Word of the Day – “dienen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day.
This time, with a quick a look at the German word for to serve,




The two are obviously not related but they  actually have a really similar history. To serve comes from Latin and it ultimately comes from a word that meant slave.
And it’s exactly the same for dienen. The origin of dienen is the Germanic noun *þewa- which also meant slave, or servant. Now, this word pretty widespread throughout the Germanic world but surprisingly it has no relatives in Modern English. Or at least my servants couldn’t find any doing my resea… oh wait, I meant my unpaid interns, who are all really like it here, right John?
“Yes, it’s absolutely awesome. Would you like a coffee, Sire?”
Of course! Double shot hazelnut chai, please, thanks.

So yeah… the dienen is basically to serve.

  • Der Ritter hat dem König treu gedient.
  • The knight has loyally served the king.
  • Der reiche Lord hat einen Diener.
  • The rich lord has a butler.
  • “Äh, warum ist ein Elefant der Küche?”
    “Der dient als Erinnerung daran, dass du den Abwasch machen sollst.”
  • “Uhm, why’s there’s an elephant in the kitchen?”
    “It serves as a reminder that you should do the dishes.”

Actually, dienen itself is not as common as to to serve, though. So there are some phrasings where it doesn’t really work as a translation for to serve. And the biggest and most important one is serving in context of food.  The word for the actual act of serving food is  servieren. Yup, German took it from French. No surprise. I mean… a potato soup does sound a little more gourmet if it’s put down on the  table with a French word.

  • Der Kellner serviert die Kartoffelsuppe.
  • The waiter serves the soup.

And that waiter is actually awesome because not only does he serve soup, she also serves as a nice transition to the prefix verb bedienen. Because that’s the general term for what a waiter does.

  • Essen war super, aber der Service… puhhh. Die Bedienung war super langsam und arrogant und hat nach Einhornharn gerochen.
  • Food was great but the service… ouffff. The service (waiter/waitress) was super slow and arrogant and smelled like unicorn urine.
  • Ich kann den schlechten Kritiken nicht zustimmen. Essen war Spitze, wir wurden schnell und freundlich bedient, und der Geruch war bezaubernd.
  • I can’t agree with the bad reviews. Food was top notch, we were served quickly and in a friendly manner and the scent was enchanting.
    (not sure if that’s idiomatic English… please let me know if not :)


  • Hier ist Selbstbedienung.
  • Here’s self service. 
    (sorry, added this last minute :() 

This isn’t the only meaning, though, and the next example makes it pretty clear.

  • Der Kellner bedient die Kasse.

This means that the waiter is operating the cashier. And that’s the more important meaning of  bedienen.
An interesting phrasing, when you think about it. The device serves a purpose and to make it work we have to “be-serve” it. Who knows, in ten years that might actually be the literal reality. Like… Alexa’s like “Bring me my charger.” and we’re just like “Yes, ‘mam.” because we know it’s global extinction if we don’t. I mean, in fact… just look around, at people with their phones today in the train or bus. Or just walking.  To an alien, we might well look like obedient servants to our phones. Like… phone’s like “New notification. You better check it ouuuut.”. And we serve them.
Anyway, so yeah, bedienen means to operate and die Bedienung can be something like the handling.

  • Das Baby kann noch nicht laufen, aber schon ein Tablet bedienen.
  • The toddler can’t walk yet, but is already able to use/operate a tablet.
  • Die Bedienungsanleitung ist super verwirrend.
  • The user manual is super confusing.

Now, of course this isn’t the only prefix version. The REALLY useful one is …oh, hold on, I think my intern John is back the coffee. Sure took long enough.
“Hey man, here’s your coffee.”
Great, thanks bro.
“Do you need anything else?”
Nah, I’m good. Hey uh… I think you can actually take the rest of the day off and go surfing.
“Really?! But it’s only 10 hours I’m here. That’s amazing!!! Thank you.”
All good, bro. Don’t forget, we wanna do the prep meeting for the conditional series.
“Great, see you tomorrow then.”
I know what you guys are thinking now. You’re thinking “Emanuel, you’re way too soft on your interns.” But hey, they’re working hard, serving me coffee, not earning money, they at least deserve to be treated well.
And speaking of deserving... that brings us right back and topic. I mean… not sure if you ever noticed but deserve totally has serve in it. So it makes perfect sense that the German word for deserve is based on dienen. The question is just… which prefix. And it is… drumroll please… eVERyone’s favorite… ver.
The German word for to deserve is verdienen. And it doesn’t only mean to deserve, it’s also the German word for deserve‘s more mundane brother, to earn. And if you know that one of the ideas that ver carries is the idea of “for”, then it makes PERFECT sense. Something you deserve, is something you “served for”, you worked for.  Tadah… sometimes, this language does make sense :).

  • “Morgen fahre ich endlich in den Urlaub.”
    “Oh, das freut mich. Du hat es echt verdient.
  • “Tomorrow, I’ll finally go on vacation.”
    “Oh that’s great. you really deserve it.”
  • Jeder kriegt, was er verdient.
  • Everyone gets what they deserve.
  • Thomas ist eifersüchtig, weil Maria mehr verdient als er.
  • Thomas is jealous because Maria earns more than he does.
  • Ich brauche für den Vermieter eine Verdienstbescheinigung.
  • I need a proof of income for my land lord/renter.
  • Dass wir das Projekt doch pünktlich fertig bekommen haben, ist vor allem Maria’s Verdienst.
  • The fact that we finished the project in time after all, is mainly credit to Maria.

As you can see, Cpt. Context usually makes it clear which of the two it is. Though sometimes, even he fails…

  • Thomas verdient mehr als er verdient.
  • Can you figure out both possible translations :)?

Now, in the examples we just had the noun Verdienst and of course that also exists without a prefix.
Der Dienst is is usually translated as service or duty but I think it’s better to think of it is as “work done for someone“. Because it is NOT  service in a sense of customer satisfaction and care (that is Service) and it’s not “duty” in the sense of obligation (that would be Pflicht). 
Let’s just look at some examples for Dienst so you can get a feel for it.

  • Der Polizist trink einen Shot obwohl er im Dienst ist.
  • The police man drinks a shot even though he’s on duty.
  • Ich komme mir vor wie der Depp vom Dienst.(fixed idiom)
  • I feel like the duty idiot.
    (you’re the one responsible to be the idiot who everyone can make fun of… is there an idiom in English?)
  • Whatsapp ist ein Messenger-Dienst, UPS ist ein Paketdienst.
  • Whatsapp is a messenger service, UPS is a parcel service.
  • Das Einhorn bietet auf dem Wochenmarkt seine Dienste an.
  • The unicorn offers its services on the weekly market.

And of course there are loads of useful compounds like Dienstplan (work schedule, roster), Diensthandy (official cell phone/work phone), Dienstwagen (company car), Diensthengst (company stud) or the most week one of them all….  Dienstag. 
Which literally means surf-day. Because as we’ve learned, dienen means to surf and the Germanic tribes have always been big fans of wave riding. No wonder, the waves of the Baltic Sea are world famo… wait a second…. this is not true. The waves at the Baltic suck. Hold on … let me look up Dienstag real quick… gee, it has nothing to do with dienen. It comes from the Germanic God Tyr. My script… it’s utter nonsense. Damn it! Diensthengst should have made me suspicious. Wait, there’s a note on the bottom…

“Emanuel, you just got pranked.”

Argghhhhhh, these interns. I let you go early and this is how you repay me? Damn it! Diensthengst should have made me suspicious. Well played, interns. But it’s on now. Tomorrow, they’ll get what they verdienen. And I ain’t talking money.
Anyway, that’s it for today. This was our look at dienen and its family. Of course, there are a few other words out there that we didn’t mention but I think with what you’ve learned you’ll be able to understand at least the gist of it.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you have good ideas on how to get back on my interns, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

The solution:

  • Thomas earns more than he deserves.
  • Thomas deserves more than he earns.


* * vocab **

dienen – to serve (as in render service, usually used for devices nowadays)
der Diener – the butler, also (rare): bow as in bowing down

der Dienst – the service/work rendered
der Dienstplan – the work schedule/roster
das Diensthandy – the work phone
im Dienst – on duty

bedienen – to wait on someone in sense of restaurant
die Selbstbedienung – self service
die Bedienung – the waiting personal, the handling/usage of devices
die Bedienungsanleitung – the user manual

verdienen – deserve, earn
der Verdienst – the income, the merit/accomplishment
unverdient – undeserved(ly)

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