Prefix Verbs Explained – “aufheben”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 9, 2021

aufheben-meaning-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome a new epic episode of our epic series Prefix Verbs Explained.
And today, we’ll take a look at a word that’s really worth keeping (hint, hint). Ladies and gents, get ready for



The prefix auf can add two ideas to a verb: the idea of on top and the idea of open. And many prefix verbs actually do get both ideas, but in case of aufheben, we’re actually only dealing with the idea of on top. Now, heben itself is the German verb for to lift. And it has some really surprising family ties…
The closest English relative is to heave. Which kind of is about lifting, except that it has an added notion of heavy.
And yes, those are of course related, too. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Here are a few other words from that family… capture, capable, haft (of a sword), hover and last but not least have.
All those come from the more than ancient Indo-European root *kap which meant to grasp and there’s an actual animal that can help us see the connection between all of them… the hawk, or Habicht in German – both words of course also belong to that family.
And now think about it. What does a hawk do? It grasps/captures a mouse or raccoon, “has” it in it’s talons and then “heaves/lifts” it into the air.
Anyway, so the German heben is pretty “weight neutral” and translates to to lift, and so it would make perfect sense if aufheben meant to lift up or to uplift.
But “making perfect sense” is not exactly German’s forte :). And the better translations for to lift up are usually anheben or hochheben (depending on how high you lift).

  • Today,  and I don’t know why, Thommy and I lifted up the fridge… very bad idea… so gross.
  • Heute, und ich weiß nicht wieso, haben Thommy und ich den Kühlschrank angehoben… gar keine gute Idee…. so ekelig.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Where did you get these scratches?”
    “I tried to lift up my cat like in Lion King.”
  • “Woher hast du diese Kratzer?”
    “Ich habe versucht, meine Katze wie in Lion King hochzuheben. ”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Aufheben has kind of specialized on one particular kind of “lifting up”  – the lifting of somewhat small objects from the ground. Or in one phrase… to pick up.

  • Heb deine Klamotten vom Boden auf! Du hast ein Regal.
  • Pick up your clothes from the floor! You do have a shelve.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Thomas kommt nicht. Er hat Hexenschuss und kann sich kaum bewegen.”
    “Oh was ist passiert?”
    “Ihm ist die Brille runtergefallen und als er sich gebückt hat, um sie aufzuheben… zack.”
    “Ohh… nicht gut.”
  • “Thomas is not coming. He has a lumbago and can barely move.”
    “Oh, what happened.”
    “He dropped his glasses and when he bent down to pick ’em up … bam.”
    “Oh… not good.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And just to make sure… aufheben is NOT picking up in the sense of picking your friend up from work or picking up vocabulary while listening to a podcast. It’s really only about

picking up stuff from the ground

You can aufheben a book from the floor but not from the table. You can aufheben a strawberry from the soil, but not from the plant.
And to give you another example…  aufheben your fridge suggests that your fridge was laying on the side AND that you are a very strong and very big person.
This meaning of aufheben is really a great example for just how painfully specific German can be sometimes. And I’m sure some of you are wondering if it’s even worth learning.
Well… my answer to that is a clear yes.
Because first of all, even though picking up small objects from the ground is rather specific, it is something we do in daily life and there isn’t really another word for it.
Hochheben sounds temporary, like you’re gonna put it back down. And  anheben means that you lift the thing a little… maybe cause you want to check what’s under it.
Aufheben has an element of collecting in it, that the other heben-words are lacking. And that bring us to the next meaning…
Imagine you’re on the beach looking for cool looking stones. If you find some you pick ’em up (aufheben) and you bring them home as a memory. You keep them. That’s the second meaning of aufheben... to keep.

  • Mein Handy ist schon kaputt. Gut, dass ich die Rechnung aufgehoben habe.
  • One should always keep bills/receipts for a while.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Das kommt in meine “Ich heb das mal auf, vielleicht brauch ich das mal” Kiste.
  • That goes into my “I’m gonna keep that, maybe I’ll need it some day”-box.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria ist voll der Freak… die hebt alle ihre alten Teebeutel auf, weil sie damit irgendwie Kunst machen will oder so.
  • Maria is quite a freak… she collects/keeps all her old tea bags because she wants to make like art or something with it.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Like the first aufheben, the picking-up one this one is also kind of limited to stuff like books, stones, stamps, pictures, photos, CDs… all those little things. It wouldn’t really work to say that you aufheben your old fridge… or some potatoes for that matter. Unless of course they have funny shapes.
And again,, aufheben is BY FAR not as a broad as to keep. For example aufheben is NOT to keep in sense of to not give something back. That would be behalten.

  • “Hier mein Deutsch-Kursbuch… kannst du behalten. Ich bin durch mit dieser Kacksprache.”
  • “Here’s my German textbook… you can keep it. I’m through with this
    crap language.”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Aufheben is not about ownership. It’s more about not throwing away something…. kind of.
So again… it is kind of a niche-word but in that niche it rules. Aufheben is THE word you need for all kinds of paperwork… sales slips, invoices,bills, letters, contracts and so on and so forth and I can’t think of an alternative. Nehmen? Nope, you already have it. Behalten? Meh… understandable but sounds odd because a pay slip is not really a possession. So … you should aufheben this word in your mental “random stuff”-box :).
All right.
Now, in the beginning I said there are 3 main meanings and the part that is missing is… to cancel.
Whaaaat?! Now come on, this is just super strange I cannot see how this could possib… oh wait, never mind, it’s like lifting sanctions, is it?
It is. Sanctions are kind of like a blanket that has to be lifted. And in German this is used more broadly… for contracts or marriages or immunity (for politicians) and some others. It’s a bit of a tricky word though and you need to have some background in law to REALLY use it the correct way.For example you and your employer can  aufheben your contract but you need to work together for that. This is not the same as to terminate, which either side can do alo… too boring. Must stop. There is one common idiom with this aufheben, though

  • Aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben.
  • Postponed isn’t cancelled.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

You can use that with your kids of you’re not going to Disneyland, or if you cancel opera-night or if you go another month without talking about ja or the subjunctive or other things people want to read about while all they get is stupid, random words like aufheben.
But seriously, sure there are other prefix versions of heben but I’d say let’s just save that for the comments… or some other time.
So… this was our look at the word aufheben. It means to pick up stuff from the floor and it can also mean to keep this kind of stuff and not throw it away. And both meanings kind of tie in with the origins of the word that are grabbing and having.
If you have any questions about aufheben, or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment. Oh and if you know another member of the heben-family and you dare explain it… go right ahead :).
I hope you liked it and see you next time.


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