Prefix Verbs Explained – “anlegen”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: May 25, 2024

Hello everyone,

and welcome to … ugh… sigh… anooooooother prefix verb.
How many more are there?
“Many, Emanuel, many. They abound.”
Wait, who said that?!
“It is I, the Universe.”
Well, thanks Universe, but you might wanna look up what a rhetorical question is some time.
“Oh yeah?! And you might wanna look up what a roundhouse kick is some time.”
Oh, scary…
“Yeah, indeed. Chuck Norris was my teacher.”
NOT your roundhouse kick, Universe! I mean the range of meanings of the verb we’ll look at today. That’s what’s scary. Ships mooring, planting a garden, pushing for something, looking for trouble and investing money. And others.
So, looks like we’re in for a wild ride as we look at the many meanings of

anlegen

 

Are you ready? Then let’s go.

In a local sense, an expresses the idea of at, next to.
And some of the uses of anlegen are indeed based on that idea.

  • Das Schiff legt im Hafen an.
  • The ship lands in/moores at/arrives the harbor.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Ritter legt seine Rüstung an.
  • The knight puts on his armor.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Polizist legt dem Bankräuber Handschellen an.
  • The police officer cuffs up the bank robber.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

I mean, none of these were super literal, but if we mentally squint a little, I think we can see how there’s some form of something laying “at” something in these.
But unless you’re a sailor, a police or you have a time machine you won’t really need these

By far the more useful anlegen is the one that’s losely based on another idea of an, the idea of beginning, inception. Which is actually kind of a spin-off of the core them of active, in motion that we can also see in the English on (as in, a device being “on”).
German an has that sense, too, and in addition, it also can express the “onset” of being “on”. That’s where the notion of starting comes from.
And with that in mind, we can sort of see why anlegen essentially carries the idea of creating.
You put (“lay”) something out there,  you lay the foundation for something that hasn’t been there before (“inception”).
Maybe planting is actually the best visual for it, but the actual translation heavily depends on the context.
Let’s check some examples:

  • Maria will in ihrem Garten einen kleinen Teich anlegen.
  • Maria wants to “lay out, create” build a little pond/pool in her garden.
    (the German version is about actually building it, not just planning. Not sure if my translation is proper)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Nachdem Thomas das “preparedness now”-Buch gelesen hat, legt er sich einen Essensvorrat an.
  • After reading the book “Preparedness Now”, Thomas creates a stock of food.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Wir legen für das Projekt einen neuen Ordner an.
  • We create a new folder for the project.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

… and then also in these examples…

  • Entwickle dich zu dem einmaligen, unverwechselbaren, unaustauschbaren Menschen, der in dir angelegt ist.
  • Evolve into the unique, unmistakable, irreplaceable human being, that is seeded in you.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Lottogewinner legt einen Teil des Gewinns in Aktien an.
  • The winner of the lottery invests part of the win in stock.
    (should I say “stock market”? Business English to the rescue…)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Phew, from (landscape) architecture to computers to investment banking. That’s quite a crazy range. But I hope you can see this idea of planting in all of them. You “plant” a pond, you have something “planted in you”, you “plant” your lottery win for future gains.
But as broad a range as this is, anlegen is NOT a verb you can easily generalize and use in new contexts.
Like… you shouldn’t think of it as a general translation for to create, for example. The contexts we just saw in the examples are pretty much the common ones for anlegen.
And that also goes for the noun die Anlage, by the way.

“die Anlage” and other related words

It’s pretty much impossible to give THE ONE translation for die Anlage, because it’s used in the same range of contexts as the verb itself. So you can find it in banking, gardening, city planning, tax filing and more.

  • Anlageberater erzählen viel, nur um was zu verkaufen.
  • Investment consultants say many thing, just to make a sale.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas sagt, sein Bierbauch sei genetische Veranlagung.
  • Thomas claims his beer belly is genetic predisposition.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Anlage ist von einem hohen Zaun umgeben.
  • The facility is surrounded by a high fence.
    (buildings including ways and surroundings)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Was genau bedeutet Geschützte Grünanlage?
  • What does protected green space/park mean?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Club hat eine unglaublich gute Anlage.
  • The club has an incredibly good sound system.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Zur Bearbeitung ihrer Steuererklärung benötigen wir die Anlage S, Anlage E und Anlage X.
  • In order to process your tax return we require annex S, annex E and annex X.
    (This one is based on “laying at” – you “lay” the annex to the actual thing)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This is an absolutely word mix of meanings and translations and it’s 100% confusing when you see them just side by side in a dictionary.
But I hope you can see that they share this weird mixed theme of “creating, planting”.
Well, except the last example. The one with annex. That’s based on the sense of “laying at, to”. You lay a bunch of papers to those other papers.

Cool.

Now, we’ve seen quite a few meanings and translations already, but there are actually still more.
Two special phrasings with anlegen to be precise, that are both are pretty common in daily talk.

Two more useful phrasings with “anlegen”

The first one is anlegen combined with a self reference and mit – “sich anlegen mit someone“.
And it’s kind of what I did with The Universe™ in the beginning of this article:
 taking on someone, confronting in the sense of  trouble.

  • Du hast dich mit dem Falschen angelegt.
  • You messed with the wrong guy. (Said this way, it basically means: I will kick your ass)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Der Starbucks-Mitarbeiter legt sich mit dem ganzen Konzern an.
  • The Starbucks employee takes on the entire corporation.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

In an ideal world, I would now give you a perfectly logical explanation as to what the logic is behind the self reference and why sich anlegen has this meaning but I got… nothing. I can’t give you an explanation because this world is FAR from ideal.
“Are you saying I’m imperfect? You’re really pushing for that round house
No, I’m not pushing for “that roundhouse”. I don’t think you could roundhouse anyone anyway, because everything and everyone is part of you, so you’d be roundhousing yourself.
“Uh… I… er…”
Yeah, you got owned, Universe.
Anyways, speaking of pushing for something… that’s actually the meaning of the other common phrasing with anlegen:

es auf etwas anlegen. 

More precisely, this phrasing expresses the idea is that you push close to or past some limit even though you know that it might not be a good idea.

  • Nordkorea legt es auf Eskalation an.
  • North Korea aims at escalation.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Du hast bei der Party mit der Frau von deinem Chef geflirtet?! Du legst es drauf an gefeuert zu werden, oder?”
  • “You were flirting the wife of your boss at the party? You WANT to get fired, don’t you?” (You aim at being fired)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Was, du gehst schon? Jetzt geht die Party doch erst los. Bist du krank?”
    “Nee, aber ich bin ein bisschen angeschlagen und ich will‘s nicht drauf anlegen.”
  • “What, you’re already leaving? Come on, the real party is just about to start. Are you sick?”
    “No, but a little under the weather and I don’t want to risk/push it.” (getting sick)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Before you ask…  yes, the es has to be there and no, it doesn’t really stand for anything specific :).
But at least I can give you an idea about where this phrasing got its meaning. It’s from (yet another) niche meaning of anlegen.

  • Der Jäger legt auf den Hirsch an.
  • The hunter takes aim at the deer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

This is quite literal – the hunter lays the rifle on his cheek to take aim. This just got generalized and modified and became pushing for something.

Cool.
So these were the many meanings of anlegen and I have to say… if I didn’t know this already, I’d have to read it again because it was quite a lot of stuff. And there’s still one more thing. Because most prefix verbs have something seeded inside of them… something with an r :).

The Meaning of “ranlegen”

As usual, the r-version is as literal as it gets. It means to “lay something at (touching) something”. In theory you can lay lots of things at lots of things but theory, shmeory… in practice, the word isn’t used much and the only examples I could come up with are playing domino and putting your ear to the wall.

  • Das ist eine 3. Da kannst du keine 5 ranlegen.
  • This is a 3. You cannot put a 5 next to it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Die Mäuse in der Wand reden potentiell über Quantentheorie.”
    “Quatsch.”
    “Doch, leg mal dein Ohr ran.
    “Okay… hmm… die reden über Bier!”
    “Aber erst seit dein Ohr das hört.”
  • “The mice in the wall are talking about quantum theory.”
    “Nonsense.”
    “They do! Put your ear to the wall.”
    “Okay… hm…. they’re talking about beer.”
    “But only since your ear hears it.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And this crazy example is perfect to wrap up our look at a crazy prefix verb. Because anlegen really is. If you have German friends, go ahead an ask them how many meanings it has. I bet you they’ll be surprised themselves about how many there are.
As usual, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.
Thanks also to the Universe, our new intern, for poppin’ in.
“Our pleasure.”
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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