German word of the day: Schlau

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
German word of the day: Schlau
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you want to point out a rather two-sided character trait in a friend or foe, this German word could be exactly what you're looking for.


Why do I need to know this word?

Schlau is not just an easy word to remember, it's also a fun adjective that you may come across anywhere from children's books to casual conversation. 

What does it mean?

If you think it sounds a bit like an English word you know, you're probably right. Schlau is very similar to the word sly, and has incredibly similar connotations.

Essentially, it means clever or cunning - but it often has undertones of being a little bit conniving or calculating. In other words, someone who is schlau is generally using their intelligence to benefit themselves - and possibly also to deceive people.

If you want to impress your friends with your use of German idioms, then it's worth remembering that the animal most associated with being schlau is the wily fox. For that reason, the moniker Schlaufuchs is often bandied around when people want to talk about the smart aleck in their family or social circle.

Incidentally, Schlaukopf (or clever head) can also do the trick - and, let's be honest, the analogy makes a lot more sense than the English equivalent of 'smartypants'.

Where does it come from?

The word schlau dates all the way back to Old Norse and likely relates to the word schlagen, meaning to slay or to hit. It entered into common usage in German in the 16th and 17th centuries with words like Slūhörer (eavesdropper or secret listener) and slūha, a verb meaning 'to sneak'.


Since the 18th century, it's been used much as it is today: to describe the shrewd folk among us who tend to have a plan - and an answer - for everything. 

Use it like this: 

Er verdient zwar am meisten, aber sie ist definitiv der Schlaukopf in dieser Familie.

He earns the most, but she is definitely the smart one in this family.

Achso, du hast die Tickets vorher im Internet gekauft? Sehr schlau!

Ah, you bought the tickets online in advance? Very smart! 


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