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Which of these two verbs is the historically correct one in this phrase?

I'm a German living in Germany. The phrase

an jemandes Nerven zehren/zerren

is often used in modern German and can roughly be translated as:

to be a pain in the neck
to get on so.'s nerves
to jangle so.'s nerves

None of the many native speakers I asked so far could say without doubt whether the concurring verb actually has to be zehren or zerren. There's a huge similarity both phonetically and semantically (at least regarding Nerven) here:

  • zehren is (in my perception) rarely used outside this phrase and can be translated as “to gnaw at so.”, “to wear so. out” or “to undermine sth.”
  • zerren is far more common, translations include “to wrench”, “to jerk” and „to drag“

Both semantics can be easily combined with Nerven and the alternation is so widespread that duden.de lists an example sentence for both verbs:

die ständigen Aufregungen zehrten an ihren Nerven [source]

under the meaning „jemandem sehr zusetzen, sich bei jemandem schädigend auswirken, etwas stark in Mitleidenschaft ziehen“.

<in übertragener Bedeutung>:
der Lärm zerrt an meinen Nerven (ist eine große Belastung für meine Nerven) [source]

under the meaning „(aus Widerstreben, Unmut, Ungeduld o. Ä.) heftig reißen, ruckartig ziehen“.

See also https://www.duden.de/sprachwissen/sprachratgeber/Zusammensetzungen-aus-Nerv-und-Partizip-I.

  • 1
    If you as linguist can't find a striking argumentation, is this question intended as opinion poll? – guidot Nov 15 '17 at 8:02
  • @guidot Maybe I didn't mark it clear enough, but the overall question here is: Which of these two verbs is the historically correct one in this phrase? I can't help it if I receive opinions as answers here, but this question is not at all opinion-based. I'm moving it to the top of the post now. – dessert Nov 15 '17 at 9:00
  • I used to think that zehren is the original and people replace it in the phrase with zerren because outside of this phrase zehren is used (known) less frequently than zerren. But that's just my theory... – Arsak Nov 15 '17 at 14:41
  • I have also heard the expression er ist eine "Nervensäge" – Beta Nov 16 '17 at 11:15
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It is Nerven zehren, see Redensarten-Index.

I would explain it not so much by nourishing from in the sense, that something gets stronger by it, but more at gnawing at in the sense of eating them away, so little or nothing remains from them.

This is in line with starke Nerven brauchen (requiring strong nerves), where strong could mean something like durability, but also simply a mechanical thickness, which is reduced by gnawing at them. The same picture is used in finanzielle Rücklagen aufzehren.

I would guess that the combination Nerven and zerren originates from mixing in a different metaphor, being the translation of to stress.

  • 2
    An jemandes Nerven zerren also has an entry there, see here. From the statistics it's obvious that the zehren variant gets more hits, but then again that's only a sign this variant may be considered the correct one among speakers, not which one's the historically correct one. This may very well be a case of hypercorrection! – dessert Nov 15 '17 at 7:57
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I used https://www.dwds.de/r to search different corpora for the phrase, here's what I found (nothing after 1950 included).

zehren

1795

Höchstens im tiefen Schlafe, wo der Nervenkörper ruht, könnte man die Seele vom Irrdischen loßgekettet denken; im Traum hingegen eher enger angeschlossen, weil der Traum so gut wie das tiefe Denken, das wie er die fünf Sinnenpforten abschließt, ja kein Schlafen ist. Daher zehren Träume die Nerven so sehr aus, zu deren innern Ueberspannungen jene noch äussere Eindrücke gesellen.
[Paul, Jean: Hesperus, oder 45 Hundsposttage. Drittes Heftlein. Berlin, 1795, S. 244]

1933

Erkennen Sie lieber die Ursachen ihres Aergers, die Mängel Ihres Blutes, die an Ihren Nerven zehren!
[Berliner Tageblatt (Morgen-Ausgabe), 04.02.1933]

zerren

1915

Marieluis empfand jede wie einen Schmerz - alles zerrte an ihren Nerven.
[Boy-Ed, Ida: Vor der Ehe. In: Deutsche Literatur von Frauen, Berlin: Directmedia Publ. 2001 [1915], S. 8388]

1916

Dieser Lärm durchbohrt und lähmt unser Gehirn und zerrt an unsere [sic] Nerven.
[Berliner Tageblatt (Morgen-Ausgabe), 01.03.1916]

1917

Ich vertrag viel, aber eine schiefe Situation, das ist mir etwas so Odioses, das zerrt direkt an meinen Nerven.
[Hofmannsthal, Hugo von: Der Schwierige. In: Deutsche Literatur von Lessing bis Kafka, Berlin: Directmedia Publ. 2000 [1917], S. 92546]

1922

Bahr, der immer noch lebt, bis zu jenem Mahrholz, der scheint's unter denen, die an unsern Nerven zerren, den Ehrgeiz hat, den ersten Platz sich zu erschreiben, unterstützt von dem nicht zu zählenden Schwarm von redefixen Schwammerln, die plötzlich über Nacht aufschießen aus dem Boden der "Bildung", sobald ihn einer mit was immer von neuem benäßt hat.
[Haecker, Theodor: Satire und Polemik. Innsbruck, 1922, S. 219]

1924

Und man fühlt in Paris nach einiger Zeit, wenn man gemerkt hat, daß einem keiner an den Nerven zerrt, daß alles glatt und angenehm vonstatten geht, daß das Dasein gleitet und nicht hakt - man empfindet, wie einfach im Grunde das Leben ist.
[Tucholsky, Kurt: Das menschliche Paris. In: ders., Kurt Tucholsky, Werke - Briefe - Materialien, Berlin: Directmedia Publ. 2000 [1924], S. 3058]

1925

Und schrecklich mischen sich mir die Belanglosigkeiten, von denen ich lese, mit den nervenzerrenden Ereignissen meiner Umwelt.
[Kisch, Egon Erwin: Der rasende Reporter, Berlin: Aufbau-Taschenbuch-Verl. 2001 [1925], S. 331]

+ 5 more

Conclusion

It's hard to say from this evidence:

  • zehren is much earlier attested, but only once and as auszehren, after that it occurs only once until 1950
  • zerren is first attested only 1915, but in exchange at least 11 times until 1950

The little evidence for zehren however is remarkable and doesn't really support the seemingly popular claim of zehren as the “traditional” or historically correct choice.

2

zehren von is "to be nourishing from". It is rarely the case that something that annoys you is nourishing from that annoyance. So "... zehrt von meinen Nerven" is somewhat off and it should rather be "zehren an".

zehren an means, in comparison, "wear sb./sth. out" - This means something is wearing out your nerves and grinds it to nothing. Fits very well to "zehrt an meinen Nerven".

"zerren an" rather means "to physically pull on something". That would literally mean someone pulls your nerves (ouch, that hurts). I'd rather not use that.

I am pretty sure even native speakers mess this up every now and then.

  • Thanks for your answer! I take it this reflects your personal opinion. While I appreciated it I was hoping for a more objective answer shedding some light on the historical situation, see the actual question at the end of my posting. – dessert Nov 15 '17 at 6:48

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