Word of the Week: einen Zahn zulegen

Nov 29, 2013

Zahn Enlarge image (© picture alliance)

If someone is taking too long to complete a task, you might want to tell them, Sie müssen einen Zahn zulegen

Directly translated, this German phrase means someone needs to “put in a tooth.”

This unique phrase indicates that someone needs to hurry up and finish their tasks more quickly. But it has nothing to do with teeth – at least, not anymore.

The origins of this word are not fully agreed upon, but each presumption does trace it back to an instance with machinery that involves a type of tooth.

einen Zahn zulegen Enlarge image (© picture alliance/Prisma Archivo) In the Middle Ages, cooking was typically done above a fire, using large pots that hung from wrought-iron pothooks (these were sometimes called teeth). Since the temperature or size of the fire could not be regulated, the hooks were used to raise or lower the pots accordingly. In order to speed up the cooking process, an additional hook – or “tooth” – was added to lower the pot, bringing it closer to the fire. Thus, the phrase einen Zahn zulegen (“add in a tooth”) supposedly became common language.

However, some believe that the phrase originated at a later date: some machines from the early 1900s (including automobiles) relied on a type of chainwheel (called Zahnkranz in German) to increase or decrease their speed or gears. To increase the speed, one would have to switch to a higher gear using the gas clutch. The spikes on the chainwheel were referred to as “teeth,” and figuratively, adding “teeth” by moving the chainwheel would increase the speed.

einen Zahn zulegen Enlarge image (© picture alliance / Godong) Over time, cooking methods changed and “teeth” were no longer used to hang pots from above a fire. Modern automobiles, on the other hand, now have pedal clutches instead of gas clutches. But regardless of its literal origins, the phrase einen Zahn zulegen stuck, and Germans still tell each other to “put in a tooth” when they need to speed something up.

So next time your co-worker is slacking, your friend needs to step on it or someone you know is taking too long on a project, you can say to them, “Leg mal einen Zahn zu!”

© Germany.info

Word of the Week

Word of the Week

do Deutsch

Do Deutsch

The German language opens up a wealth of opportunities. Learn why you should "just add German" here on our do Deutsch pages.