German word of the day: Der Schabernack

If you like to take part in practical jokes then this is the German word for you.

German word of the day: Der Schabernack
A skeleton mermaid is placed on a rock in Copenhagen Harbour where the statue of the Little Mermaid is normally situated. A hilarious Schabernack if ever we saw one! Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Brigitte Rubaek / Handout

The noun’s main meaning relates to a ‘prank’, ‘practical joke’ or, more colloquially, ‘shenanigans’. Schabernack can be traced back only as far as the Middle High German schabirnack and the Middle Low German schavernak.

Practical jokes are probably most commonly associated with children or April Fools Day, and as with other Western countries, Germany does also take part in this custom on April 1st – though a prank played on this day would be referred to specifically as an Aprilscherz (Scherz being another noun for ‘joke’). 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Der Aprilscherz

A Schabernack is also a term used regionally to describe a child as a ‘little monkey’, similar to the term of endearment ‘cheeky monkey’ in English. This relates to the phrase Schabernack treiben which means ‘to behave mischievously’.  

There are various other ways to describe a practical joke too, including the particularly bizarre noun die Eulenspiegelei, which does literally translate to ‘owl-fried egg’! This particular word, though, originates from a famous German chapbook protagonist, Till Eulenspiegel, who plays numerous pranks on those around him – including exposing his behind to the townspeople as a child, and performing a rather antisocial (and smelly) act on an Innkeeper’s table. 

What a joker! The actor Jacob Matschenz poses as Till Eulenspiegel. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Philipp Schulze

A word of warning though, perhaps don’t rely on Till Eulenspiegel’s pranks as inspiration for your own Schabernacke! (Especially not the one at the Inn – we don’t think the owner of your local Kneipe will be particularly amused if you do.)


Er spielt mit mir Schabernack.

He’s playing a trick on me. 

Du bist ein Schabernack!

You’re a little monkey!

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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 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.