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De Gruyter Advent Calendar | Door 23

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Christmas without any presents? Unthinkable. No matter if it is a tiny little gift or a huge package – if there is a Christmas tree, there are usually Christmas presents underneath it. As German native speakers we were curious about the etymology of the German word for making a gift; schenken as the verb is called.


Luckily, we have an etymological dictionary in our bookshelf. The KLUGE has set the standard as dictionary with regard to the origin and history of words of the German language for more than 100 years now. It’s filled with surprising facts about German words.

As for schenken, we found out that the word dates back to the 8th century. The Old High German term ‘skenken’ originally meant “to incline a vessel so that the liquid in it can easily run out”. In other words: “to pour someone a drink”. Interestingly enough, the German word for a tavern is Schenke – do you see the resemblance to the verb schenken?

And it is indeed the case that the meaning of “to make someone a gift” is tied to an old German custom where drinking and giving out presents always happened at the same moment of a festive reception. The verb schenken is thus directly related to drinking alcohol.

That brings us to another German custom which is quite popular around Christmas: Drinking Glühwein, some sort of hot wine punch. Next year we will examine where that comes from.