As was trying to understand "Machen wir uns nichts vor" (in chapter 9 of Schlamassel in Stuttgart) and discovered that sich vormachen means lying to oneself.

This post says vormachen means lying, but it doesn't explain why. That is, I'm trying to connect what I know about machen (meaning to make or do) to understand this new word. Can a native speaker help?

Edit: After seeing the answer posted by Tim, I found these sites explaining meanings of vor and the etymology of pretend:



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    The Duden gives a quite comprehensive answer to the different meanings of vormachen. I suggest to read this first. – Harald Lichtenstein Apr 13 at 20:49
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    German compound verbs are often idiomatic: you cannot predict their meaning from the meaning components of base verb and of the prefix. It's semi-plausible that "making" and "in front of" would combine to mean "demonstrate" and that "demonstrate" might figuratively mean "fraudulently demonstrate" == "lie", but that kind of derivation is non-deterministic, and there's no way around memorizing rather than deducing it. – Kilian Foth Apr 14 at 8:59
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    Consider too the idiomaticity of one corresponding English construction: make up, as in to make something up. From an English learner's point of view, why should making something up mean "to lie"? What if I make something down, or make something anti-clockwise? 😄 Idiom is fun to explore, and often the question of "why" turns on issues of historical and cultural whim. – Eiríkr Útlendi Apr 14 at 21:59
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    BTW other meaning of „vormachen“ is also „demonstrate“ – eckes Apr 15 at 9:48
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    I think there's a pretty good english equivalent phrase that even contains "make", and that is "make believe" (which dictionary describes as "the action of pretending or imagining that things are better than they really are.") – Manuel Hoffmann Apr 15 at 11:25

"vormachen" has several meanings. In the meaning you refer to, "vormachen" is used transitively and "vor" is the equivalent of English "pre", as in "pretend". "vormachen" in this meaning literally is to make ("machen") something for ("vor") something different, i.e. to pretend something is something different.

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    I accepted this answer after looking into meanings for both vor and pretend and then added links to my original post – Tony M Apr 14 at 0:02
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    'for ("vor") something different' As a native speaker I'm not aware of this association. Do you have a reference for it? "vor" in German literally means "before" or "in front of" in English. – Chris Apr 14 at 10:07
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    As a native german speaker, I second @Chris comment. "for" is "für" in german and I don't see any sentence where "for" might be translated with "vor". But the point about "pretending something is something different" is valid in my language feels: "etwas vormachen" can be described as "putting something in front of the real thing" ("etwas vor das Reale machen"). Replace the "for" in the answer with "before", and this answer would match my interpretation of my native tongue. – orithena Apr 14 at 16:57
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    Can you point any authoritative resource that claims "vor = for"? I am no native speaker or even fluent German speaker, but that association seems plain wrong. – LoremIpsum Apr 15 at 12:31
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    Another meaning of „vormachen“ is also „demonstrate“. So you see why the connection to pretending is near. And "sich etwas vormachen" means you want to see something in a certain way, i.e. you hold on to a possible illusion. – karsten Apr 15 at 18:40

In that case "sich etwas vormachen" does not mean lying, but to deceive oneself or to have illusions about something.


In contrast to that, "jemandem etwas vormachen" is closer to lying. It means to pretend something or to trick somebody.

The English to deceive also fits in both cases.

Anyway, the German "lügen" definitely includes a wilful intent whereas "etwas vormachen" has a broader range. Especially in the "sich etwas vormachen" variant it may indicate that one does not realize something which is obvious to other people or that one has an unfounded hope.

  • Thanks -- This helped me. English expressions involving "lying" can range from very strong to quite casual, such as having illusions about something. It seems sich vormachen is more on the casual end. – Tony M Apr 14 at 13:02
  • It’s actually not casual, you can use that in a professional/formal setting. It is just softer than Lüge (but still might attack somebody in official settings). It’s really quite comparable to „pretend(er)“ in this regard. – eckes Apr 15 at 9:47

I'd like to answer only the following part of your question:

That is, I'm trying to connect what I know about machen (meaning to make or do) to understand this new word.

There are many separable verbs in German language (abhauen, vormachen, abgehen, anhalten, abziehen ...) that have two meanings: One literal one and one completely different one.

An example containing both meanings of "vormachen" could be:

Er machte mir vor, ihm würde diese Arbeit Spaß machen. Deswegen bat ich ihn, die Arbeitsschritte vorzumachen, damit ich sie nachmachen kann.

The second sentence contains the "literal" meaning of "vormachen": "Vor"+"machen". I could bet that there are many Germans who (falsely) say that the verb in this sentence is "machen" (instead of "vormachen").

The first sentence contains the "non-literal" meaning of that verb. I think that the "average" German speaker will tell you that the word "vormachen" in the first sentence has definitely nothing to do with the word "machen".

And there are even separable verbs (for example ausbaden) that only have a non-literal meaning: You will be told that "ausbaden" has absolutely nothing to do with "baden".

This is just like an English speaker would not ask what "bye" in the expression "good bye" means.

If you didn't ask this question in English language, don't try to understand how the second meaning of a separable verb (e.g. "vormachen" = "to fool") is related to the literal meaning!

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    Good bye has nothing to do with "buying." – JRE Apr 14 at 11:35
  • @JRE Some language expert in the radio explained the etymology of "good bye" the way I did it. This was about 20 years ago. However, according to him, people back then did not say: "Have a good buying" but only: "Have a good buy". If it was really common to wish another person a "good buy" (which is exactly the same pronounciation as "good bye"), the explaination with "God be with you" (not having a single sillyble in common with "good bye") is very questionable. – Martin Rosenau Apr 14 at 12:02
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    I think it more reasonable to accept the explanation given (as in the linked queation and answers) by English sources than a random voice on the radio in German. English pronunciation and spelling has changed over the years, just like German has. Besides that, there's a long tradition of referencing god in greetings - Grüß Gott" as the Bavarians say. Your "Good buy" is a modern German trying to make sense of the pronunciation without knowing the history of the word. – JRE Apr 14 at 12:21
  • Thank you for the example containing both meanings of "vormachen." Sentences like that really help me distinguish meaning as I'm learning words. – Tony M Apr 14 at 13:07

According to the Duden or https://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/vormachen it has 3-4 different meanings. Although they are quite related.

The verb "machen" means to do or to make something. The syllable "vor" is used in the sense of "in front of". So the meaning is to show how to do something in front of someone other. It has a positive connotation, because this is used like "to demonstrate" how something is done in the right or a good way.

Im Sportunterricht sollte er die Übung vormachen.

But it also has an implicit meaning for distrust. That means, someone is doing something in the right way only if another person is watching or if it is done in front of another person. Sometimes it can mean "to impress someone". Usually a word to express a limitation like "nur" is required:

Er macht euch nur etwas vor.

If it is related to a self like "sich etwas vormachen", it means to delude oneself in a way, that one has a better perception of something than it is in reality. It would not be used in a cynical way. It is like someone is acting in front of oneself to let it look better than it is. The expression "machen wir uns nichts vor" would mean to look at the reality or to end a wishful thinking.

So a better translation than "lying to oneself" in my opinion would be "to delude oneself" or "to deceive oneself".

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    If this was posted earlier I would've marked it as the answer. It is very helpful. I really appreciate all the help. (by the way, I think when you use the word "although" in the third paragraph you mean "also") – Tony M Apr 14 at 21:01
  • Thanks, I changed it to "also". – Trendfischer Apr 15 at 7:16

"Vormachen" does not explicitly mean lying. "Machen wir uns nichts vor" can translate as "Let's not tell ourselves fairy tales". It doesn't relate as much to a downright lie as it does to misinterpretation, exaggeration or being overly confident. Presenting things in a seemingly plausible, yet unrealistic daylight.

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I feel a duty to correct Tim (mandatory xkcd: https://xkcd.com/386/) ;-).

Equating "vor" with "for" is not quite correct. The two share a (proto-)Germanic root *fur but vor/fore separated at least half a millenium ago from für/for.

The Latin equivalent of für/for is pro: für umsonst1 = Pro bono = for the good [free of charge], fürs Vaterland = pro patria = for the fatherland.

The Latin equivalent of vor/fore is pr[a]e: Vormann = foreman ~ praetor, voraussehen = foresee ~ predict, etc. The meaning of of this word group is "before", in a spatial, temporal or metaphorical, e.g. social, sense.

The German prefix vor- is very frequent; here is a long list. Some have a similar meaning as vormachen: vorschützen, vorgeben, vorspiegeln, vorspielen or vortäuschen; vorlügen is a reinforcement bordering on a pleonasm, but emphasizing the "performative aspect", if you want.

Getting back to the original question: My entirely unsourced native speaker intuition interprets the semantics of vormachen as "performing something in front of the actual situation". It is obscuring the facts behind it, almost a theater piece. A facade, like a Potemkin village. Der Zarin wurde etwas vorgemacht.

By contrast, für/for/pro indicate a direction or goal (of intent, of an action) which sometimes can be mutual, forming an equivalence (stand in for someone, tit for tat). While there is a common root with "before", which apparently lasted longer in English than the German für/vor connection, the meaning is now quite different.

1That's grammatically borderline wrong, very casual German, but for bad German it's quite idiomatic and a nice example.

  • This is one of many comments pointing out that vor is not equivalent to for. I agree. But if you look carefully at Tim's answer, you will see that he explicitly states that vor corresponds to "pre" and does not explicitly state that vor corresponds to for. Rather there is a parenthetical implication after which he returns to the original thought regarding pre. Nevertheless, I appreciate all the help I've received from these discussions clarifying the meaning related to vormachen. – Tony M Apr 16 at 11:05
  • @TonyM In the context the parenthesized words imply correspondence, as in machen/make, which is plain wrong. Consequently, the meaning derived from this wrong etymology (<strike>do something in exchange for </strike>) is wrong, too. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 16 at 11:10
  • Peter, I don't know about German but in English the use of parentheses implies lesser importance. Although they can imply equivalence, this is not always the case. I'm not saying that your interpretation is wrong, because I believe it is reasonable. But it's also good to put more importance on what is explicitly stated instead of what is implied – Tony M Apr 16 at 11:14
  • @TonyM Oh, hiere in Tschermany everysink iss verry exakt! ;-) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 16 at 11:42
  • @TonyM On a more serious side: I wanted to make a comment first. When I dove into the etymology I realized that I was basically researching an answer, so I made it one. I leaned a lot myself which I'm happy to share. I hope it is more than a mere comment :-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 16 at 11:48

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