Word of the Day – “passen”


Hello 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, of course. We’ll also look at the really cool prefix versions like verpassen or aufpassen and we’ll talk about passen’s fancy sister passieren. And if we then have some time left, we’ll reveal the secret to eternal youth and beauty.

So, let’s not waste any and dive right in to passen.

Passen is of course the German brother of English to pass. And we only need to think for a few second to see that the verb is actually really borad – like… passing a test, passing salt, passing time.
German passen is equally broad and in fact many European languages have pass-words (ahem) and they’re all super useful.

So to get to the core of the family, we need to go to its origins. And that’s of course good old Latin.

The core idea of “passen”

Back in ancient Rome, there was the word passus which meant a step/stride.
From that, the Romans then made the verb passare which literally meant making steps and which initially was used in the simple sense of walking somewhere. Soon it shifted toward the general sense of a journey, which we can still see this in the word der Passagier (the passenger), for example.
But then, the verb started shifting focus, away from the mere destination, toward the stuff you get to see on the way there. Think of hiking. The place we’re hiking to is only part of what matters. Equally important is the things we see along the way. Or in one word… the things we pass.
And THAT’S the core of most pass-words today.
Here it is as a visual image


In English, it’s really easy to see.
Point B could just be sitting on a bench in a park while A passes by on a bike. Or point B could be sitting on the couch watching Netflix while time (A) passes by. Or, to use an abstract one, B could be a test asking the students (A) tough questions before letting them pass to intermediate level. Quite obvious, and we can also find that in German words like der Reisepass (passport) or der Gebirgspass (mountain pass)

The German verb passen, on the other hand, in’t as obvious.
Because there was another shift in meaning. For a long time it was just like its English brother about going by.
But then the meaning shifted, and even though it was just a small shift on paper, it changed the meaning completely. And today passen is actually pretty much NEVER a translation for to pass.
Let me repeat that in red:

!! passen is 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. Instead, it means that the time is suitable.
So what’s that mysterious shift?
In Essence, it’s a shift from passing by to getting a pass. That can either be a permission, or it can just be about something fitting somewhere or it can be about being “okay” – there’s always a notion of:

fitting certain criteria

THAT is the core of the German passen today and it’s at the core of all the various uses.

“passen” in action

There are actually quite a bunch of possible translations for passen. But they all share this underlying theme that we just found. It is basically a matter of what kind of “criteria” are being “met”. It can be something objective like a size…

  • Die Schuhe passen mir nicht.
  • The shoes don’t fit (me).

But it can also be personal preference…

  • Die Schuhe passen nicht zu dir.
  • These shoes are not your style.
  • Die Zeit passt.
  • The time is good (for me)/ The time suits me.

or some other illusive kind of “spec”…

  • “To fit” doesn’t always work as a translation
  • “To fit” passt als Übersetzung nicht immer.

To a German, all these examples really kind of feel the same, and I hope with this notion of “getting a pass” in mind, you can see that.
Let’s look at some more examples…

  • Would tomorrow at 6 be good for you/suit you?
  • Passt Ihnen/Dir morgen um 6?
  • Ich wasche nun mal nicht ab. Wenn dir das nicht passt, dann ist das dein Problem.
  • I don’t do dishes, simple as that. If you don’t like it/(if that doesn’t suit you), that’s YOUR problem.
  • Dein Ton passt mir nicht. (in an argument)
  • I don’t like your tone.
  • “Das Meeting wurde auf morgen Nachmittag verschoben.”
    “Oh echt jetzt? Das passt mir gar nicht.”
  • “The meeting has been postponed to tomorrow afternoon.”
    “Are you serious? That’s really inconvenient for me/I don’t like that at all.”
  • “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)

Quite a wide range of uses already, but it gets even ranger… I mean, wider…. once we bring in the prefixes.

the prefix versions of passen

We can for instance use prefixes to be appropriately** precise as to what fits where…. (**might mean “painstakingly”)

  • The fridge is full. The milk doesn’t fit.
  • Der Kühlschrank ist voll. Die Milch passt nicht mehr rein.
  • Jim und Maria haben eh nicht zusammengepasst.
  • Jim and Maria didn’t fit together anyway.

There are many more of those like durchpassen (fit through), rumpassen (fit around) , runterpassen (fit under), hinpassen (fit there) and so on.

But of course there are also some versions that are a little more abstract.
Anpassen for instance is not directly about something being a fit. Instead, it is about what we do if something or someone ISN’T really fitting criteria – because anpassen is about modify it until it does.

  • Der Mensch kann sich an viele klimatische Bedingungen anpassen.
  • Humans can adapt to many climates.
    Man can adjust himself to many climatic conditions (literal, politically incorrect)
  • Ich passe mein Tempo deinem an.
  • I adjust/match my pace to yours.
  • Der Lehrer passt den Unterricht den Wünschen der Schüler an.
  • The teacher modifies her teaching based on the students’ wishes.
    The teacher adjusts the lesson to the students’ wishes (literal).
  • Pass dich nicht an! Bleib so wie du bist.
  • Don’t conform. Stay as you are.

And while that is still in line with the overall theme of fitting, there are two very common prefix versions, that don’t really seem to passen to the rest :)

“Verpassen” and “aufpassen” – Two misfits

Let’s start with verpassen. Verpassen means to miss. And actually ONLY the missing in the sense of missing a bus. You know … like…

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

Oh, wait… I just mixed them up. I meant this one, of course

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

And I think you can already tell that this is a leftover of the older version of passen, from back when it was still in line with the English to pass. When we verpassen (miss) the bus, that means that the bus passes us.
And by the way… the whole missing-notion of verpassen is actually kind of new.
Some 300 years ago, give or take, Goethe, that over-hyped German poet, wrote :

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

And he DIDN’T mean that he missed the storm. Back then this just meant that he “passed” it. 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… and Goethe new that he had missed out on Charlotte dancing in a wet t-shirt, and from this day onward verpassen was about to miss.
Okay… of course that’s not exactly 100% what happened. But anyway… here are a few examples

  • “Hast du Maria gesehen?”
    “Nein, wir haben uns knapp verpasst.”
  • “Have you seen Maria?”
    “No, we missed each other by a few minutes.”
  • FOMO is the fear of missing out.
  • FOMO ist die Angst etwas zu verpassen.

I guess the German version of FOMO would be AEZV. I think I know why no one uses that one, though.
And while we’re at it… if you’re like me and you suffer from FOMO, you know what a really good remedy is? Sit in German class! Or in any class for that matter. You will have NO FOMO about that whatsoever and peacefully doze off.
Like… why do we actually not have FOMO in class? I mean… we’d be like “I gotta know this, I mustn’t miss this” and we’d pay attention the whole time. That’d be awesome.
And speaking of paying attention…. that brings us right to the other verb, aufpassen.
Because aufpassen means exactly that… uhm… to pay attention.

  • Ich passe im Unterricht auf.
  • I pay attention in class.

So where did this meaning come from?
Well, it’s actually kind of been there all along. Think back to the little image we had… point A passing point B.
That is only one way to look at it. The other way is to say that point B is “making” or “letting” point A pass.
The English to pass still kind of 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, back a few hundred years, passen was commonly used for the job of a city guard. They’d let/make people pass after taking a good, thorough look at them. And this notion has survived in aufpassen and slowly broadened to the general sense of about paying attention. Not the most convincing, but that’s all I can offer :). So let’s just look at some examples…

  • Pass auf, wenn du über die Straße gehst
  • Pay attention when you cross the street.
  • Beim Referat muss ich aufpassen, dass ich nicht zu sehr abschweife.
  • I have to be careful/pay attention not to digress too much during my presentation.
  • “Blah blah blah blah blah… hast du eine Idee, Emanuel??”
    “Oh… äh… was ? Äh.. tut mir leid Frau Lehrerin, ich hab’ grad nicht aufgepasst.”
  • “Blah blah blah … do you have an idea, Emanuel??”
    “Oh uhm… what? Er… uh… sorry Ms. Teacher, I wasn’t paying attention.”

Oh, and it can also be used in the sense of “protectively” watching something or someone. This will then be connected with an extra auf… because German loooooves doubling down like that :).

  • Kannst du kurz auf meine Tasche aufpassen? Ich muss mal auf Klo.
  • Could you keep an eye on my bag for a second? I have to hit the bathroom.
  • Während die Eltern in der Oper sind, passt die Oma auf die Kinder auf.
  • While the parents are at the opera, the grandmother takes care of/looks after the children.
  • Take care(of yourself)
  • Pass auf dich auf.

And just to make sure… you can’t just say “Pass auf!” Or well… you can. But it doesn’t mean “Take care!” but rather “Listen!” or “Watch out!”

So now of course there are a few other prefix versions of passen, and there are some niche uses that we didn’t mention. But none of them are worth spending too much time on. At least not considering that there’s another member of the family: passieren.
And that one is REALLY freaking important.

“passieren” – happenings and pasta sauce

The Germans imported passen a thousand years ago from Old French passer. Then they messed it up and shifted the meaning away from passing toward the whole notion of “fitting criteria”.
And then, 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 as a fancy French-y version.

  • Du darfst passieren.
  • You may pass.

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 did this use of the verb and today people don’t use passieren for actual going too much.
The word itself didn’t disappear, though. Instead, it shifted toward the other meaning it has in French and became the number one German word for… drumroll… to happen (the reflexive “se passer”, in actual French)

  • Etwas passiert.
  • Something happens.

And that makes total sense, actually. Just think of the English phrase “to come to pass”, which is virtually a synonym for to happen. Something that happens kind of does pass by in front of us.
Either way, German passieren is in credibly common, so here are a few examples.

  • How did that happen?
  • Wie ist das passiert?
  • Ich habe 1 Woche gewartet aber bisher ist noch nichts passiert.
  • I’ve waited for a week but so far nothing has happened.

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.
And if you want to add a person to whom something happens, then you’d do that with everyone’s third favorite case… the Dative.

  • Mir ist heute was voll lustiges passiert.
  • Today, something really funny happened to me.
  • Maria war was trinken und wurde für einen Werbespot gecastet… warum passiert ihr sowas ständig.
  • Maria was out for a drink and was cast for an TV ad… why does stuff like that always happen to her.
  • “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.”

Now, German actually has 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.
And you know what… as if that wasn’t enough, you can also find passieren elswhere.
IN the supermarket for instance. On a can of “passierte Tomaten”

Now, does that mean “happened tomatos”??!?! Of course, not. Passierte Tomaten are what you get when you put tomatoes in a blender. Kind of a thick tomato juice. Because passieren 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.

  • “Was ist mit den passierten Tomaten passiert?”
  • “What happened with the sieved/pureed tomatoes ?”

Language is crazy sometimes.
And I think that’s a good place to wrap up :).

This was our look at the meaning of passen and its various prefix versions and I really hope you got a better understanding of the word.
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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11 months ago

Greetings –
Ich habe den Satz gelesen: Peter passt bei einigen Gebrauchtwagenhaendlern auf, weil er nicht weiss, ob sie ihm ein schlechtes Auto verkaufen.
Ich hatte erwartet, ein “auf” zu sehen, wo das “bei” ist. Aendert das die Bedeutung?

Vielen Dank

4 years ago

When I was in Germany, i always took the bus and i lived in the middle of nowhere in a town of like 700 people, anyway i Always saw the same peeps on the bus, these two AFD dudes (ew). Anyway they always spoke loud and one would always say to the other “pass auf” then go on his obnoxious Spiel. He said it like 5 or 6 times, guess he wanted his friend to keep “listening Up” to his detailed, overly-complicated racist rants. Thank God they never said anything to me (i hardly talked to anyone on the bus, plus i’m blonde and fair skin, been told i look “German”). Anyway that’s my Story about “aufpassen” :D

6 years ago

Thanks for this picture. Now I also understand the meaning of “abpassen”. I always thought it was about cutting the path (Pass/Passage) short. But it is just that B moves in there.
“abpassen” to wait for the exact right moment to meet somebody/hit/catch something. Or how would you translate it?

7 years ago

Ich weiss nicht ob es wegen meiner Österreichischen Familie ist, oder wegen meiner Niederländischen Hintergrund, aber who Sie “Grad” sagten hätte ich “Gerade” erwartet. Grad wär eher endlich oder letztendlich.
Ich fing grad an.
I finally started.
Ich fange gerade an.
I’m just starting.
Ich irre mich woll.

7 years ago

You teach amazingly.. You make me love the german language even more, I would totally buy your textbook (If you ever decided to write one).
Deutsch ist meine lieblingssprache und du bist ein wunderbar (und auch lustig) Lehrer. (sorry, my deutsch is still sch**ße) =D

7 years ago

Also in Italian, and about the tomatoes, the specialized kitchen tool you use to make the “passata di pomodoro” (passierte Tomaten) which you use for your tomato sauce is a “passatutto”, i.e., “passes everything”, which certainly fits with your “A passing B” drawing. The English word for the same tool is a “food mill” but most North Americans don’t have one or know what it is. If they do they might use it to make apple sauce rather than tomato sauce. Whereas all Italians would have one to make tomato sauce from whole (usually canned/tinned) tomatoes.

Am enjoying your site, never thought of learning German before but now I’m awfully tempted to try… :)

Félix LeChien
Félix LeChien
7 years ago

“Passieren” for tomatoes is easy to understand for whom speaks French, as the word for “sieve” in French is “passoire”, from the verb “passer”… That takes us back to the origins of “passieren”! But we never say “tomates passées” (that would be akin to “verpassten Tomaten”), but rather “tomates en purée” or “purée de tomates”.

7 years ago

What’s up with the z in verpasz in Goethe’s poem?
und regen, sturm und gewitter verpasz ich unter dem baum,

7 years ago

Ich hoffe, dein Buch wird bald erscheinen. Das wäre für mein Deutschlernenkarriere eine große Erleichterung. Ich bin manchmal so verzweifelt mit der Sprache.
Ich hab nicht gedacht, dass “passen” gar nicht so viele Präfixe hat. Vielen Dank für deine nette Erklärung.

Cutsie; die stolze Spaßvogel
Cutsie; die stolze Spaßvogel
7 years ago

Ich weiß dass es beziehungslos ist, aber kannst du bitte ein Post schreiben darin man versteht was die Unterschieden zwischen ‘bei’ und ‘mit’ ist? Vielen dank :)

7 years ago

Es hilft besser, wenn du ein Beispiel findest, in dem du nicht weißt, was der Unterschied ist. Notiere es, und frag jemanden später. Man muss halt nach und nach die Bedeutungen entdecken und dann sieht man irgendwann ein System dahinten. :D

Was ich dir empfehlen möchte ist ein Buch von Hueber, das heißt “Weg mit den typischen Fehlern”. Ich bin mir nicht ganz sicher ob es dir helfen kann. Aber darin steht so typische Fehler mit Präpositionen und Verben usw. Ich finde das Buch sehr hilfreich.

7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Danke, Emanuel!! ich habe es verstanden.
ich mache schon öfter solche Fehler. Ich hab schon mal geschrieben: “Die Geschwindigkeit ist sehr schnell.”

eine schöne Woche. :)

7 years ago

After seeing your diagram, and even more so after your examples involving the bus, and the salt, I couldn’t help but think of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and I wanted to share a joke.

Albert Einstein got on a train and asked, does Berlin stop at this train?

7 years ago

I couldn’t help but notice a couple editing mistakes in this one:

That makes total. Something that happens kind of does pass by in front of us … that’s really not too far from to happen.

I think you mean, “That makes total sense.”

Ich habe 1 Tag gewartet aber bisher ist noch nichts passiert.
I’ve waited for a week but so far nothing has happened.

uhm… I believe you mixed up day and week here.

7 years ago

OMG, This is really awesome! It is very helpful to learn German! Thank you so much
I must look up all the post here lol

Eine Mädchen mit einer Frage
Eine Mädchen mit einer Frage
7 years ago

A have a really off-topic question. Sorry, it’s just that your really good at explaining stuff. It’s about the verb “bestehen”. PONS suggest several possible meanings, namely “to pass”, “to survive”, “to insist”, “to consolidate”, and even “to be”. It looks like a really versatile verb if you ask me. I wonder if those meanings are somehow related. Anyways, if there is someone who can make sense of that it’s you.

Ein Mädchen mit keiner Frage mehr
Ein Mädchen mit keiner Frage mehr
7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Du schreibst ein Buch! Wie geil! Ich werde es auf jeden Fall kaufen. Übrigens hat deine Erklärung mir ganz geholfen.

7 years ago

“Du passt nicht in dieser Klasse”

I recall my teacher saying that once to a new girl in my class. We were all A2 (supposedly) and she couldn’t even say a sentence in German. I felt kind of bad for her. Until that moment, I had only heard that verb being used when talking about clothes, so that statement sounded really mean to me. Like if she was a sweater that didn’t fit anyone and now had to be returned. Anyways, the teacher took her out of the classroom and I never saw her again.

7 years ago

Hi! Native Italian here.
In Italian, “passare” means also “pass through”. For example, a very fat person does not pass through the door. And so it means also “fit”, and abstractly “match criteria”. When something is “passabile” it means it is barely okay.
I don’t know how old this is, whether it dates back to Latin or not. But I guess it could be the actual origin of the German “passen”.

7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

“Passable” in English has the same meaning – I think I’d say it’s mildly positive like “passabel,” though it definitely doesn’t mean anything better than “adequate.” Something “passable” is good enough not to have to worry about.

7 years ago

Eine Frage zu “to fit” passen.
Irgendetwas passt (zu) mir nicht? Was ist hier richtig? Du hast beide verwendet: “Die Schuhe passen mir nicht.” bzw. “Die Schuhe passen nicht zu dir.”. Ich würde sagen, dass es einen kleinen Bedeutungsunterschied gibt?
Übrigens ist alles in Ordnung mit dem Satz “Der Mensch kann sich kann viele klimatische Bedingungen anpassen.”. Zweimal “kann” ist wahrscheinlich ein Typo aber mir fehlt da ein Dativ? Also (zu) vieleN klimatischeN. Mit oder ohne “zu”. Bin ich hier falsch?

7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Vielen Dank für die Antwort!
Also, “anpassen” mit dem Dativ passt nur bei diesem Beispiel nicht?
Ein Beispiel von dir war “Ich passe mein Tempo deinem an.”. Wäre es auch richtig “Ich passe mein Tempo an deines an.”?
Ich war mir sicher, dass ich hier in BW gehört habe, dass einige Muttersprachler sagen “Ich bin falsch”. Kann es sein, dass sie stattdessen “Ich liege falsch” sagen?

Danke im Voraus.

7 years ago

Ich finde du könntest noch “jemandem ein blaues Auge verpassen” neben die Frisur stellen, das ist noch ein wenig verrückter

7 years ago

Fascinating and entertaining, as usual. Vielen Dank
A small correction. ‘Criteria’ is actually plural, of ‘criterion’. A Greek word that retains its Greek plural in English. Similarly – phenomenon and phenomena. Plenty of native English speakers get it wrong, but it sounds so much more erudite, or ancient, to get it right!

Nikolaus Wittenstein
Reply to  German-is-easy

Most people use “data” as a mass noun, but many people use “datum” as a singular and “data” as a plural. E.g. in a scientific paper you might see something like “the data show that the hypothesis was correct.”


Sehr gut wie immer :D Ich habe eine Frage. Auf Englisch sagen wir “Something does not fit someone” und “Something does not suit someone”. Die beiden haben ganz verschiedene Bedeutungen. Die erste klingt als etwas jemand zu groß oder klein ist und die zweite als etwas jemand nicht geeignet ist. Macht das Sinn? In deine Artikel hast du geschrieben, dass die Beiden Englische Sätzen durch “passen” übersetzen werden (als ich gelesen habe). Wie sagt Mann eigentlich, wann er solche getrennt Bedeutungen sagen will?

In anderen Nachrichten – Jetzt verstehe ich, warum “sieved tomatoes” wird “passava” genannt.

Reply to  German-is-easy

Danke nochmal. Ich muss sagen, dass du zu diesem Job ganz gut passt. Weiß ich nicht ob die Wortstellung richtig ist.