youth slang of the sixties wouldn't have used it. It can happen that a concept a word expresses "lies dormant" for some time until it is "reawakened". (Perhaps the there are more fitting linguistic terms for that but I am not a linguist.)
    – bakunin
    Feb 20 at 9:14
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The German "bauen" has retained a bit of a wider focus from it's Germanic origins than the English "to build". (Note this is a short summation of Grimm's entry on it and I left out some of the more ancient meanings)

  1. build something, construct, assemble something, not just buildings, but anything - machines, joints, models, thus even accidents and - crap.
  2. grow something ("der Bauer"), today nearly exclusively as "anbauen", but ancient German absolutely allowed "Ich baue Getreide". Also, "pick something extensivly from nature" as in Raubbau.
  3. generally "make" - This is also somewhat ancient - "Und Gott der Herr baute ein Weib aus der Rippe, die er von dem Menschen nahm"

So, it's easy to see that some of the original meanings are still living on in some standing expressions where bauen is simply used as "cause something to exist". (Note, even in English, you can still "build sentences").

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  • I see your point, and English does contain vestiges of this meaning. For example you can say a person has a "thin/muscular build". But you wouldn't "build", "grow" or "make" an accident in English. It's possible that you might stretch this meaning in German to cover "Unfälle" but I don't see it overlapping with, say, "verursachen" except in a few idiomatic cases.
    – RDBury
    Feb 18 at 8:23
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    @RDBury but you can build a family, or a (metaphorical) home. M-W has a few more examples: Build a friendship, a legal case, a crowd can build intransitively... I think the weirdness is that an accident is a destructive event. Feb 19 at 13:01
  • You can even "build muscle"
    – tofro
    Feb 19 at 14:00
  • I'd also mention "einen Türken bauen" (=to falsificate), which is derived from Wolfgang von Kempelens "Schachspielender Türke". An apparatus touted to be able to play chess (while in fact a person sat in it and made the moves).
    – bakunin
    Feb 20 at 9:19
  • @bakunin I mentioned this in the original question, and it's covered in this question: german.stackexchange.com/q/11941/43989 . It doesn't seem to be that common though, or perhaps it's not used much in print for political correctness reasons. There seem to be several plausible theories about it's origin, and it's unclear to me if this is related to the other idioms since the meaning of "bauen" seems different; the phrase may just be an extension of the verb "türken".
    – RDBury
    Feb 20 at 10:02
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I agree that "bauen" here implies causing something either deliberately or by failing to take proper attention (culpable negligence). The last time I heard the phrase "Mist bauen" was when a man I know remarked: "Wenn ich Mist baue, wird meine Frau mir den Hintern versohlen." I interpreted this as "If I do something stupid, my wife will spank me."

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    Welcome to German SE. Unfortunately besides the example, this answer does not provide substance beyond already existing answers. This may cause downvotes so I recommend in the future to add something not already mentioned.
    – guidot
    Feb 21 at 12:50
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In German, the phrase "einen Unfall bauen" is indeed idiomatic. Its meaning cannot be directly deduced from the individual words. Instead, it is commonly used to mean "to have an accident" or "to cause an accident" in colloquial language.

Here are a few other examples of idiomatic uses of the verb "bauen" in German:

  1. "Mist bauen" - to mess up, to make a mistake.
  2. "Stress bauen" - to create stress, to cause trouble.
  3. "Scheiße bauen" - to screw up, to make a mess.

In these examples, "bauen" functions as a light verb that adds a specific meaning to the noun it accompanies. It doesn't necessarily imply literal construction but rather conveys a sense of action or creation related to the noun.

So, in the context of "einen Unfall bauen," it means to be involved in or to cause an accident, rather than literally constructing one. It's similar to saying "to have an accident" or "to get into an accident" in English.

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