Prefix Verb Explained – “aufmachen”

aufmachenHello everyone,

and welcome to a  couple truths:  German has a plenty of prefix verbs that need explaining and summer is coming. Shabamm.
Time for a series that tackles both.

Prefix Verb Hot Pants

I mean shorts. Prefix verb sho.. whatever.
Every learner knows the problem… German has bazillion of these things and while not all of them are enough material for a whole Word of the Day many of them are really really useful and worth a look. And that’s exactly what a Prefix verb short is going to be. A short, quick look at the word. No fluff, no bullshit, no fun. And because they are so… well… short, we’ll probably do more than one a week. Or maybe just throw some in here and there so you get to learn more. Isn’t that great? So let’s get right to it with a look at the meaning of



This one really is pretty simple but that’s good so we can get an impression of the format. First we’ll always take a look at the parts. Which basic verb do we have, which prefix and what notions does this prefix have in store.
So … let’s do that for aufmachen, and maybe a warning right away:

!!!    Aufmachen does NOT mean to make up   !!!

Make up one’s mind, make up an example, make up for something … if you used aufmachen for these it wouldn’t even be understood. So what does it mean? Well, we have auf and machen. Machen means to make and to do and Germans use it for almost everything. Auf is pretty typical for these separable prefixes. Many of them have two completely different notions… one is based in the word as a preposition and it is about location, the other one is seemingly  random one. To some verbs they add both notions, to others just one of them. And most of the time especially the meanings based on the local notion are somewhat abstract. So they are not so much about actual location… but we’ll get back to that later.
In case of auf the two ideas are “on top-ness” (the local component) and “open-ness”.  It can add both notions but by far the more important notion is open-ness. Aufmachen is to make open or simply to open.

Now you might be like “Hey, I thought to open was öffnen?”. And that’s totally correct too. In fact all words that are related to open like Flaschenöffner (bottle opener) or die Öffnung (the opening) are related to offen and  öffnen. But Germans really do like  machen and when people talk about day to day basic opening of stuff  aufmachen is what they use. Öffnen sounds a bit stiff and technical .. like..  You’d use that for a museum, but not for a beer.

All right. This was the first meaning. Now let’s get to the second one. The one that is based in the idea of “on-top-ness”. And in case of aufmachen, this is really really abstract and rare. Oh and it has a self reference, too.

That’s right. Sich aufmachen means to head out, to start going someplace. How does it relate to on-top-ness? Well, maybe it’s a shortened version of one of the following expressions

  • sich auf den Weg machen
  • to make oneself on top of the way (lit.)
  • be on one’s way (in sense of to head out)

but maybe it’s just the idea of making oneself upright… like … getting up from the couch. Either way, the phrasing is totally colloquial and much more nativererer than for example losgehen. Like… losgehen is a cool club but it’s in the Lonely Planet and so everyone kind of knows it while sich aufmachen is the cool underground club only the natives know about. Just make sure you got a reference to yourself with you or you won’t get in… gee, what am I saying :). Here are two more examples.

And that’s it. These were the two meanings of aufmachen. But before we wrap up, there’s one more thing we need to talk about… the r-version. And the most burning question is of course… what the heck is an r-version?? Well… it’s hard to explain in theory but let me try anyway.

the r-version … what is it?

Most of the separable prefixes are at their core prepositions and many prepositions express some spatial relation.

on the table, under the fridge, behind the house.

Now, if you combine such a preposition with a verb it would make sense that the result keeps the meaning. Like… take the English prefix verb to underline. This really is about making line under something.   But the thing with German prefix verbs (and with their English phrasal verb brothers) is: the very logical, spatial sense is usually NOT expressed by the verb. And that’s where the r-version comes in. Let’s maybe just do an example. The verb auflegen. Auflegen means a bunch of quite interesting things that are all based on laying something on top pf something else. But it does NOT literally mean to lay something on top of something. Suppose you’re looking for a new mistress so you go to the store and there are all these different models. Naturally, you want to try some before you take one h… what? … oh, right… I mean mattress… so in the store there are all those mattresses and you want to know if you can lie down on some.

  • Is it okay to lie down on here? (not idiomatic English… just to illustrate the point)
  • Kann ich mich hier mal auflegen…. WRONG… or at least super weird.
  • Kann ich mich hier mal rauflegen?… idiomatic

This is the r-version and it has the very literal, local meaning that auflegen just doesn’t have. And we’ll see this kind of r-version for many, many of the prefix verbs in this series.
Now you’re probably wondering what’s up  with the r? Why r? Where does it comes from. I think that these r-versions are shortened versions of a version with the infamous German her. Her+auf+legen …  the legen defines the action itself, in this case, it’s laying, auf adds the notion of on top and her adds, or better, underlines  the notion that it’s a directed movement. Yeah… German really is kind of anal when it comes to talking about location. So… the r-version is a shortened form of the her-version and in fact, in Southern dialects the r-version might be an n-version, a shortened version of hin…. so instead of rauflegen it might be nauflegen. People don’t really have a consistent system for hin and her. Anyway… the r-version is kind of the standard…. well, let’s say “standard” with “” because they really are rather colloquial. You won’t see them in books or newspapers and probably not in dictionaries either. In fact, even when looking online you’ll most likely find the more “official” brother of the r-version, the dr-version, which is based on the da-wor… but hey, this is getting confusing so we’ll stop. The two takeaways are this:

  • prefix verbs mean all kinds of things but they usually do have a the very logical, literal meaning that is about actual location. It wouldn’t make sense to use them that way!! That’s what the r-versions are for.
  • people use r-versions when they talk

And if still feel an.. uhm…  a-version against the r-version…  don’t worry. They’ll become more clear once we’ve seen a few of them. And the first one comes right … now.


We’ve already mentioned it. The most literal interpretation of that would be “to make something on top of something“. The big question is what does that express? Well, besides doing and making machen is also used as putting. Now of course many of you are  like “Whaaaaaat? Legen, setzen and stellen isn’t enough???”
No it isn’t. The trouble with having all these precise versions of putting is that sometimes neither one really matches. And then, at least when they speak, people use machen. In combination with prefixes anyway. And that’s the key to raufmachen.
It simply means to put something on top of something else and it is used whenever neither raufstellen nor rauflegen nor raufsetzen work. Like for instance for putting stuff on a pizza, or creme on an injured ankle or an app on a phone.

Now you might be like “Wait, you said the r-version was for the literal, local sense. Installing an update is kind of abstract isn’t it.”. And yeah, of course you’re right. They can be abstract to some degree. But the notion of putting something on a hard drive is really not that twisted. Or at least it is “more literal” than the notion of heading out or the idea of opening. Wait, what were these again… oh right… the meaning of aufmachen. So… raufmachen is not really something you can use idiomatically without having a feel for it. Other r-versions are easier to grasp. But I hope you got at least a first impression of what they are about.
And I hope you got a first impression of what this series is about… well… this wasn’t particularly short but it will be in the future because we don’t have to do all this setting up :). One last thing that we have to have a look at … the related words. For aufmachen there really are only two. One is  der AufmacherAnd no… a bottle opener is NOT Flaschenaufmacher.  An Aufmacher is one specific kind of opener… the lead feature in a newspaper, that big fat headline on the front page that makes people buy it. And that leads us directly to the other word, die Aufmachung, which means something like the layout, the design, the style. It’s super hard to pin down the usage though. Aufmachung is incredibly rare. It only works in certain contexts and I can’t quite put a finger on them.  It’s not a word you’ll need or see anytime soon. But I wanted to mention it because it is the only example where the meanings of aufmachen and to make up kind of meet. The Aufmacher of a newspaper “opens” it and it’s designed to catch the eye… just like make-up.

And that’s it. That was our first episode of the new summer series called prefix verbs shorts.. the series that’ll be much more shorterer next time :).

Today, we got our look at how this works while getting to know about aufmachenAnd instead of quick recap I’ll add a little fact sheet below.
As usual, if you have any questions about any of the meanings of aufmachen or if you have suggestions for the new series as a whole just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

**  Aufmachen – fact sheet **

Meanings:             aufmachen –  to open (for basic stuff, colloquial)
.                                 sich aufmachen – to head out (colloquial, high “impress your friends” -factor)

structures:     Jemand macht etwas auf.
.                         Someone opens something.

.                          Jemand macht sich auf.
.                          Someone head out.

spoken past:    form of “haben” + aufgemacht

related words:   der Aufmacher – the lead article (rare)
.                             die Aufmachung – the design, layout, look (super rare… very context specific)

prefix opposite:  zumachen – to close

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