Word of the Day – “schaffen”

2 meanings of schaffenHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we will have a look at the meaning of:

schaffen

 

Schaffen is a really important part of everyday German and yet for some reason is hasn’t really been on my radar until recently when a student asked me what it meant. It was then that I was thinking… hmmm that could be worth a Word of the Day. So I started my usual routine of checking translations in different dictionaries (namely Pons.de, Leo.org and Dict.cc) and I thought.. wow… it is even more versaill… vertesi…uhm…it has even more meanings than what I had originally thought.
So I was like hmmm that could be worth a Word of the Day.

Then, I looked up the origins of it and it can be traced back to the ancient Indo-European root *skā̌b(h) which the dinosaurs used in sense of to cut or cleave with a sharp thing or more specifically to carve wood.. and that had me thinking like… hmmm this could actually be worth a Wo… nah kidding… I started wondering if there were any English words with that root. Then, I got distracted by the Internet… … … … … …. …. …. …. …. …. ….

4 hours later, I finally remembered that I wanted to look for related English words. So I did,  and I found…  ship... oh… and then I also found shove, scoop, shift, shed and finally shape. Yes, all these words share the same origin…. don’t believe me? Well, here is the link for ship. You can find the rest there.
Now, these word seem to have little to do with each other and with schaffen but still I thought I’d mention it. It could turn out useful. For example, when you finally admit your feelings to your crush… like…  “You know… on the surface, us 2, we seem to be soooo different from each other but even the most differentest things can have something they share deeply inside… like the wor … “ and so on. If that doesn’t win the person over, I don’t know what would.

The original meaning of schaffen

The word schaffen basically 2 meanings. An old, original one and a contemporary one. In addition to those it does have other meanings, too but …. they don’t count.
So… the original meaning of schaffen is to create and there, at least there, we can actually see a connection to one of the related English words… to shape… When you think about it, to shape and to to create are not that far apart.

This meaning of schaffen is, at least I think so, the more original one. It is not used that much, though and you should only use it if you talk about somewhat of a big deal. You don’t really schaffen a recipe for pasta sauce. And if you create something really big erschaffen might be the better word. You know, sometimes, not always, the er-prefix makes the verb sound less… ordinary. Anyway, this meaning of schaffen is mostly to be seen in newspapers and books. But the second schaffen is all the more important.

the most common meaning of “schaffen”

As it seems back a few centuries Germans liked to use schaffen a lot and so they would use it for all kinds of things they did successfully… like… I created my homework, I created cleaning my room, I created calling you. They used the word so much that it finally got a second meaning which is kind of to succeed, to successfully do, to pull off or to manage. In that meaning it is part of every day basic talk and I’d say it accounts for 80 % of schaffens you hear today.

  • Kinder…schafft ihr es, mal 10 Minuten still zu sitzen?
  •  Kids, can you possibly manage to sit still for 10 minutes.
    (oops, sorry, I forgot the audio for that one :)

All those examples use the same construction a zu-construction… like

  • “Ich schaffe es (nicht), zu….”.
  • I (don’t) manage to ….

This is definitely the most common construction with schaffen and you should learn it. Note the es in the sentence! You need it there… or maybe you don’t but German grandma does… and you want to be a good kid and not disappoint her… this woman has raised millions of chil… ok sorry, I am being stupid. Where were we… uh yes, the es that has to be there. This is where the original create-schaffen still shines through. You see, you can’t just create. You create something … at least es. The new schaffen, the manage-one mostly is mostly about verbs but still… although it doesn’t really mean anything, the es should be there in the zu-construction.
Now, is this the ONLY construction possible? Of course not. You can replace whatever action you do with a pronoun like das or es and there are also certain things you can manage-schaffen directly… like… as direct objects.

Two areas in which schaffen is used quite frequently are food and time.

Of course this last one doesn’t work in fancy star restaurants where “pine needle scented cranberry peel adjacent to crumble of croûton” really means 1 item of each (you could just pretend you didn’t actually see it in that situation). But for the home cooked diner of your crush it is a perfect excuse. Does it work for drinks, too? Yes it does… though the example is really unrealistic.

And then here is an example for the time usage..

So… you can see that schaffen is really used in a wide variety of situations and I used many different ways to translate it. I think the translation that technically works for most of them is to manage and yet, I don’t really think the 2 words match up. Schaffen has a notion of work to it… like.. real effort has been made. I mean, it originally meant to create, right? And to manage  just lacks this notion… at least in my mind it does. To manage just sounds a little bit too cool, too controlled. It still might be the best translation in a situation, I just wanted point out that the vibe is different.
Now, before we get to the less important meanings of schaffen… yes, there are more… let me show you some short phrases that are kind of fixed.

And then there’s zu schaffen sein, which kind of mean “to be pull-off-able”.

And last but not least, there is this exclamation:

People say this whenever they are done with a task that required… some effort It is a short version of

which is also the blueprint for the spoken past of schaf... wait… that is strange… what was the example with that composer from the beginning again… uh yeah, here it is:

Geschafft, geschaffen? Hmm… looks like there are actually 2 different ge-forms here. That sucks. It’s really rare unfortunately but if it is the case, then there usually is a meaning difference. And that’s true for schaffen.
When you say geschaffen, it means created, when you say geschafft it means successfully done.

Don’t worry. This is nothing you will have to pay close attention to as you will most likely be using the succeed-schaffen. But make sure to use geschafftas the ge-form there. If you were to use geschaffen, you would be saying something different and it REALLY feels different to a German native speaker.

Some other meanings of schaffen

Ok… now, schaffen is a productive word and likes to do lots of things (get it? I just attempted a pun….).
And what we’ve seen so far is not all there is. Schaffen has some side meanings. None of them is used THAT often but you can find them in daily talk.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not they do connect to the meanings of schaffen you already know but I will give you a literal translation to trigger your imagination :).
The first side meaning of schaffen one is to bring or to put things with a weight, size or number somewhere…

Why did I mention the size, weight or number bit? Well, remember that the succeed-schaffen had a notion of work to it and this notion carried over to the to bring meaning. You wouldn’t use schaffen as to bring if what you do is bringing your plate over to the sink. At least I wouldn’t. But I usually just leave my plates on the kitchen table and wait for my flatmate to… anyway, another example for the bring-schaffen.

The next side meaning of schaffen is  to work. That one is pretty close to both creating and successfully doing.

This meaning is somewhat limited to the south of Germany but there is one expression that can be heard anywhere, although I don’t like it that much…

which means something like

  • Have fun working!

You can say it to your colleagues at work as you, the part-time walk out the door :). Alright… Schaffen can be also done to people. For some reason it then becomes exhaust or tire.

Cool. Now, we’ve almost geschafft it but there’s still one more thing left to talk about…  schaffen and prefixes. Yeah, German really schafft us :)

prefix versions of “schaffen”

Fortunately, there are not that many prefixes that work. We already mentioned erschaffen, which is just a more fancy sounding create-schaffen.

The next word is the word abschaffen, which means to dispose of something or to repeal… depending on the context. It doesn’t mean that you through something away… it just means that you got rid of it.

By the way, this is the exact wording of the respective text in the German constitution.
Kind of the opposite of abschaffen is anschaffen. But anschaffen actually has 2 meanings.
Now, here are 3 options… which one do you think is NOT a meaning of anschaffen:

  • to buy, to obtain
  • to prostitute oneself
  • to bring on

Of course the answer is to bring on :). What?… oh no no no, that wasn’t a joke … anschaffen really DOES mean to prostitute oneself. I have no idea why.
Anschaffen in sense of to buy is usually used for somewhat bigger purchases that will be with you for a while… like a car or a dish-washer. Don’t use it for food.

As for the other anschaffen… mostly people would combine that with gehen or sein…. that way it is less likely to be confused with the normal meaning.

And this is still not all there is. But I am a bit geschafft and I think we’ve done enough for today so I’ll just link the words to the dictionary… yeah, soooo lazy :)

Wait… the last one doesn’t probably belong in that list, but I can’t put my finger on why not.
So…  I am really sorry it got soooo long again but this word was impossible to cover with less.
Alright… this was our German Word of the Day schaffen. It comes from to create but it has evolved into to successfully do and a bunch of other things which all share kind of the idea of work being done. And if you think of this as the abstract core of schaffen, you will certainly have no problem to see the connection of any of the following words to schaffen :)

  • Geschäft (deal, store, business)
  • Beschäftigung (occupation, job, something to do)
  • beschäftigt (busy, employed),
  • (sich) beschäftigen (to occupy, to keep busy, to look into something, to employ).
  • Wirtschaft (economy, tavern)

and last but not least

  • Freundschaft (friendship)

If you see anything else with schaf or schäf in it, there is a good chance to guess it with all you’ve learned today in mind. If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.