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In the first episode of the TV series "Kleo", a Stasi colonel says "Jawohl" to allow people to enter his office when they knock at the door. The person knocking is unknown and in all scenes it's either a lower ranking officer or his secretary. The series translates the German word as "Come in".

Every German-English dictionary translates "jawohl" as "Yes, sir", which is used in English by a lower ranking officer to a higher rank officer to express agreement with an order. However, it seems "jawohl" may be used in a very different way. Could someone please explain why "jawohl" is used in the context described above?

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  • How should the Stasi Colonel possibly know the person knocking is of lower rank?
    – tofro
    Apr 26 at 7:59
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    @tofro In English, an officer would never say "Yes, sir" if he's unsure about the rank of the person he's talking to, so that's why using "Jawohl" in this context seemed odd to me. Apr 26 at 20:01

5 Answers 5

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Jawohl could mean “Yes, sir” in a military context, but it could also just mean “yes” in a non-military context, and in this particular context, “come in”. It might sound a bit old-fashioned.

The examples in the Wiktionary also supply a wider range of affirmating replies, although the specific example of answering the door is not present.

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In German, "ja" or "jawohl" is used to signify attention, with a meaning like: "Here I am; I am listening. What is your concern?". Expect this answer when shouting for someone, speaking up to a clerk, or in this case, when knocking at a door. The tone and speed of then answer can then be used to gauge how much time the person has for you.

An alternative for the case of a door would be "Herein", which is more literally asking the person to enter.

While only "Jawohl" can be used for "Yes, sir", I think "jawohl" can be used in most cases where one can use "ja" as interjection, it is just longer. Note that the intonation of these uses is likely different, but hard to describe.

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  • That's how I understand it as well. I think a good meaning-wise translation in this context would be "at your service"
    – Cygon
    Apr 24 at 13:28
  • "At your service" is not said in English when someone knocks at your door. Apr 24 at 21:08
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    The question is not about German in general, it is about a Stasi Colonel - subordinate to a Ministry of the "Bewaffnete Organe der DDR", who is expecting to see a subordinate or secretary. They would not want to be "at the service" of their secretary, so the military connotation makes a lot more sense. Even if Stasi was intelligence, not military, this is by definition somebody who would have served in the army. Apr 25 at 10:30
  • @Cygon No, "at your service" would be deprecating yourself. That is not what "jawohl" does. Signalling one's "attention" can also serve as a reminder that someone (of lower status) had to beg for it.
    – Dodezv
    Apr 25 at 13:45
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I disagree with the other answers. There is a decidedly military connotation to "jawohl". As a pacifist I have never in my life used this word, exept in an ironic sense when someone used a tone of ordering me, to show him that he had overstepped my limits of polite conversation. In my social circles, using the word would result in a frown, or a quip asking you to relax.

That said, for a militarily-minded person, or someone appreciating hierachies, it might be just normal to exchange "ja" for "jawohl". Under military discipline addressing a superior would always afford naming his rank, as in "jawohl, Herr Hauptmann". Leaving out the rank would be a logical consequence if you don't know whether the person you are talking to is your superior, or a specific rank does not apply, for example a clerk in a shop adressing a customer.

If someone puts this in the mouth of a Stasi officer in a film script, it is to characterize him as someone from a "Prussian" culture of discipline ("Preußische Disziplin" is a fixed term for unwavering dedication to your duties), and unable to communicate with other people on a basis of equality.


There is a nuance in pronounciation that also can convey a meaning. If you shout "Jawohl!" loudly in a parade ground voice, the pronounciation unavoidably will shorten the long -ohl to a short one: "Jawoll!". If you use the short -oll in a situation where it is not necessary, it can be a light, toungue-in-cheek mockery.

The most famous use in this sense might be the hit song by Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann Jahohl, meine Herr'n, the title song for the 1937 film comedy The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes. The two comedians play a pair of private detectives who impersonate Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to gain more business.

While the record label did use the correct spelling "jawohl", what they are singing is definitely "jawoll" (tellingly the English WP article also uses this spelling):

Jawoll, meine Herrn, die Sorgen sind fern,
wir tun was uns gefällt.
Und wer uns stört,
ist eh er's noch begreift,
längst von uns schon eingeseift.

Jawoll, meine Herrn,
darauf können Sie schwörn,
jawoll,
jawoll,
jawoll.

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    Take a look at youglish.com/pronounce/jawohl/german Most of the examples don't sound military at all; and I find it hard to link Harald Lesch to militarism. I think there is a decidedly militaristic way to pronounce it, but not that the word itself sounds militaristic.
    – Dodezv
    Apr 24 at 11:47
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    @Dodezv Taking Lesch's sentence in context, I understand it as a mild persiflage of a subordinate explaninng some unavoidable facts to his superior: "No Sir, in this other scenario A Thing is not applicable. Yes, Sir, in this machine A Thing can be done." - his typical sound of flippancy. You did note his intentional mis-pronounciation "jawoll"? But this remains a matter of personal use of language. All I am saying is that not all social circles will react neutral to the use of the word.
    – ccprog
    Apr 24 at 12:06
  • -1 While this (there is a decidedly military connotation) is your attitude towards the word, I do not think it is reflected in common usage (for example check these excerpts: linguee.com/german-english/translation/jawohl.html) where it is an emphasis for "yes". There is a trend among younger people to answer the phone without stating one's name and "Hallo?" or "Ja bitte" or "Jawohl" are all different versions, and the same applies to knocking.
    – Narusan
    Apr 25 at 9:59
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    I agree with this. "Jawohl" (especially it the mangled form "Jawoll") is something from a distinctly Prussian mindset from a time when military jargon was emulated in civil life to establish authority. Lesch, like myself, is at the correct age to use this to comedic effect (Prussia was obviously not a thing anymore in his youth, but the literature we grew up with used it that way). Also in the question this was about a Stasi officer. Of course the Stasi would use language with the intent to intimidate, not to be polite. Apr 25 at 10:16
  • For comparison, read Tucholsky or Kästner (who used it in persiflage or criticism) or watch "Das Boot" ("Jawoll Herr Kaleun!"). Military tends to not use single sillable words because they are hard to tell apart from involuntary sounds, so you need the redundant "-wohl" added to the self-explanatory "Ja". Apr 25 at 10:20
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"Jawohl" is a "yes" with more emphasis, as an exclamation, and it's usage is definitely dated. It's comparable, depending on context, to "yes, indeed!", "yes, please!" or "yes, Sir!". It has some connotation of a soldierly attitude. It was more popular at times when the public display of readiness and determination was culturally encouraged. I don't think it's used today without comic intent, to mock precisely this attitude.

The described context answering the knock on the door is the "yes, please!" variant, which alternatively might be "come in" in English.

In modern usage you would just use "ja, bitte" or "herein" to answer a knock.

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Jawohl is relatively common in German military context (probably because a simple "ja" can be easily missed or mis-understood as "na", or other interjections (just like English-speaking military sometimes uses "affirmative" instead of a simple "yes" to avoid miscommunication). Many people with a military background seem to be using "jawohl" instead of "ja" all the time, even in private life.

Even if it is typically used to note a "yes" to persons of higher rank, in the described situation it could very well be a general knocking (a nice one would) - how should the Stasi colonel know through the closed door? So he would answer any knock with "jawohl", simply to stay on the safe side.

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