German word of the day: Alter

If you want to get “down with the kids” and improve your understanding of Jugendsprache (teenage slang), then adding the word Alter to your vocabulary is a step in the right direction.

German word of the day: Alter

Alter is a word with multiple meanings: it can be used informally to greet a friend or close colleague, to interject in a friendly conversation or to express surprise. Due to its colloquial nature, the phrase tends to only be used by the younger German generation.

READ ALSO: 10 ways of speaking German you'll only ever pick up on the street.

The word is said to have derived from the phrase Alter Schwede, which directly translates to old Swedish man. Alter Schwede also connotes a sense of surprise and is a common interjection in German.

An English equivalent to the phrase would be the word “Gosh”. Across the decades, however, Alter Schwede has been shortened by the youth, leaving us with Alter.

This idiomatic expression is now used throughout Germany. In one sense, the word equates to phrases used by the youth throughout various Westernized, English-speaking societies as a greeting: “mate” in England, “dude” in America, “lad” in Ireland and “pal” in Scotland are just a few examples.

Additionally, the phrase can be used to depict surprise or disbelief from the speaker. For example, “Alter! Rat' mal, was ich gerade gesehen habe!” which means “Man! Guess what I just saw!” 

Alter is also used as an interjection in conversation; say your friend has been complaining about how expensive their drink was for a little too long – and they also picked the bar – you could say, “Alter! Hör mir zu…” which means “Oh man! Listen to me…”

READ ALSO: How to sound like a Berliner in 10 easy steps

If you want to expand your Jungensprache even further, then it is good to know that Alter is even sometimes shortened as a word itself, sometimes pronounced “Alta” or even “Alda”.


As a greeting: 

Alter, was geht ab?

Dude, what’s up?

Ich muss dir wat erzäln, Alter!

I’ve gotta tell you something, man

As an interjection:

Alter! Hör mir zu…

Man! Listen to me…

As a surprise: 

Alter! Nein, wirklich, wie alt bist du?

Man! No, really, how old are you?

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German phrase of the day: Etwas aus dem Ärmel schütteln

Anyone who has ever had to come up with a great idea on the fly can probably relate to this German phrase.

German phrase of the day: Etwas aus dem Ärmel schütteln

Why do I need to know ‘etwas aus dem Ärmel schütteln’? 

Because this versatile phrase can come in handy in a range of situations, from having pulled off a great presentation at short notice to coming up with a spontaneous solution to a problem. 

What does it mean?

Etwas aus dem Ärmel schütteln is similar to the English phrase “to pull something out of a hat” or “to have something up your sleeve”. Literally, the German phrase means to shake something out of your sleeve, but in a figurative sense it’s describes coming up with a bright idea or pulling something off without planning or effort. 

Generally, shaking something out of your sleeve is what’s required when you’re faced with a tricky situation and you need to quickly think up a solution. It might be that you have to stand in for a colleague in an important meeting at short notice, or rustle up a meal from the scraps in your cupboard after forgetting that supermarkets are closed on Sunday. 

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Ich glaub’ mein Schwein pfeift

In a similar sleeve-related vein, the English phrase “off the cuff” shares the same sense of executing a difficult task spontaneously. 

So, why are sleeves so important for getting out of a sticky situation? Well, there are a few theories about that.

The first relates to a cheat in card games: if you’re dealt a bad hand, you can always improve your chances by pulling out a few better cards that may have found their way into your sleeve earlier on. 

Another theory dates back to the times when people would wear long robes or other garments with wide sleeves. This would allow people not only to warm their hands, but also to store small objects they may need up their sleeves, to be “shaken out” when the time was right. 

Use it like this: 

Was kann er jeztz aus dem Ärmel shütteln? 

What has he got up his sleeve now? 

Wenn Marina denkt, den Abschluss aus dem Ärmel schütteln zu können, dann hat sie sich aber gründlich vertan.

If Marina thinks she can just pull the degree out of her sleeve, then she is very much mistaken.