Word of the Day – “nutzen” (and “benutzen”)

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of The Day, this time with a look at the meaning of

nutzen

 

Which as most of you probably know means to use. And most of you have probably wondered at some point what the difference is to benutzen. Because that also means to use.
Oh and let’s not forget about verwenden, which ALSO means to use.
Today, we’ll learn what the difference between these three and when to use which, and we’ll also check out a few other really useful related words. AND we’ll take a look at the origin of nutzen, because when I found out , I was like floored!
I was like: “Yo, etymology… where does nutzen come from.”
And etymology was like: “It’s related to THIS German word.”
And I was like: “Bruh!”

So, are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s freaking go!

Some family ties

The English to use is one of the many (many many) words English has imported from Latin. Together with words like utility and utilize it comes from the old Latin verb “usare”. And that meant pretty much the same as to use means today, so it hasn’t really changed.
The original English word for the idea of using was the verb to brook, by the way, but to use pushed it out almost completely, and most non-native speakers of English won’t even know this exists.
At least, I didn’t.
The reason I am even mentioning this brook are its German brothers – brauchen and gebrauchen. Brauchen has shifted from using to needing, but gebrauchen still does mean to use.
So yes, that means German has essentially four  verbs for to use.
So you get to learn four German words for just one English one – a four for one value pack.
Isn’t that AWESOME?


Gebrauchen
is the least common one of four and you’ll mostly see it in noun-form. Like when you buy a bottled smoothie for instance, it’ll say on the package:

  • Vor Gebrauch schütteln.
  • Shake before use.

But we’ve actually talked about brauchen and gebrauchen in detail in separate articles, so I’ll leave the link below, if you want to check this out.
Let’s now turn to our actual word of the day nutzen.

And this one actually doesn’t appear to have any relatives in modern English. It does have a couple of relatives in German though. One is Genosse, which quite literally is a “co-nutzer”… a co-user. Someone who uses the same stuff as you. No wonder Genosse ended up being the word for comrade in Communism™. Because… OUR stuff!
Anyway, you might have never heard of Genosse before, but I’m almost 100% sure you’ve heard the other relative of nutzen… it is the German word for to enjoy. And no… not arbeiten. I mean the other one – genießen.

Might seem like a random connection at first glance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Lots of using we do also brings enjoyment. Like using the couch. Or using the beer opener. Or using the bathroom.
And in fact, the noun der Genuss doesn’t only make the connection a bit more visible (nutzen – Genuss). In the context of food it actually captures both ideas in one.

  • Der Genuss von Alkohol am Arbeitsplatz ist verboten.

This does not mean that only the enjoyment of alcohol is forbidden and you’re allowed to drink so long as you don’t enjoy it. No, the proper translation for Genuss here is use or consumption.

  • The use/consumption of alcohol at the workplace is forbidden.

This blend between using and liking it actually goes all the way back to the Indo-European root *neud- , which was also about using something you’ve been striving towards. Like, think of a mammoth hunt. You hunt, hunt, hunt, and then you get to eat yummy mammoth and use the fur and the bones for clothing and weapons
And while genießen focused on the enjoyment aspect, nutzen went all in on using.
Now, there’s actually a few things to say about genießen but I think I’ll actually do a short separate post about that one.
Cool.
So now that we know the origin of nu...
“Wait, that’s it?”
Yeah, why?
“Like… Didn’t you say in the intro that you were ‘FLOORED’ when you found out about the origin of nutzen? This wasn’t all that mind-blowing.”
Oh, I… I was totally hyping it up.
“Oh….”
But what we’ll do now is REALLY amazing. Because now, we’ll talk about the difference between nutzen, benutzen and verwenden. And I think I found a pretty good way to  explain  that.

nutzen, benutzen, verwenden – the difference

But let me tell you one thing right away, there are definitely instances where you can use either one of the three. Also, which one gets used in a certain context may well vary from speaker to speaker and from region to region.
That said, here’s how the three words are different.

 ** benutzen **

Benutzen originally was a more direct version of nutzen. And it still pretty much is. It is the least “fancy” of the three. It sounds direct and hands-on and usually refers to one particular situation. And it can have a vibe of using up to it. Like… benutzen is the one that you’d use to create wear-and-tear.

  • Maria benutzt ihr Handy um ihr Bier aufzumachen.
  • Maria uses her phone to open her beer.
  • Marias Handy fühlt sich von ihr benutzt.
  • Maria’s phone feels used by her.

 ** nutzen **

Nutzen sounds a little more distinguished than benutzen and it leans a little bit toward the idea of benefiting from something – pretty in line with its origin, which had an aspect of “enjoyment”. In fact, benefit from is kind of a good test.
You can use nutzen for object but you can also use it for time or opportunities.

  • Ich nutze meinen Balkon jeden Tag.
  • I use my balcony every day.
  • Maria hat die Chance genutzt.
  • Maria seized/used the chance.
  • Thomas hat seine Mittagspause dazu genutzt, seine Achseln zu wachsen.
  • Thomas used his lunch break to wax his armpits.

** verwenden **

Verwenden is related to winding, and the logic behind its meaning is turning something toward a purpose.  It sounds more distinguished and less hands-on than benutzen and it lacks this vibe of “wear and tear”. But it also doesn’t have this vibe of benefiting that nutzen has. I think the best way to capture that one is to think of it in terms of to apply something or to employ something. A face lotion for instance, or a spice in a dish are great example where verwenden is most idiomatic (though the others are NOT WRONG).

  • Ich verwende das Wort nicht so oft.
  • I don’t use this word that often.
  • Verwenden Sie die Lotion morgens und abends.
  • Use the lotions in the morning and in the evenings.
  • Maria will wissen, wofür Thomas sein Taschengeld verwendet.
  • Maria wants to know what Thomas is using his allowance/pocket money for.

I tried to pick examples that are kind of iconic for each verb, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the other options. The ones I used are just the most natural and idiomatic.
But to get an even better feel for the different vibes, let’s see all three verbs back to back in the same sentence.
We’ll use the following completely fictional example.

  • Thomas uses the shower every day.

And here are the three options.

  • Thomas nutzt jeden Tag die Dusche.
  • Thomas benutzt jeden Tag die Dusche.
  • Thomas verwendet jeden Tag die Dusche.

The first one, the one with nutzen, sounds a little like the shower is kind of a perk and Thomas makes use of this benefit every day.
The second one is the most natural (at least to me) and it just means that he uses it.
And the third one sounds a bit strange to my ears. Like, he’s employing the shower to do something else. Like for cooking or cleaning his teeth or whatever.
Can you see the subtle differences?
Let’s do another one, this time for a very similar, also completely fictional sentence:

  • Thomas nutzt jeden Tag Deo.
  • Thomas benutzt jeden Tag Deo.
  • Thomas verwendet jeden Tag Deo.

This example is actually one where all three options work pretty well. The first one sounds a little like marketing jargon to me, and third one sounds like someone is trying to sound a bit high register. So I would say that benutzen is once again the most natural and idiomatic option.
Cool.
Now, of course you’re not automatically always going to pick the right one, just because we did a few examples. These things take time. But I hope you got an impression of the different aspects and this can slowly grow into proper, solid sprachgefühl.
Here are the key features again, as a sort of rough guide.

  • nutzen           -> leans toward benefiting
  • benutzen      -> hands-on everyday use, can imply “wear and tear”
  • verwenden – > employing something, applying something to a task, more “fancy” than benutzen.

We’ll do a bit of practice with these in the exercise, but before we get to that, let’s go over the related words of nutzen.
Because there are quite some useful ones to be found, and also one common mistake :)

Some useful nutzen-words

Using stuff is a pretty important part of every day life, and so naturally, there are plenty of nouns and adjectives with (be)nutzen in them.

  • Die App ist nicht sehr nutzerfreundlich.
  • The app isn’t very user-friendly.
  • Facebook weiß sehr viel über seine Nutzer.
  • Facebook knows a lot about its users.
  • Natürlich habe ich die Nutzungsbedingungen gelesen.
  • Of course, I have read the terms of service/terms of use.
  • Einhörner sind eigennützige Wesen.
  • Unicorns are self-serving/egoistic creatures.
  • Ich habe meinen Benutzernamen vergessen.
  • I forgot my username.
    (there is NO reason why it’s not “Nutzername”… it just is, what it is)

But as you can see, there are no big meaning twists and we don’t need to do any mind bending, and there’s no need for much explaining.
The only one that kind of needs a little more attention is nützlich.
Most of you probably know this as useful.

  • Dieses Wort ist sehr nützlich.
  • This word is very useful.
  • Mein Professor hat mir ein paar nützliche Tipps gegeben.
  • My professor gave me a few useful tips.

And it totally does mean that. But learners tend to use nützlich way too much.
The thing is, is that nützlich sounds a bit dry and technical and in the last two decades, Germans have come to prefer the word  hilfreich.
As you can see in the Google ngram, a feature that lets you see how common a word is, hilfreich has overtaken nützlich by a LOT (and it’s even more drastic when combined with nicht)

Google ngram viewer

And sure, hilfreich also means helpful, so we could argue that of course it’s more common. But what’s really interesting is that in English, it’s the other way around and useful is way more common than helpful … like… three times more common.

 

And if you nerd out and look at the numbers on the left, you can also see that useful is like almost ten times more common in English than nützlich is in German.
And to give you another piece of evidence, here’s an article I found about meditation and in the title it says hilfreich and then in the excerpt it uses nutzlos (useless) as the DIRECT opposite

  • Visualisieren beim Meditieren ist nutzlos.
  • Visualizing while meditating is useless.

Ist Visualisierung in der Meditation hilfreich?

It’s an interesting article, by the way. I really think the visualization stuff that Western style meditation tends to do is off base. Not saying visualizing stuff can’t be hilfreich. But when you do it, you’re NOT meditating.

Anyway, long story short… if you want to sound more idiomatic, then STOP using nützlich so much.
Either use hilfreich, or even just cool or super. Or do a side sentence.

  • Die App ist echt hilfreich/cool/super.
  • Die App hilft mir sehr.

All that sounds better than…

  • Die App ist nützlich für mich.

Cool.
Now, we’re almost done, but there is of course one thing missing… everyone’s favorite thing:

Prefix versions

And luckily, there’s only a couple that are worth noting.
The first one is abnutzen and that basically refers to the wearing down that happens when you use something for a while.

  • Die Couch sieht abgenutzt aus.
  • The couch looks worn down.

And the second one is ausnutzen. The aus here is similar to the one in austrinken, so it is about using fully, and its actual meaning is kind of a using that borders on exploitation.

  • Die Eichhörnchen nutzen die Alkoholsucht der Einhörner aus.
  • The squirrels exploit the alcoholism of the unicorns.
    (We could use nutzen here, as well. That would sound less negative)
  • Das Team fühlt sich vom Chef ausgenutzt.
  • The team feels taken advantage of/exploited by the boss.
    (We could use benutzen, but that would sound less intentional and more physical.)

And last but not least, we have not a prefix version, but a vowel version… nützen.
And nützen basically means to bring use or benefit, to help, but it is ONLY used for objects or circumstance. So a situation can nützen you, but you cannot nützen someone else.

  • Die Spannungen zwischen den Eichhörnchen und den Elfen nützen vor allem den Einhörnern.
  •  The tensions between the squirrels and the elves mainly benefit the unicorns.
  • “Dienstag hätte ich Zeit.”
    “Das nützt mir nichts. Mein Umzug ist Montag.”
  • “I’d be free on Tuesday.”
    “That doesn’t help me/that’s of no use to me. My moving is on Monday.”

Depending on region, people might also use nutzen here, so you can do that, too, if you have trouble with the üüüüüü. But then you really need to get the Dative for the person right, otherwise it will be confusing.
Or pro tip: just use helfen ;).
Cool.
So I think that’s actually it for today. 

This was our look at the family of nutzen and the difference between nutzen, benutzen and verwenden.
Here it is again, as a reminder… nah, just kidding. I have this note-feature now, so you can take your own notes and make your own summary.  That’s members-only though and prices will go up soon, so cop yourself an account, if you don’t have one. It’s a  nützliche feature. Or should I say hilfreich ;).

If you want to check how much you remember and if you have a feel for when to use which word in German, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And as usual, if you have any questions or suggestions about any of this, just leave me a comment.
I hope you enjoyed it, have a great week and I’ll see you next time.

** vocab **

nutzen = to use (Sounds more high register than “benutzen” and has a vibe of benefiting)

die Nutzungsbedingungen = the terms of service

Der Nutzer = the user (“-in” for a woman, sounds way more formal in English.)

nützlich = useful (NOT as common as English. “hilfreich” is often the better pick)
nutzlos = useless
unnütz = unnecessary

benutzen = to use (Sounds hands-on and can express an idea of using up or consuming)
benutzt = used
der Benutzername = the user name (“Nutzername” just isn’t as idiomatic)

eigennützig = self serving, egotistical

verwenden = to use (Sounds a bit higher register than “benutzen” and is best captured by the idea of applying or employing something for a task. Works great for intangible “goods”.)

gebrauchen = to use (Not very common as a verb, but the related words are in use)
gebraucht = used, second-hand
Gebrauchsanweisung = the user manual

abnutzen = to wear down (Through using, mainly for furniture.)

ausnutzen = to use, to seize, to take advantage of (for opportunities); to take advantage of, to use (In a negative sense of using people)

nützen = to be of use, to benefit, to make a difference (Only in third person for objects or circumstance being useful)

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