The German Verb “Abholen”: When Direct Language Translation Goes Wrong

German word "abholen" - English translation means to pick up, collect or come for

Language: German

Verb: abholen

Meaning: to “pick up,” “come for” or “collect”

Okay, so our story begins way back in 2011, when my German wife — then my long-distance girlfriend — was visiting me in Portland, Oregon. One afternoon, she went with some friends downtown, then took the MAX (Portland’s Light Rail Service) all the way back to my house in NE. The MAX train dropped her off like 2 blocks from my place, but she called me on the phone and asked — in that adorable accent of hers — if I could come, “pick her up.”

I thought that was a little odd. I mean, it would have taken just as long for her to walk from the stop to my front door as it would for me to get in my car, drive to the stop and get her, but whatever; when a smokin’ hot German woman flies across the globe to visit you and asks you to do some stupid shit, you fucking do it.

So I got in my car, backed out of my driveway, and called her back as I approached the intersection where she was waiting.

ME: “Hi honey! I’m here. I see you there on the corner.”

FUTURE WIFE: “You do? Where?”

ME: “Right in front of you! I’m looking straight at you. See? I’m waving.”

FUTURE WIFE: “I don’t see you.” *Turning her head from side to side, scanning each corner of the intersection.*

ME: “No! Directly across from you! I’m right here!”

FUTURE WIFE: *Still checking the sidewalks but not looking into the cars.* “Where??”

ME: *Lightly tooting the horn and gaining the attention of everyone within earshot.* In the god damn silver car! In the middle lane, about to make a left turn right in front of you!”

FUTURE WIFE: “You’re in your car? Why?”

ME: “You asked me to pick you up! Oh shit, the light is about to change. Get ready to hop in real quick, ‘cuz I’m not gonna be able to stop for long with all these other cars behind me.”

FUTURE WIFE: “But, I… okay…”

The light turned green. I gunned it across the train tracks plus two lanes of traffic, hooked a wicked Louie and came to an abrupt stop in the middle of a one-way street — immediately gridlocking the entire intersection by causing the other left turners to slam on their brakes and literally stop the MAX in its tracks. This earned me the most hateful series of honks, hand gestures and unsolicited advice I have ever heard regarding the nature of my cognitive limitations and how they might be improved by the forceful dislodging of my cerebellum from the opposing end of my digestive tract.

“GET IN! GET IN! GET THE FUCK IN!” I shouted, reaching across the car and throwing the passenger door open. The very instant her ass touched the seat I floored it, and we vanished from that intersection like a couple of ghosts at an exorcism.

Now, if you’re a native English speaker, you know to “pick someone up” means to travel with a vehicle (preferably an automobile, but I guess a boat, helicopter or airplane would work too) and retrieve said someone with the intention of bringing them to a mutually agreed upon destination. In German, however, the verb abholen can be applied to the “picking up” of a wide variety of subjects — not necessarily requiring the use of a vehicle. For example, you can use abholen to describe picking up your laughably naturopathic prescription medications from the pharmacy, your new overbred puppy from the breeder, or an entire legion of drunken soccer fans from the train station, and nowhere is the actual method of retrieval suggested.

This probably comes from the fact that we Americans live in a gigantic country compared to Germany, with its cities and suburbs spread so far apart — and dependent upon so many freeways — we require the use of vehicles for just about every aspect of daily life. With exceptions such as New York City, where public transportation is both effective and abundant, everybody needs a car. It’s kind of weird to meet someone who doesn’t have one. (Like, we assume they’re either being sanctimonious about minimizing their carbon footprint, or they’re just plain homeless.)

So the next time you’re in Germany and someone asks you to pick them up, remember they might simply be asking you to meet them somewhere, rather than hop in your pussy wagon, shut down a major metropolitan intersection and endanger the lives of a dozen innocent civilians.

Thank you for reading, and have an awesome day!


7 thoughts

  1. I happened to mention to a friend in the US that we pick up the grandkids after school and bring them home. He had been to visit us here in Berlin and knew that we didn’t have a car, so it surprised me that he asked me if we had gotten a car. This blog pretty much explains his question, doesn’t it? Been here so long I’m thinking like a German, I guess.


  2. Strange, I’ve been here since ’92 and associate abholen with picking someone up using a car (or a bus, tram, train or other form of transportation)to bring them to where I live or staying. Otherwise the other meaning for abholen to me is to get, retrieve or collect something (not someone) from somewhere.When I join someone somewhere to go someplace together I then use treffen (to meet). Love the blog!

    Long time reader.


  3. ‘Tell me about it! The other day, one of my German clients said that they had to leave early ‘cos they were going to “bring the kids.” This is the conversation:
    Me: Oh, really. When would that be?
    Client: Now!
    Me: But the class will finish in about 10 mins. No need to go off, and bring the kids here. You can bring them tomorrow!
    Client: No! The kids are waiting for me and the kindergarten will be angry!
    Me: ?!!?!!

    It transpired that what they meant was that they were going to “pick up” the kids!


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