Word of the Week: Holzweg

Apr 20, 2012

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


A "Waldweg" (forest path) in the southern German state of Bavaria. Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/Markus C. Hurek)

If you are wandering through a forest and start sauntering up a particular "Holzweg" (wood path), you may be headed down the wrong path, even though you at first believed you took a right turn.

In German, the figure of speech "auf dem Holzweg sein," which literally means "to be on the wood path" (a "wooded path" would be a "Waldweg"), stems from the lumberjack trade.

When lumberjacks work in the woods, they carve out a path near felled trees expressly for the transport of logs out of the forest. This is known in German as a "Holzweg."

This path, however, tends to end somewhere in the heart of the forest for obvious reasons. So if anyone hikes into the woods and follows such a "Holzweg," he or she will not end up at a desired destination. Instead, this path will literally lead to a dead end. Hence the expression "auf dem Holzweg sein" literally means to be on the wrong path.

A wooden path in Norway. Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/ZB)

In this vein, a common refrain in German might be: "Wenn du denkst, das funktioniert, dann bist du aber auf dem Holzweg!" (If you think that will work out, then you are on the wooden/wrong path!)

This expression can moreover be used to connote taking a wrong turn, to be lost, or to take detours, as well as to wrongly define or even wrongly select a goal or destination. It was already in use in Middle High German as "holwec," which soon morphed into the modern expression "Irrweg" (errant path) and "Abweg" (wrong way). The expression "auf dem Irrweg sein" also means "to be on the wrong track."

In English the expression he/she "led me up the garden path" could perhaps have similar origins, though it sounds to be sure a tad more harmless than the ominous undertaking of getting totally lost in the woods!

At the same time, as a standalone noun, "Holzweg" can have a far more benign and pleasant connotation - it simply means a "wood path," as in a wood path or boardwalk that leads hikers across rough terrain or merry holidaymakers from the roadside to the beach.

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