Don’t Let It Confuse You! – Devise Posted by on Feb 4, 2021 in Culture, History, Language, Traditions, vocabulary

In this series, we look at words that exist in both English and German, but really don’t mean what you might expect them to, so-called false friends. We also look at words that sound or look deceivingly similar. Today, we look at a rather rare one, but you may have come across it. A word with its own motto – Devise.

For previous posts in this series, click here.

Expectation: Devise – developing something, a device?

Devise False Friends

Image by Dylan Gillis at

So, what does Devise mean? What about this – Devise is a verb that means something in the sense of planning, devising, or developing. Yes?!

No. It’s not a verb.

Ok. Perhaps it is a noun. Maybe something along the lines of a device, the German word for device?1Some of you might think “but devise is an English noun, too!” True, but the meaning is pretty specific and obscure. Not super relevant for most readers, I think.

Again, no. That’s das Gerät or der Apparat.

So what is it?

Reality: What do you stand for?

Wappen (coat of arms) of Franz Joseph I. of Austria, who was emperor from 1848 until his death in 1916. His Devise is “viribus unitis”, which means “with united forces” (Image from, public domain)

Die Devise means “motto“. Yeah. Really quite different. But why?

Funnily enough, both the English to devise and the German die Devise have the same origin – the French devise and, further back, the Latin divisare, which in turn is a vulgar form of the Latin dividire – to divide.

But how did this result in the meaning of “motto” or Wahlspruch (slogan)?

As you can see in the Wappen above, the two words Viribus Unitis are divided – one word on the left side of the ribbon, the other on the right. This is the division that led to the word die Devise!

The English meaning, by the way, makes sense in terms of dividing resources – which means you have to plan, figure out a way to divide things well – so you devise a plan.

There is another meaning in German. Devisen, almost always in plural, can also refer to Zahlungsmittel in fremder Währung (payment method in foreign currency). Where this meaning comes from is not really clear, it may be from a Wechselvordruck (bill form of exchange) with a Devise on it. So we’re back at the motto!

Did you know about this difference? What did you think Devise means. What do you think makes sense for that word to mean? I wanna know. Let me know in the comments below!


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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator and filmmaker.


  1. Taz Tarry:

    Guten Morgen, Sten
    Thank you for your German Language Blogs – always very interesting. With reference to your latest one about Devise, and the meaning in German of motto with the example of a coat of arms, interestingly, in English the word device is also used in heraldry but here meaning an emblematic design. These devices again are used to identify a family – i.e. distinguish – or divide from another family so again derived from the Latin divisus. Alles besten Wünsche, Taz

    • Sten:

      @Taz Tarry Guten Morgen, Taz!

      I never heard of that before, what an interesting addition. Thanks!
      And again another way to take a meaning from the Latin dividere. Fascinating.

      • Harry:

        @Sten Your article on “Devise”, very interesting, a word almost all, would not mess with. It’s what the English call, “Irish Logic”. Enjoyed it, thank U.

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