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German words expats should know: Jawohl

German words expats should know: Jawohl

German words expats should know: Jawohl

In the spotlight today is the German word jawohl, a rather archaic, military term that’s made a comeback in ironic usage. But is “jawohl” just a tongue-in-cheek way of saying yes in German? Where does the word come from, what’s it got to do with the military, and is there really a Nazi connotation? We explain all… 

Jawohl: As simple as saying yes in German?

Look up the word “Jawohl” in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a simple definition: it’s a way of saying yes in German. But language, famously, is always more complex than black and white definitions. Yes, jawohl is a way of saying yes in German, but it’s also a little word with a little bit of subtext. 

It’s easiest to illustrate this with an example. Imagine you’re a parent with a teenage child. You’re heading out for the day during the school holidays and you’ve given your offspring some chores to complete before you get home from work: you want them to stack the dishwasher, hang the washing out to dry, tidy their room, and take the dog for a walk around the block. 

Once you’ve finished reeling off this list of chores, your child stands up, salutes (perhaps even kicks their heels together) and cries: “Jawohl!” 

They’re saying, “Yessir!” 

In mockingly using this militaristic interjection, your teenager is indicating that they will do as you ask, while at the same time suggesting that the way you run your household is a little iron-fisted. Safe to say they’re being a bit cheeky. 

Jawohl meaning

Before we dive into the military aspect, let’s break it down. Jawohl consists of two words: ja, which as any German learner hopefully knows means “yes”, and wohl, which means “well” or “indeed”. In this context, wohl is used as a modal particle to add stress, so the word jawohl means something along the lines of “certainly” or “yes, definitely”. 

The word has its origins ja wol, a mid-high-German word that means ja, freilich - an old way of saying “of course”. 

Used in the military, but not exclusively by the Nazis

Jawohl was, and continues to be, used in a military context as an affirmative answer to an order from someone of a superior rank. 

For this reason, it is sometimes (erroneously) attributed Nazi connotations by non-native speakers. For instance, type “jawohl” into Google and one of the first suggested searches is “Jawohl, mein Führer”. 

An explanation for this could be the fact that a substantial proportion of films, TV series, plays and novels that feature the German military are set in the Third Reich. It’s therefore perfectly understandable that popular thinking has connected the word to the Nazis, despite the fact that jawohl has been in regular use in the military since at least the 1800s. 

It therefore does not carry a specifically Nazi connotation for native speakers. Those who have done military service in Germany know that the modern-day Bundeswehr still insists on its use! And while its use in daily conversation has declined over time, it is still used in a sarcastic way to poke fun.  

Jawohl or jawoll?

Over time, these two separate ways of using the word have led to different ways of spelling and pronouncing it. Pronounced in the harsher tones of the military, jawohl has a long “o” sound. However, in everyday speech we tend to cut corners and so, gradually, the ironic form of the word lost its long “o” and started sounding a lot more like “jawoll”, with a short “o”. 

Nowadays, while the military mostly sticks to the “proper” version, both “jawohl” and “jawoll” are used in jest. 

Much more than the German for yes

So, next time your partner asks you to take out the rubbish, you know exactly how to respond: “Jawohl, mein Schatz!”

Abi

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Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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