Word of the Day – “brauchen”

brauchen-gebraucht-verbraucHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. A very special one because….
it is number 200!!!! Wohooo! The 200th post.
And to celebrate that, let’s look at one of the most important words ever. A word you’ll need every day.  Get ready to explore the meaning of



Brauchen means to need. That’s what the dictionary says. 
But actually, we should hedge that a bit and say it means to need someone or something. Because it only works with nouns or names. But before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at the origin of the word because it is both fascinating and helpful in understanding the brauchen-family.
Believe it or not but brauchen is related to… uhm…   to brook.
That’s right. The … uh… one and only to brook. Isn’t that a crazy reveal? No?
Hmm… okay, I gotta try harder, I guess. So how about if I told you that brauchen is related to … drum-roll please… fruit.
Now that is a crazy reveal, right :)?
And it’s true! Fruit.
At the start of it all is the ancient Indo-European root *bhrūg which had a really interesting double meaning… fruit and enjoy. Think about it. The hunt hasn’t been too successful. Only an old skinny rabbit and a few chewy roots for the whole cavemen family. Another meager dinner. But then young Grok comes back from collecting firewood and says: “Grok find many fruit!”.
And everyone is like: “Yeaaay. Fruit, fruit, fruit.”
This sounds stupid to us, of course. I mean, we have chocolate and chips. But our ancestors didn’t and ripe fruits were something they really enjoyed. so it makes total sense that they used the same word. This double meaning of fruit and joy completely carried over to Latin and it’s even kind of visible in today’s English in the word fruition. Today, fruition   means something like completion but it used to mean enjoyment a while ago… which is what you feel if you plan comes to fruition.

Now what about brauchen? How does that fit in there? The verb’s evolution pretty much mirrors the development of an addiction.
At first you’re like “Man, I really enjoy a good piece of chocolate. As a treat.” But then comes your birthday and 2 weeks later Christmas and another 2 weeks later Easter (it was a weird year) and all your friends and family keep showering you with Belgium pralines and the like. And before you know you’ve turned into this guy:
I eat (use) chocolate every day… don’t know why… because it’s there, I guess.“.
And then one day, all the chocolate is finished and you … well… you get nervous.
I need chocolate… helps me relax.“And you buy more.
That’s roughly the path brauchen took. First really enjoying, then everyday using, then needing.
That’s where it is today. And what we need now is… some examples.

The translation is really straight forward. It’s different for the noun the need, though.

There simply isn’t a noun like that based on brauchen. The most literal translation for the need is probably der Bedarf (yes, from dürfen)  but Bedarf sounds a bit technical and so the real translation of the need totally depends on context.
Now,  brauchen does not only not have a noun… also words like needy or needless do not have a  brauchen-based German equivalent.
This has to do with the origin.  The verb to need is actually based on the noun the need. This noun is related to German die Not. In compounds it often means emergency.. like Notruf (emergency call) , Notausgang (emergency exit), Notfall (“case of emergency”/emergency) but the real meaning is misery, hardship or poverty… basically a really bad situation where you need something. So the verb to need comes from a toned down bad situation, and with that in mind, all the need-uses make total sense…. “needless to say” comes from the idea that  there is “no emergency to say it”.
The verb brauchen on the other hand has gone through some serious changes and the current meaning is pretty young. There are of course of related words, but those were invented earlier. They are still around though, and even though they have little to do with needing, they are super useful…

brauchen – prefixes and other stuff

Let’s start with the noun der Brauch. We’ve learned that it is  not the need. It is  the custom as in tradition. And why? Because for a long time brauchen used to mean to use, which is actually the base for all related words. A custom or tradition is a behavior or pattern that people “use”regularly. And while the connection to to use is not super obvious for der Brauch, it certainly is for  gebraucht. Now you’re like “Hey, that’s the ge-form of brauche… the one we’d use for spoken past, right?”
Yes, you’re right.

But it also was the ge-form before the meaning change.

Now, to be honest this second gebraucht is technically not the ge-form of brauchen but of gebrauchen…. wait… hear me out. Back in the day, people added the prefix “ge” to verbs, sometimes to make subtle shifts, sometimes just for rhythm’s sake. Brauchen and  gebrauchen both meant to use,  and this meaning survived in gebrauchen. Actually the two meaning nicely blend in this common phrasing

The verb itself isn’t all that common but the gebraucht is and so is the noun Gebrauch.

All right.
The next really important member of the brauchen family is  verbrauchen. Again, we have brauchen in its old use-meaning to which the ver-prefix adds the idea of away. Hmmm… so literally it should be to “use away”… and that’s actually pretty much it.  Verbrauchen means to use till it’s gone and depending on context it can be translated as to consume but also as  to use. It’s the idea of using up that matters.

A variation of verbrauchen is aufbrauchen which is quite literally to use up and at least in context of food it puts a slight stress on using as opposed to throwing it away. But it’s not used all that much in daily life anyway.
And now I have some good news because that’s already it for the related words… gebrauch(t) and anything with verbrauchen are really important.There are some others out there but I think if you keep in mind that brauchen was to use once, you’ll be able to understand them from context.
Now, there is one more important thing that we need to talk about. Grammar. Or better to need and activities.

Where we need to be careful – brauchen and verbs

We’ve learned… well actually we’ve mentioned once and forgotten… that brauchen only works for things and persons.

So far so good. Now, to need can also be connected with activities.

  • I need to sleep.

This does NOT work with brauchen. At all.

  • Ich brauche zu schlafen…. is WRONG

People might understand but it sounds super super super super super super wrong. The proper translation uses müssen.

Again, this might have something to do with the use-history of brauchen. The verb to use also only works with persons and things.

  • I use something or someone.

But not for activities

  • I use to sleep… nope.

I don’t know if this is the reason why it doesn’t work but it would make sense.
Now, do you know what DOESN’T make sense?

This works just fine. As does this:

I really don’t know what to say. Apparently, nicht and nur have magical grammar changing powers so when they’re in the sentence it’s suddenly okay to connect an activity. No idea why. But that’s how it is.

  • You  need to wait.
  • Du brauchst (zu) warten uber wrong :C

Is this common? Hell yeah. In writing, müssen is probably the better pick but in daily conversation people use nicht/nur brauchen a lot.

And what about the zu in the paramet … parentersi… uh… the brackets ?  Well, believe it or not but it’s actually up … us, the speakers. Can it be? We have the choice?!?! Well, it’s true. WE can decide AT WILL whether to use zu or not. Our will. We can do as WE please. Finally. No need for a stupid and complicated rule. Take note, grammar and tremble for if you can be beaten here you can be beaten anywhere. You shall bind us no more. We’re free now. Henceforth we’ll speak the way we want. And no one …. shall….  correct uuuuuuuus!!!!!! To the barricades, comrad… oh… oh… I uh… it’s the coffee. I need coffee to function, but maybe that last cup was too much. I’m sorry. Hmmm… “I need coffee to function”. That sentence actually reminds me of something else about brauchen I wanted to tell you.
The standard translation of the sentence is this:

But the sentence “I need coffee to function” has a second possible reading.

  • I need coffee to function… so go away with all that decaf-crap.

This version is expressing a demand that the coffee do something. Here’s a more practical example.

  • I need you all to be quiet.

This is a request, a demand toward the people. Kind of a mix between

  • You all must/have to be quiet.   and
  • I want you to be quiet.

Now, I think it’s a surprise to no one that this phrasing does not work with brauchen and I think the best match is again müssen.

  • Ich brauche euch alle leise zu sein… is wrong
  • Ihr müsst bitte alle leise sein… is correct. 

I think with that we’ve covered most if not all of the dos and don’ts of brauchen and so… we’re done. This was our German word of the Day brauchen. It comes from a word that meant fruit and joy. Then it changed to to use, a meaning which is still present in Gebrauch and verbrauchen, and then brauchen shifted again and became to need. Tune in in 300 years to find out what it’s gonna mean next :).
As always, if you have any questions about brauchen or the prefix words or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.