I am really not catching the difference between the two.

For zuerst I found the definition of "(als Erstes) vor allen anderen Tätigkeiten".
For zunächst: "als Erstes"

I have a feeling that the difference lies in the contexts in which they are used, but I don't see it. For instance, following the above definitions, (to me) the adverbs can be exchanged without any change of meaning in the following example:

Ich möchte mir zuerst/zunächst die Hände waschen.

To reiterate, my question is whether there is a change of register, of context or of what between the two.

  • Zunächst sounds more formal. It has kind of a mythical / negative swing to use it. "Zunächst setzten wir uns alle mal hin" >> implies something shoking may follow, or there is a tension between the listeners. "Füllen sie zunächst das Feld x aus" would be something formal on a web page, but not used in common language. Also, I believe that a non-native speaker would never get the difference anyway, so use either of the two words – clockw0rk Jan 1 at 6:55

As a native German I've never really thought about this word until now but when reading your question, I was curious how zunächst can mean the same thing as zuerst while als nächstes is distinct to als erstes.

Als erstes = First of all
Als nächstes = Next (Second, third, fourth thing,... but never first thing)

But: Zuerst = Zunächst = At first

I can't really answer how this distinction evolved (a quick Google search only gave a few hints but that's not enough for a conclusive answer), but with respect to your actual question it might help to look at it like this:

Erst means first and so you can interpret zuerst as the first thing.
While nächst can mean next, you need to know that nächst is derived from the superlative of nah (near, close). Hence, you can interpret zunächst as the closest/nearest thing.

You can see this meaning more clearly in its prepositional meaning where you cannot replace it with zuerst. DWDS defines it as unmittelbar neben or in nächster Nähe von. Example given there:

das Gebäude zunächst der Universität ist die Universitätsbibliothek

Meaning, the nearest building to the university is the university library.

Concluding, there's not much of a difference between zuerst and zunächst as an adverb; it doesn't matter if you talk about the first thing or the closest/nearest thing. It's the same thing after all.

A few further notes: In the Grimmsche Wörterbuch they say zunächst takes zuerst as a "role model":

nach dem vorbild von zuerst

I couldn't make out the oldest citations, but zunächst seem to be in common usage since the 16th century.

Several dictionaries (like DWDS, follow the link above) separate the adverb zunächst into two similar meanings. The first is synonym to zuerst, the other synonym to vorerst, vorläufig. Here's an example from DWDS:

dieses Problem wollen wir zunächst ausklammern

I do think that you can replace it with zuerst but you arguably change the meaning slightly. The proper translation into English for this example might be "for now", "for the time being". That is, "(at) the present time" or "for a short period of time but not permanently".

DWDS also lists several meanings for zuerst. Unfortunately the definitions are not very clear to me and examples are missing, but 1b is clearly a case where you cannot use zunächst. Here's an example of my own:

Er ist zuerst[=als Erstes] ins Ziel gekommen.

In this context, you cannot use zunächst.

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  • dieses Problem wollen wir zunächst ausklammern & I do think that you can replace it with zuerst - - no, not really; probably you mixed it up with a quite similar word: vorerst – Volker Landgraf Dec 25 '19 at 16:03
  • @VolkerLandgraf If I meant "vorerst" I wouldn't have continued with "it changes the meaning slightly" because "vorerst" and "zunächst" have the very same meaning. You can indeed replace it with "zuerst" but then it becomes "In a first step, we exclude this problem" which is in contrast to "vorerst" / "zunächst" where it's translated as "For now, we exclude this problem". But then again, what's the difference between "in a first step" and "for now" from a semantical point of view? – Em1 Dec 27 '19 at 8:28
  • Besides, I mention "vorerst" just in the paragraph where I lead over to the example. – Em1 Dec 27 '19 at 8:30
  • @Em1 In English, AFAIK one would only say "first" or "in a first step" if he/she is enumerating the steps to be taken (e.g. "first, we'll take him to the hospital, then we'll call his family"). If there is an action which must be done now and later you will consider if something else must be done, "for now" or "for the time being" would be used (e.g. "for now, we'll take him to the hospital and make sure he's ok"). So I see a semantic difference between both. – Alan Evangelista Jul 30 at 22:11

There isn't a difference in your example because of the semantics of that specific example.

zuerst — at first

zunächst — as the next step

When there's a sequence of steps, the difference becomes clear.

Zunächst schneidet man das Gemüse klein. — HALT! Zuerst muss man das Gemüse natürlich schälen.

It must be zuerst in that example, to express it's the very first step.

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  • Which shows that zunächst can connotates an aspect of desire, potential or expectation, whereas zuerst is what, imperative? – vectory Dec 24 '19 at 0:54
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    I'm afraid but I think that you can swap "zunächst" and "zuerst" in your example. Both words are defined as "the first thing of all". That's why the question came up in the first place. – Em1 Dec 24 '19 at 9:54

Acc. to Duden, zuerst has additional meanings to those of zunächst.

  1. b) als Erster, Erste, Erstes er ist mit dem Kopf zuerst (voraus) ins Wasser gesprungen


he jumped into the water head first

In contrast,

er ist mit dem Kopf zunächst ins Wasser gesprungen

would mean

at first, he jumped into the water

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  • More importantly, "zuerst / als erster die Hände waschen" can imply as the first of all subjects in the context. – vectory Dec 23 '19 at 21:34

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