Word of the Day – “passen”

passen-passt-mir-germanHello everyone,

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



And not only that. We’ll also look at all its prefix versions. And its fancy sister passieren. And its beauty-secret… depends on how much time we have.
So, let’s not waste any and dive right in to passen.

Passen is a super common and super broad. And the same goes for the English brother to pass. Just think of all the different uses of that passing a test, passing salt or passing time. In fact, there are “pass-words” in many European languages and they’re all super useful.
It all started with Latin word passus. Back in ancient Rome, a passus was a step/stride. Soon the Romans made that into the verb passare which literally meant making steps and was basically about walking from one place to another place. This original idea still shows for example in the word passage. It’s not limited to walking but passage with a ship brings us from London to New York and a passage in a book brings us from one point in the story to another.
The real core of passen (and other pass-words) is a bit different though. We need to add something to the original idea. Well, actually it’s already there, we just need to shift focus to it. You see, when we walk from one place to another place there will be things along the way – like a field, a bridge or a horde of zombies. And we pass these things. And that’s what most passen-words are  about at their very core: something is moving along or across or by somethi… you know what, let’s just look at a picture.


We can explain and make sense of all pass-words across all languages just with this little picture.
For English it’s really obvious. B could just be sitting on a bench in a park while A passes by on a bike. Or B could  be sitting on the couch watching TV while time (A)  passes by. That’s why past is called past by the way, because it passed.  B could also be in an inspection booth at the airport asking A for a passport. Or, to use an abstract one, B could be a test asking the student (A) tough questions before letting him pass to intermediate level. It’s always the same idea. As we can see in these examples, the English to pass is really very much about something moving by.
The German passen is different. Very different. For a long time it was just like its English brother about going by. But then the meaning shifted. And even though it was only a small shift, the change in meaning was big. and today passen is actually pretty much NEVER a translation for to pass.  I’m not even sure if you would be understood if you tried that.

  • Die Zeit passt.

This is a correct sentence. But it totally does NOT mean that time passes.
So, let’s take a look at this shift that changed passen so much. And of course we’ll use our picture. Suppose, A wants to pass B but A needs B’s okay for it. So far, it’s pretty much the airport example so it’s nothing new.  Now, in order to get the “okay”from B, A will most likely have to fulfill some kind of criteria of B. And THAT is the core of  the German passen  today. It’s not about the actual passing anymore but about the fitting, matching the criteria… it’s about what you do to get the okay to pass.

That sentence means the T-shirt doesn’t fulfill a criteria (to me, in my view).  It’s too big or too small or maybe I simply don’t like it. Doesn’t matter. The shirt is not a pass to me.  This is what passen is all about…  fitting, being okay.  And  it doesn’t feel the least bit like the English to pass anymore, even though we have words like (Reise)pass (passport) or (Gebirgs)pass (mountain pass). If I had to chose one word as a translation for passen it would be to fit. That’s how passen “feels”. In practice the translation totally depends on context and the “criterion” can be an objective measure like shoe size, but also pure personal preference.

And some more examples:

  • “Oh tut mir leid. Ich glaube ich habe dein letztes Bier getrunken.”
    Passt schon. Das war eh schon lange abgelaufen.”
  • “Oh, I’m sorry. I think I took your last beer.”
    All good. Don’t worry. It’s been expired for a long time  anyway.”
    (“Passt schon.”  is a pretty common expression to say “No problem” or “Don’t worry about it” in sense of that something is good the way it is and there’s no need for improvement or change)



Now, this is already a wide range of uses. But once we throw prefixes into the mix it gets even rangerer… I mean, widerer. We can for instance use prefixes to be appropriately** precise as to what fits where…. (**might mean “painstakingly”)

There are many more… raufpassen, durchpassen, rumpassen, runterpassen, hineinpassen, hinpassen and so on.  But of it doesn’t end there. Some prefix-versions have strayed away from the mother ship a bit and have come very much into their own. Anpassen for instance talks about what we can do if something doesn’t fit or match. We’ll can to modify it until it does.

A variation of anpassen is einpassen but it’s mostly used for crafting something so it’s not important. Now, there are two other very very common passen-verbs  and those don’t quite fit in with the others… or to say it in German: Sie passen nicht zu den anderen.

“Verpassen” and “aufpassen” – Two misfits

Aufpassen means to pay attention. And before you go freak out and go all like “WHAAAAAT?”, I need you to calm down and hear me out because verpassen means…  to miss. Okay… now you can freak out…  I  just thought it would be a waste of energy to freak out twice :) But seriously, paying attention and missing and they’re based on the idea of matching a criteria. .. that does seem totally random. But the two are actually kind of left overs from the original passen… the one that was about the actual act of passing by. I said verpassen means to miss. But that’s actually not precise because it’s only to miss in sense of missing a bus. Like this:

Aw… that bus was my favorite… I’m gonna miss it. 

Oh… uhm… actually… uh … I meant more like this:

Just missed the bus. Will be 10 minutes late. Sry.

In German, this text message could look be something like

Grad den Bus verpasst. Komme 10 Minuten zu spät. Tml

And of course you can also verpassen lecture or a concert, too… essentially for everything that goes by. And there we have it. That’s where verpassen connects to our picture. It’s about something that goes by. The whole missing-notion of verpassen is in fact relatively new. The famous German poet Goethe once wrote

und regen, sturm und gewitter verpasz ich unter dem baum,

What he meant is that he PASSES the rain and storm and thunder under a tree. Much like we say “to pass the time” in English. Letting it go by, if you will. And Goethe was totally happy that he had found shelter. There was no notion of missing in that verpassen. However, that changed when he later saw the status update of his friend Charlotte.

“Best storm ever! Been dancing and cheering in the rain for hours.
Never felt so alive, #storm#fun#romantic@joegoethe” 

Shabam… all of a sudden verpassen got a totally different ring to it and Goethe knew that he had not waited out, but missed out under his tree. Charlotte dancing in wet clothes….  #facepalm. And since then verpassen was used as to miss. Okay… of course that’s not exactly 100% what happened but I hope you can see the connection between the old meaning and the new one. Cool.  Now, there is a side meaning of verpassen. It’s quite colloquial but you’ll probably stumble upon it sooner or later so here it is.

Taken super literally, this means something like

  • I fit you a new hair do. (lit.)
  • My boss fits me an enema (lit)

This verpassen is basically a colloquial, somewhat rough way to say to give … maybe think of it as to make have.

  • I give you a new hair-do.
  • My boss gives me a good telling-off.

All right.  Now let’s take a look at aufpassen, which means to pay attention.

So how did that meaning come to pass?. The thing is that for a looooong time passen itself, besides the other meanings it had, meant to carefully watch. That doesn’t have much to do with the walking-origin but it still fits in with our picture. Let’s say B, the green dot, is a guard at the gate of a small medieval town. People want to get in and the guard makes a hand gesture to let them know they may pass. And naturally, because they don’t want trouble in their little town, the guard will take a thorough look at each traveler before making them pass. Before “passing” them. The English to pass still works both ways, by the way.

  •   “The bus passes me.” (Bus does the passing and is the one moving)
  •   “I pass the salt” (I do the passing but I am not the one moving)

Anyway, so one meaning of the old  passen  was to thoroughly inspect before making pass and while passen has totally focused on the perspective of the person trying to fit, the idea of taking a thorough, attentive look has survived in aufpassen. Only that it’s more general about paying attention now. Why in aufpassen and not for example auspassen or einpassen? Well, maybe it’s inspired by aufhören. You look up from your work. But maybe it’s just a coincidence. Anyways… examples.

Aufpassen is also often combined with auf.… yeah, no this is not a joke. There really is a phrase

  • auf jemanden/etwas aufpassen

This is very common too and it means something along the lines of watching over or keeping an eye on something or someone.

Aufpassen auf is also part of the German version of “Take care!”

In German you cannot just skip the of yourself and the whole thing sounds rather serious. So it’s not the casual greeting that the short version is in English. It always has this vibe of “something bad could happen to you” .
Pass auf!”  alone on the other hand is a generic call for attention. You can say that to a student in class (“Pay attention”) but also to your friend when you’re about to explain something complicated (“Listen up“)  or you could use it to warm your friend (“Watch out!“)who’s texting while parking the car that he’s about to bump into the Merce… oh crap, to late. It already happened. That’s gonna be costly. But at least it brings us right to our last point for today

“passieren” – happenings and pasta sauce and what they have in common

The Germans imported passen a thousand years ago from Old French passer. Then they messed it up the way we’ve seen above. So a couple of hundred years ago in a tavern near France this conversation took place…

 “Hey, check out the cool word the French have… passer … it means  to go by and to happen.
“Why don’t we have such a cool word… we should totally import that.”
“Kinda looks like passen.”

“Nah, that’s a coincidence.”
“Stimmt. Prost.”

And so they imported it again. This time in fancy.

That sure sounded much more noble than vorbeigehen or durchgehen and the gate guards felt very distinguished. But as gate guards became less common so di this use of the verb and today people don’t use passieren for actual going too much. Still, the word is super mega hyper important because it is the number one word for to happen.

  • Etwas passiert.
  • Something happens.

That makes total sense. Something that happens kind of does pass by in front of us … that’s really not too far from to happen. And there’s a phrasing in English too… to come to pass. This is also about something happening. The German passieren is a million times more common though.

As we can see, passieren forms its spoken past with sein. It is

  • ist passiert       and not
  • hat passiert.

That makes total sense if we remember that it’s origins are about going from one place to another place. Now, the third one of the examples shows another important grammar feature…. mir… or more general, the Dative. This Dative tells us to whom something  has happened.

Now, I don’t know how it is in English but passieren is also sometimes used to say that we actually did something… like… something clumsy or stupid. IN German people use passieren then to make it sounds less their deed, more like an accident.

  • “Du, mir ist heute was ganz dummes passiert.
    “Hat es was mit meinem Laptop zu tun, den ich dir geborgt hatte?” “Ja. Ich glaube du brauchst einen neuen.”
  • “Something really stupid happened to me today” (lit.)I did something really stupid/bad today.”
    “Does it have something to do with the laptop I lent you ?”
    “Yes, I think you need a new one.”

Cool. So this is passieren.  There are all kinds of other words for to happen  in books (sich ereignen, geschehen, sich zutragen, sich abspielen, vor sich gehen…)  but when it comes to daily spoken German, passieren is the one used. Now, we’re pretty much done but there is one question left to answer…

What’s up with the pasta sauce?

If you’re in Germany and you look up a recipe for a tomato sauce you might come across what is called passierte Tomaten. Based on what we’ve just learned that is pretty idiotic. I mean… happened tomatoes?? What?? Passierte Tomaten are what you get when you put tomatoes in a blender. Kind of a thick tomato juice. The verb is passieren and the meaning is to puree food into a mush, for instance carrots for a new born. Now, what would you say… is this passieren the same word as the happening-passieren?? Place your bets now…. It is. Back before there was a blender one way to puree your veggies was to press them through a sieve or a strainer. Or should we say pass them through a sieve :). They pass the sieve and that’s why they’re called passiert and that method is also why passierte Tomaten are sometimes called sieved tomatoes in English. I was actually really surprised when I found out that the two passierens are actually one and the same. They  just feel soooooo incredibly different.

Language is crazy sometimes.
And I think that’s a good place to wrap up.
We’re done. That was our German Word of the Day passen and it’s prefix versions. We didn’t get to talk about the beauty secret of passen, but I think we covered all the rest, so it’s okay. The original core was A passing by B but German soon focused away from the actual passing toward meeting a requirement in order to get permission to pass… meeting requirements… getting permission…. that sounds like a shift German would do :). Today, passen means to fit, suit, be suitable, be agreeable and no one is aware of the origins which is why it is NOT a good idea to use it a translation for to pass. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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