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I read somewhere that am Boden was the older version of "on the floor". When did it change? Die Toten Hosen have a song that goes:

Steh auf, wenn du am Boden bist.

So I wonder if this saying is idiomatic or not. Any ideas?

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When you drop something it lies on the floor:

Der Stift liegt auf dem Boden.

When you are sad or depressed you’re feeling down:

Ich bin komplett am Boden.

There is also a figure of speech for that:

am Boden zerstört sein

So Die Toten Hosen call on their listeners to get up when they are down figuratively.

By the way, another common use for am Boden and zerstört is related to airstrikes and other military action:

Die Flugzeuge wurden am Boden zerstört.

This might be depressing for some people too, but actually it means The planes were destroyed on the ground (they couldn’t take off before the attack).

I don’t consider am Boden to be the older version of auf dem Boden.

Are they exchangeable? It depends:

Die Handwerker arbeiten am Boden.

This sentence can mean:

  • The craftsmen are working on the floor. (while working they are sitting/lying on the floor)
  • The craftsmen are working on the floor. (they are repairing the floor)

Die Handwerker arbeiten auf dem Boden.

just means that the craftsmen are on the floor while working (same as the first translation of the last example).

Maybe the use is different for speakers from other parts of Germany.

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In English there are many contractions (I'm = I am, don't = do not), but there are also some in German. The difference is that the German contractions have no apostrophe and look like normal words. The word »am« is such a contraction, and like in English »I'd« could mean »I had« or »I would« depending on context, also »am« can mean two similar things:

The word "am" is a contraction of ...

  • preposition "an" + article "dem"

    • preposition is temporal

      Der Termin ist am Donnerstag. (correct)
      Der Termin ist an dem Donnerstag. (this is what you would get when you expand the contraction, but you don't expand temporal am.)

    • preposition is local

      Kalkutta liegt am Ganges. (usual)
      Kalkutta liegt an dem Ganges. (very rare but means the same)

      Landsberg am Lech liegt in Bayern. (correct)
      Landsberg an dem Lech liegt in Bayern. (wrong because "am Lech" is part of the name of the town. You don't expand contractions that are part of proper names.)

    • preposition is modal (only in combination with a nominalized verb)

      Ich bin gerade am Arbeiten. (correct)
      Ich bin gerade an dem Arbeiten. (this is what you would get when you expand the contraction, but you don't expand modal am.)

      This construction (modal »am« + nominalized verb) was previously considered non-standard colloquial German, but that seems to be just changing at present. It is used with varying frequency in different regions, but it seems that the construction »am« + nominalized verb is slowly being accepted as part of standard German, since standard German otherwise has no continuous form. However, regional colloquial forms of German know different continuous forms, but none of the other regional variations have a tendency to become standard in the foreseeable future.

  • preposition "auf" + article "dem"

    • preposition is local (mainly used this way in Austria and parts of Bavaria)

      Herr Sattmann macht Urlaub am Bauernhof. (usual in Austria)
      Herr Sattmann macht Urlaub auf dem Bauernhof. (usual in Germany)

      Der Arlberg ist kein Berg, sondern ein Gebirgspass, und auf seinem höchsten Punkt liegt die Gemeinde St. Anton am Arlberg. (correct)
      ... St. Anton auf dem Arlberg. (This is what you would get when you expand this contraction, but »St. Anton am Arlberg« is the proper name of this muncipality. It's similar to »Landsberg am Lech«)

    • preposition is also local, but figuratively

      Gregor ist schon ganz am Sand. (correct, often used in Austria)
      Gregor ist schon ganz auf dem Sand. (This is what you would get when you expand this contraction, but »am Sand« is a fixed phrase. It means »to be down, to feel exhausted and tired, to have no more energy«)

      Steh auf, wenn du am Boden bist. (correct, same meaning as Austrian »am Sand« but the preferred version in Germany)
      Steh auf, wenn du auf dem Boden bist. (This is what you would get when you expand this contraction, but »am Boden« is also a fixed phrase.)

Exception:

The particle am is not a contraction when used as part of the superlative form of an adjective, adjectivic participle or a comparable adverb

Tanja läuft am schnellsten.
Von allen Schreibtischen ist der von Dr. Steiner am aufgeräumtesten.
Ottos Knödel schmecken am besten.

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Could be the bottom of a volcanic crater:

Am Boden blubbert mehr als 1000 Grad heiße Lava in einem offenen Vulkankrater.

Or just the bottom of any pot:

Am Boden sammelt sich Fett.

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  • I'd argue that you reach the Grund not the Boden, in a sea/lake. Feb 15, 2023 at 14:01
  • I guess both are correct, look at this sentence: "Am Meeresgrund angekommen, sahen Piccard und Walsh aus ihrem Fenster ein paar Meter über dem Meeresboden in lichtloser Tiefe einen etwa 30 Zentimeter langen Plattfisch." Source: br.de/nachrichten/wissen/… Feb 15, 2023 at 14:45
  • I think both are correct if you say Meeres- in front, but only saying Boden sounds a bit weird to me. Feb 15, 2023 at 17:00
  • Okay then I'll edit my sentences. Feb 17, 2023 at 6:48
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"Am Boden" is used in many cases where it actually is strange. Very often you can say "am Boden" or "auf dem Boden" without changing the meaning but I always think that it sounds strange. At least in Swiss German we use "am Boden" too often.

"am" normally conveys the thought of something being attached or sticking to something or laying very flat. Or as the other comments say, "am Boden" is also used in a figurative sense.

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