Cleanliness used to be a key ingredient for clichés of Germans (and Swiss); and in 18th/19th travelogues by Germans, it also was considered and important feature to check and describe in detail about visited countries.
Perhaps this is one reason of the fact that German languages has several words meaning to clean which are not easy to differentiate. Even native speakers may have a hard time to explain when which is used and why; however, in a particular context they will almost always make a unique choice based on the general habit. So I make an attempt at organizing the main cases in a trim and clean way.
The three basic verbs used for the process of cleaning are the following:
- waschen, wusch, gewaschen
The second one, “Waschen”, is the only strong verb among these. The way of building past tense and past participle (“Ablautreihe”) is the same as for “fahren: fuhr, gefahren” . Perhaps you like the idea of a bath tub on a trailer …
There is one important word missing in this list: reinigen.
“Reiningen” is very easy to use: It can stand for any type and method of cleaning humans, animals, things, sites, materials, souls and concepts. But in most cases, it belongs to a slightly more formal level; in particular, if you can use of the three above. You will therefore find it in technical instructions and technical or scientific descriptions, …
Reinigen Sie das Gerät mindestens einmal wöchentlich. – Clean the machine at least once a week. Reinigung ölkontaminierter Böden – cleaning/remediation of oil-contaminated soils
in legal contexts, …
derGebäudereiniger/ die Gebäudereinigerin – building cleaning worker
but also with cultural topics,
Ziel war es, die griechische Sprache von fremden Einflüssen zu reinigen. – The goal was to purify Greek language off alien influence.
and philosophic and religious meanings:
Tränen reinigen das Herz. – Tears purify one’s heart. Laut Aristoteles sollte die antike Tragödie den Zuschauer durch die Darstellung der Leidenschaften von diesen reinigen. – According to Aristotle, the ancient tragedy was supposed to purge the spectators off their passions by means of displaying them.
(Aside: In the last sentence, as well as in all contexts where “die Seele” (soul) occurs the verb läutern may be another good option.)
There is one very special mean, though, of this verb: If the clothes are concerned, the word most probably means to dry-clean:
Diese Jacke kann ich nicht waschen, ich muss sie reinigen lassen. – I can’t machine-wash this jacket. I’ll have to have it dry-cleaned.
Note that this usage is not 100% precise; if you want to make your point completely clear you should use chemisch reinigen.
We have already employed the noun Reinigung (cleaning); it can be used in all roughly cases where the verb may prevail. It usually describes the process of cleaning. In the context of dry cleaning (last paragraph), it may also be the service or the shop where you have it done.
Ich gebe die Jacke heute noch in die Reinigung. – I’ll take the jacket to the dry cleaner even today.
The ‘doer’ noun “der Reiniger” refers to a chemical product used for cleaning, often preceded by either its object of application, or its main ingredient (just as in English):
Glasreiniger – glass cleaner Essigreiniger – vinegar cleaner
In formal contexts, it may also be a person (as we already know).
So clean, so good. Let’s leave this topic for now – there will be a detailed discussion of the three more frequent verbs in one of my next postings. I think my laundry is finished now.
P.S.: Still got any problems with remembering the irregular forms of waschen?