Word of the Day – “üben”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: August 7, 2023

 

Hello everyone,

and welcome to Summer, Sun, Vocab Fun – the easy going series for summer days, which is … uh… 12% more summer than normal articles.
And today, we’ll take a look at a word that’s an integral part of learning German:

weinen

Wait, no… not that one.
The boring one, that no one likes…

üben

Yeah, that’s it.
And many of you probably know that üben means to practice…

 

  • Wenn man gute Aussprache will, muss man viel üben.
  • If you want to have good pronunciation, you have to practice a lot.
    (shortening “haben will” to “will” is colloquial)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Schauspielerin hat die ganze Nacht ihren Monolog geübt.
  • The actress practiced her monologue the whole night.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Kannst du das Saxofon weglegen, Thomas?”
    “Nein, ich muss üben.”
    “Aber nicht während des Team-Meetings.”
  • “Can you put away the saxophone, Thomas?”
    “No, I need to practice.”
    “But not during the team meeting.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

However, üben is not ALWAYS a translation for to practice because German has several possible translations for it (of course) and they all mean slightly different things (of course).

üben, trainieren – the difference

So what kind of practicing is üben?
Well, I’d describe it like this:

It’s basically repeatedly doing something to increase your skill level and get something to be “automatic”. And the focus is either on something mental or on dexterity. And it’s a bit boring.

Sounds a bit over-complicated though.
So maybe it’s easier to come from the other side and talk about what üben is NOT.

Because üben generally does NOT work for anything sports. So anything that’s about making your body more fit and anything that’s about competing.
The word for that is trainieren. I guess it’s a bit similar in English with to practice and to train, but the distinction in German is much sharper.
And the notion of competition is really important because even for the “sport” chess, people would probably use trainieren not üben.

  • Der Schachspieler trainiert jeden Tag.
  • The chess player practices every day.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Actually, you can even find trainieren used in an ad for a workshop for practicing public speaking, for example. Because using trainieren makes it sound like you’re getting an edge over the competition. And also, it sounds exciting and engaged, while üben would sound a bit… boring.

In fact, this kind of works for vocabulary, too.

  • Ich muss die Adjektivendungen üben.

This sounds boring and dull.

  • Ich muss die Adjektivendungen trainieren.

This sounds proactive and engaged. A native speaker might correct you and tell you that the right word is üben, but then you can just tell them that you’re actually preparing for the World Adjective Ending Championship and that they should consider participating in the World Know-It-All Championship because they’re really good at it.

Anyway, so the rough distinction is, üben is about repeating an activity over and over to improve it. And trainieren is for sports and stuff that has a focus on competition.
And that also works for the noun die Übung. Which can translate to the practice and the exercise but it’s ONLY practice in the sense of  “the act of üben” and it’s ONLY exercise in the sense of “a task that you use to üben“.

  • Übung macht den Meister.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Übungen, die wir als Hausaufgabe aufhatten, war zu schwer.
  • The exercises that we had as homework were too difficult.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Diese Übung ist gut für den Rücken.
  • This exercise is good for the back.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The last one is a bit of an outlier, I guess, because here, we do have Übung used in the context of sports. But generally, the distinction holds up pretty well.

Cool.
Now, are üben and trainieren the only translations for to practice? 
Well, they’re the main ones, but there are more.
Of course.

There’s also praktizieren, which is somewhat a technical, stilted sounding word used in the context of just “doing” certain acts.

  • Thomas praktiziert Buddhismus.
  • Thomas practices Buddhism.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And another option in some contexts is a super secret verb you probably never heard of … machen :).

  • Maria macht seit 3 Jahren Yoga.
  • Maria has been practicing Yoga for three years.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And then, there’s one prefix version of üben, so let’s hop right over to the related words.

Prefix Version of “üben”

Let’s start with einüben, because that one is pretty much just a variation of the classic üben.  And you only really ever hear it in the context of rehearsing for a show.

  • Die Kinder üben den Zaubertrick ein.
  • The kids are practicing/rehearsing the magic trick. (until they know it)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

You could also use üben here, but that’s more the process, while einüben implies the moment of being ready for the show.
Not a word you’ll need to use actively in daily life, for sure.

Then, next up, we have ausüben, which is actually the other possible translation for to practice that I promised and that you were all eagerly awaiting :).
And ausüben is basically about practicing in the simple sense of doing in practice, but it sounds quite formal and it’s pretty much ONLY used in the context of professions.

  • Der Beruf “Higher Self Coach” ist nicht reguliert oder geschützt, den kann also jeder ausüben, auch ohne Qualifikation.
  • The profession “Higher Self Coach” is not regulated or protected, so everyone can practice it, even without qualification.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

So… no notion of “training a skill” in ausüben.
And the same goes for the verb verüben, because that one is essentially a formal version for to commit in the context of  crimes and particularly assassination attempts.

  • Die Einhörner haben ein Attentat auf Furella, die Eichhorn-Prinzessin, verübt.
  • The unicorns have comitted/mounted an assassination attempt on Furella, the squirrel princess.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Neither ausüben nor verüben are verbs that you’ll need in your active vocabulary, but it’s definitely good to know that they’re NOT about “rehearsing, getting better“, like the normal üben is.
Which of course raises the question WHY they don’t really have the same core theme as üben.
Well… the answer to that is of course the origin story of the word.
And that’s where we also find the surprising English relatives.
Dunn dunnnn dunnnnnnnn.

The origin of “üben”

The origin of üben is the annoyingly ancient Indo-European root *op-.  The core idea of this root was the notion of working, producing, initially particularly in a context of crop farming, but soon in a more general sense of working.
Maybe you already have an inkling where this could be going.
But for those of you who need a hint: one member of the family is the Latin opus. Which of course simple means piece of work and which is the base for the verb to operate.
And that’s actually what üben used to mean. The older sense was simply “doing” something, putting the work in. That’s what we still see in verbs like ausüben and verüben and more importantly also in the word üblich.
Because üblich means customary in the sense of “that’s how it’s usually done”, “how things operate normally”.
The exact translation depends on the context, but the core idea is always the same.

  • “Entschuldigung, in meiner Suppe ist ein Haar.”
    “Ja, das ist hier so üblich. Die geben Geschmack.”
  • “Excuse me, there’s a hair in my soup.”
    “Yes, that is custom here. They add taste.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die üblichen Verdächtigen” ist ein guter Film.
  • The usual suspects” is a good movie.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • In Berlin ist es nicht unüblich, dass Leute 48 Stunden im Club sind.
  • In Berlin, it’s not unusual that people are in the club for 48 hours.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Especially the last one, nicht unüblich, is fairly common in daily life and üblich is absolutely worth adding to your active vocabulary. And at least you need to be aware that it doesn’t have much to do with the boring üben where you sit at a desk and pretend to study :).

Anyway, besides to operate, other members of the family are to copy, copious and opulent, which all stem from a notion of an abundant harvest. And also the words official and office tie in here. Which originally referred to “doing the work/service” in church. But now the office is that boring place where many of us go to ausüben our profession and maybe to also üben to look busy even though we’re actually not doing anything.
Or better yet, we’re reading an article about the German word üben and its family ;).

And that’s pretty much it for today. This was our look at the meaning of üben and its relatives.
If you want to üben a bit, and check if you remember the most important points, then you can do the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course if you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to clear things up.
I hope you enjoyed this one, have a terrific, relaxed week and I’ll see you in the next one.
Bis dann :)

 

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