The noun das Mal literally means a time or occasion, in the sense of ein letztes Mal (one last time) or more generally to mean sometime, or from time to time.
On an everyday basis, you are likely to hear the short word peppered through conversations fairly liberally – though its meaning may not always be totally clear.
The word comes from the old high German word Māle which denoted a measure of some sort, but the meaning has now morphed to mean an instant or point in time.
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Mal is often used to add immediacy to an instruction, so you might say komm mal her to mean come here at once, or guck mal if you need someone to look at something right away.
Though the word suggests some urgency, it also acts to soften a command or sound more polite, so it is good to use when asking something of friends and family.
Somewhat confusingly, although mal can add immediacy to an expression, it can also be fairly vague when used in other contexts. The short particle can mean at some point in time, or ever. So, if you were to ask someone if they had visited somewhere before, you might say ‘warst du mal in Frankfurt?’ (have you ever been to Frankfurt?).
Within both of these common uses, mal actually conveys very little meaning and could be taken out of most sentences, or replaced with a more specific word such as jetzt (now) or einmal (once).
What mal does add, however, is a casual and familiar tone to your speech, and removing it from your sentences could make them sound more formal or formulaic. The equivalent in English would be something like ‘just’ or ‘quickly’.
Leihst du mir das Buch mal?
Can you lend me that book?
Guck mal, dahinten ist ein Filmstar!
Look! There’s a film star over there!
Du hast ein neues Haus? Mega, ich komm’ auf jeden Fall mal vorbei.
You have a new house? Cool, I’ll definitely pop by sometime.