Prefix Verbs Explained – “aufheben”

aufheben-meaning-pictureHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a look at one of these neat little prefix verbs. Not one that has a bunch of more or less unrelated meanings. Today, we’ll look at one where all the meanings neatly tie up…. or sort of. Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to check out the meanings of



Aufheben consists of the parts auf and heben. Auf is a preposition with the core idea of on top but it is also one of those annoying mosquitoes that are buzzing around your head while you try to enjoy the view over the calm, deep lake German. Bzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzz bzzzzz. Separable prefixes. Auf as a prefix has mainly two ideas… up, which kind of ties in to the on top idea, and open which ties in to nothing.

  • “Hey what’s up?
    “As a German would say… das Fenster.”
    “That doesn’t even make sense.”

It really doesn’t. In combination with heben it’s the other auf we’re dealing with… the up one.
Now, heben alone means to lift and it is the brother of English to heave. I guess that makes sense… at least if you want to lift something heavy there is some heaving in… wait a second, I just realized something, and I’m not just saying that… heavy heave… . Those two are soooo related. Something you need to “heave” is “heavy”That’s crazy. But there’s more. All those words are actually part of a REALLY big and important family. We’ve already seen it when we were talking about überhaupt. Here are a few words from that family… capture, capable, haft (of a sword), hover and last but not least have. Wow. And that’s not even all there is. All those come from the more than ancient Indo-European root *kap which meant to grasp. Now, one word that really nicely illustrates the connection between grabbing, having and heaving is …  hawk. The German word for hawk  is Habicht and I would have never thought so but both these words also comes from the very same grasping-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” it into the air.
But enough with the history… based in origin aufheben means to heave up but heben does not imply that something is… well.. heavy (German has the word hieven btw)
Heben is just lifting, and so it looks a lot like aufheben could mean to lift up.  Hmmmmmm… seems a little to easy for my taste. German usually likes its words with a twist.
And indeed, to lift up would be probably anheben or hochheben in most cases – depending on how high you lift.

Aufheben has a different focus… small objects that are laying on the floor.

  • “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.”

Now…picking up is pretty versatile… picking up the check, picking up a car, picking up girls or pick up on something. Aufheben is very … unversatile. It stands for one specific activity :
picking up smaller, not too heavy, inanimate objects that are laying on the floor.
Yap. That’s what it means.
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 aufheben your fridge suggests that your fridge was laying on the side AND that you are a very strong person… a giant even.
Aufheben is really a good example for German being specific to the point of being fussy. But hey… no wonder. Aufheben has to do with location. And that is THE field in which German feels the urge to spell out EVERY  LAST SINGLE LITTLE NUANCE in ridiculous  detail. Hin, her, legen, stellen. All that stuff.

Anyway… now, do we really need to know the word for  to pick up small inanimate objects that are laying on the floor ? Well… I don’t know… the thing is that you cannot use a different word for it. Hochheben, which is also to lift, is sounds temporary and it is about having the thing in the air. 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.

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.

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

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.


5 1 vote
Article Rating

for members :)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments