explaining the expression

aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben

(meaning something like 'rescheduled does not mean cancelled') to a friend of mine, I was wondering about the word aufheben, which means both pick up and cancel

What is the etymology (of the cancel meaning) of aufheben? And: are the two meanings somehow related to each other?

  • 4
    Könnte das hiermit zusammenhängen: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafel_aufheben?
    – Iris
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 7:13
  • wow, very good find :) i knew the connection "tafeln" and "essen", but this one is new to me
    – Tommylee2k
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 7:15

5 Answers 5


In the german Duden you can't find an entry in the etymology. I found a similar question. The answer desrcibes how das Aufheben der Tafel is having the same meaning like das Beenden des Essens. With aufheben der Tafel it is meant to pick up the tabletop and carry it away and with this action you cancel or finish the lunchtime. Having a carryable tabletop is comming from medieval times. So the entire dish and lunch is served in one action.

Nowadays aufheben in the meaning of to cancel, is often used for cancellation of a sentence. To assign a curse to someone can be translated to jemanden mit einem Fluch belegen so you make him carry the weight of the curse or you lay the weight of the curse down on the person. In this way it also makes sense to pick up the weight of the curse again. Einen Fluch aufheben is also translated to recall the curse. So first you let the person carry the weight/burden of something and pick up the weight/burden again in order to cancel the sentence. The example you stated in your question also implies that the person who has to complete a task or fulfill a agreement doesn't want to do so. Therefore the person is carrying a burden around and will be relieved from the burden after doing whatever the person is supposed to do or the other person who forced the agreement will recall it. So in this situation aufheben is used as a synonym for entlasten (engl. relieve). So the party that was affected negativly by some changes is becoming its freedom back and is therefore entlastet because something or someone picked up the weight/burden again.

Note: etwas aufheben with the meaning of to cancel always implies it's easier for the opponent party to cancel the agreement, than it is for the other party to fulfill it. For example the king can just order to unblock a blocked road again, while you would have to put in a lot of efford to pass the road that the king blocked before. To be able to cancel/aufheben something, it always implies the opponent party has a higher rank or you are in debt.

  • kind of "oversize tray" :)
    – Tommylee2k
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 7:38
  • Correct. It was common to use the same room for an assembly and for the feast. So it was handy to have portable tables, and also you could prepare everything before serving it.
    – Yoshi
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 7:43
  • I fail to see hos such a narrow meaning could be transfered to legal terminology. The rest of the answer that does not deal with dinner plates is in sum just pointing out that a metaphor can work in multiple ways. This is surely important, but nothing definite. Each line implies new interesting questions. Especiall the explanation aluding to a vertical hierarchy is interesting (cp. aufgeben, but to submit, both declaring defeat or sending a package, also surrender). Only one, the road block one, reinforces the primary idea. I do not count mit einem Fluch belegen, because ...
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 20:41
  • ... Auslegung von Gesetzen (interpretation, statutory law) has little to do with laying, and looks to be very close to Latin lego, English law (while bekannt machen, öffentlich aushängen might be an influence). Anyhow, it is possible that the sense to end was already there, when lords more busy with feasting than lawing properly re-etymologized the word. Without historical evidwnce, I have no reason to believe that aufheben meant to remove heavy things in general, rather than in this narrow sense, end.
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 20:45

Consider the English phrase:

The ban was lifted.

Which is equivalent to:

Die Sperre wurde aufgehoben.

In this case, both words (lifted, aufgehoben) are used in the meaning of cancelled (or more literally: taken away, removed), although they usually have different, but also pretty equivalent meanings.

  • Compare shop-lifting to Gothic hliftuz "thieve" which is akin to Gr klepto- according to wiktionary.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 19:11
  • Also ein Geheimnis lüften
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 19:21

Grimm provides under section 9 of aufheben the folllowing:

noch häufiger ist die abstraction des aufhebens, wegnehmens, tilgens und abschaffens

There are numerous examples for the meaning cancellation, like Vorschrift, Ausnahmezustand, Hausarrest and it is interesting, that the opposite, the establishment can frequently be formulated with erlassen, which may mean put down in the similar way as aufheben means lift.

  • You mean "the establishing", "the creation" which stands in contrast to the other meaning "to dismiss, to dispose of". Note that while "to put down" accurately reflects the contrast, it does not paraphrase the semantics of a bare preposition less Lassen Sie das! I am not sure whether I am complaining about the choice of words or the difficulty of paraphrasing in a second language. pick <> put is a good comparison, in the sense that we are looking at basically two different words.
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 5:12

Since we're happily speculating away here, note that Latin already has the same ambiguity: tollere means both to take away (metaphorically), to abolish and to take away (literally), to lift.

The shift in meaning is fairly natural: If I want to take something away, first I need to lift it, or at least pick it up. But it might also well be the case that aufheben is a semantic loan from Latin.

  • It's not exactly "the same ambiguity". In to pick up there's a sense "to start to use", and in aufheben there's a sense "to save for later" (alternatively behalten), both implying "to reject not". I am not sure whether the opening question was aware of that. It is approximately the opposite of to discard (a law). Also, aufheben does not generally have the denotional sense "to take an object away from someone", though it's implied in a restricted sense, e.g "eine Erlaubnis aufheben". That's hardly natural. We might well be looking at an old idiom, indeed, but ...
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 18:42
  • .. I do not consider legalese a natural language, although, the archaic structures are sometimes more naturally grown than laid out synthetically in a perfect system. It is especially prone to corruption. I would try to look further than Latin. Just compare lesen "sammeln; to read, teach", La legare "lesen", illegal, lösen, erlösen, ablösen, eine Versammlung auflösen. Cp Dutch taal, En tell, Ger Zahl, zählen, erzählen, erteilen, ernennen, einstellen, annehmen, wegnehmen, abziehen, zerren, En tear, Fr tirer, En tire, retire, try, trial ...
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 19:12

When looking at the etymology of heben we can see that it was and is not only used in the meaning of to lift, to heave (same root) but also figuratively, e.g. (incomplete list!):

  • In finance we used it in the meaning of to lift money up from a storage which today turned into Geld abheben.
  • in mathematics it is used as heben in the meaning of to level up (i.e. to cancel), and also with prefix auf- as aufheben in the meaning of to resolve.
  • last but not least if we say aufheben in the meaning of to cancel it is the figurative use of to heave away.
    So if we say eine Tafel aufheben we not only say we heave away the cutlery but the people of the dinner party also move away to another place, after they had lifted themselves up of the chairs (sich erheben).
  • Hmmm... instead of heave I would rather use lift. Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 17:18
  • @RudyVelthuis: heave is because of the shared etymological roots (we were not asked for the meaning but for the etymology but I do like you answer which show a similar figurative approach with totally different words)
    – Takkat
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 18:18
  • but to heave has a connotation of heavy lifting ("lift or haul -- something heavy -- with great effort"), which I would not associate with, say, taking away cutlery. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 11:58

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