Word of the Day – “erst”

erst - the opposite of alreadyHello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. I hope you are all well and awake ’cause this time we will have a look at the meaning of:



But first, a little story.
An elephant once went into a bookstore. Soon he drew attention to himself; not so much because he was so large and gray and had a long hose hanging out in public but for other reasons than that. He, the elephant, picked a book, a novel I believe, written by that one author, who had done such a thing before. The elephant, he, opened the book at a random page, some say it was page 154, and, after reading a few lines, opened another page to do alike.  His halo of indecision shone so bright, that the sales person, his name was long, couldn’t do but leave the shade of his desk and walk over to counsel our gray friend, certainly in anticipation of a good sale.
“May I help you Sir.” the guy asked.
“Oh hopefully… I am wondering about this book. The trailer was enticing, but reviews expressed mixed feelings so… is it worth a read and if so, should I read it in 3D?” the elephant asked.
“Well, it really is an interesting and entertaining piece of writing … the only flaw is, that the introduction sucks.”
‘Hey… JUST like this article’ you might think now… and right you are. But would you rather have me start right away with the explanations without any build-up? You would? Oh… ok… uhm fine.

Erst, ladies and gentlemen our Word of the Day erst

erst as in “not second”

Most people who have studied German have seen this word and know it’s … first meaning: first as in better than second.
Ok, to be precise, what people likely have seen are things like erste, ersten, erstem, so erst with an ending. which ending to put depends on the case, the gender and the preceding article… aren’t you glad that you’re learning German sometimes :)… anyway, let’s not get lost in Grammar land and just look at some examples.

So erst behaves just like any other adjective when you put it in front of a noun…  BUT… erst is not normal. Erst is not one of them. Erst looks like a normal adjective very often but … it’s not. Without all those  e-es-em-en-things, erst is a lot of things, but not a quality. Why? Well one of the reasons is this. For a normal adjective like schön, I can use a phrasing like the following:

Schön has no ending here, the word is used in the basic form. This doesn’t work with erst. Erst seems to be what schön is but it is not.

  • Thomas ist erst.

This doesn’t mean anything in German. People will wait for you to continue talking as your sentence is clearly not over yet. You haven’t said anything specific. And no, you have NOT described Thomas in any way. Erst does not simply mean the same as erste/n/m/n/r... it is not just the basic form, by meaning that is… by etymology of course it is. In German you cannot just be first… you have to be A first or THE first. English is a little less strict right there in that you can omit the article and say:

  • Thomas is first (although it doesn’t sound very nice to me maybe).

But in German this doesn’t work. So when you want to use erste in sense of first in sense of better than second… you NEED to say something like THE first.

This is fine. This is complete now and we learned something about Thomas. Thanks to the article… with these articles comes one of the many many … many endings. So to wrap this part up, here some more examples:

So… now that we know that erst alone DOESN’T mean the same as erste,n,m,s… what does it mean?

Erst and time

If we take a look at the English first, we’ll see that, standing alone, it is also used to order things in the time domain.

  • First comes first.
  • First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
    (whoever explains these lyrics to me and knows the song this is from gets to select one German Word of his or her choice, that I’ll explain)

 First doesn’t do all the work alone however… it has a whole family – the Firsts. There is King First the 1st also known as … First of All, than there is Queen Firstly the … 2nd and then their first-born, the little Prince Ed First, who is about to… change…. (get it? get it?) and they all live.. guess where…. in the first place… BAA    DUMM     Tishishishisishish… … …
sorry… I …I think I had one too many … puns for breakfast.
So… German does have a First Family too… …  … hey I can’t help it okay… this shit writes itself…. so… I don’t want to get into too much detail but the 2 words that are most important here as translations of first besides erst are erstens and zuerst.
Erstens is used whenever you talk about a list, that is NOT time related… for example a list of reasons. Here a (rather complicated) example.

Zuerst on the contrary is used to start a time-list.

But what about erst? Can it replace erstens or zuerst in these examples? Well  it can NEVER replace erstens … it just can’t. As for zuerst… well although there is a certain overlap there is a difference between zuerst and erst as well. Zuerst starts a time-list of things that has usually MORE than 2 items. Like in a recipe for a cake. Erst has a different feel to it. It does tell you what is done first, but the notion is really the contrast between 2 things. What is done first, and what is done after. Saying erst is really like “I’ll do this but before that/ first  I’ll do that.”

So you can exchange zuerst and erst without doing too much damage, but it might feel a little strange. The focus of zuerst is a real listing, while the focus of erst is the contrast between first and after that.
That is why erst is also a good translation for at first (or related things like initially or in the beginning).

Erst also often teams up with mal. Me personally I think that there is not much of a difference in meaning… adding mal just makes it longer and less abrupt, thus maybe reflecting gradual changes better than a mere erst.

Anyway.. there are many words in German that can be used to express approximately the same idea as zuerst and erstzunächst,anfangs, anfänglich, zu Beginn, am Anfang, als erstes, eingangs. I can’t discus all of them in detail, but I wanted to mention them anyway. Why? To show you that there are many alternatives to erst… or a little more direct:
Try not to use erst that much to translate the time-first.
If you use erst in the appropriate situation, like in my examples, that is perfectly fine. But don’t just use erst for everything, just because it is the shortest… erst is not quite as universally applicable as the English first. And why not? Because… sadly for you… it has other meanings.

erst – the messy backyard

Erst has other meanings than just first, and those are actually toughalicious… tough to explain but also tough to wrap my mind around. I’ll just go ahead and give you some examples.

Now try to translate those using first… or something related… it doesn’t really make sense.
Here are the translations of the 3 sentences… with a strong focus on the tone.

  •  I won’t be out of work before 8 today.
  • It’s only 3 weeks so far, that I am in Berlin.

So… turns out the easy-looking erst is actually one of those infamous particles like doch or schon… meaning a lot of things at once.
Now is there any way to capture this erst? A student suggested that it means only. But is that really it?

In the first example it obviously works, but in the second it doesn’t … it might be understandable but what the German sentence REALLY feels like is this:

  • Today I didn’t wake up before 2.

So… is there a catch-all translation? I have thought quite a while about this, and the best I can come up with is this:

erst is the opposite of already.

A German word is the opposite of an English word? Sounds weird, but it is the best way to explain erst… the German word for already is schon, which has MANY MANY meanings. So schon is not of much help. But already is.

Let’s have a quick look at what already expresses. Already is used when we talk about a process or sorts and something happens earlier or is “more” than was expected …

  • Wow man it is already 10 o’clock.
  • I was in Paris 10 times already.
  • Please wake me already at 10.

So, the first sentence expresses that we thought it to be earlier, and the second expresses that I consider 10 times a lot. And erst is the exact opposite.

The first sentence expresses that we thought it to be later, and the second tells you that I consider 10 to be not that much and that there are more to come. There is not really one word for this in English, but think of the opposite of already. Let’s do some more examples.

Now the last 2 examples were actually translated using only… and erst CAN be a translation for only… but only if we are talking about a process.

So erst always has the notion of an ongoing process, a notion of time… that is important to keep in mind if you want t translate only. That’s why it would not fit into ” I have only 10 Dollars.”… there is nothing time related there.
Anyway… thinking of erst as the opposite of already will save you all that extra thought. Here are some more examples.

  • Das Konzert hat erst um 9 angefangen.
  • The concert didn’t start before 9. (which is quite late)

And now let’s do a real tinker.

So… I hope you can see, that erst doesn’t always have to mean first so don’t get confused when you hear erst in a weird context and don’t use it without knowing what you do… because it might be confusing. It’ll certainly take a while to get used to this word , especially to the more “abstract” meanings as it does NOT have a one word translation, but it’ll come over time… and speaking of overtime…we have been on air for too long yet again and I … oh no… I see we have a call here… I guess 2 more minutes won’t hurt… so … Hi Olga from Poland, have you enjoyed the show?
“Hi Emanuel, yes I did… I didn’t know these last things you explained so that was pretty interesting.”
Cool, glad to hear that… so Olga, what can I do for you?
“Well I read something really weird the other day in a German magazine and I was wondering, whether it is a typo… it was er-ste-res. Does that mean anything for real?”
Ohhhh… that must look weird for someone who is learning German… glad you brought that up. Well this really is a word actually… and it means das Erstethe first… it is just a weird way to say it without the article… the way I perceive it is that it is erster as “more first ” or “firster” if you will plus the case ending. You may also see ersterer, erstere, ersterem and so on… My explanation  is  nonsense of course as you cannot be “more first” but anyway… that is how it feels to me. German has 2 more of those words, zweiteres and letzteres. Based on my idiot explanation those would be the more second and the more last or the laster…
“And what does that mean?”
basically means the former… zweiteres and letzteres both translate to the latter. There is no such thing as dritteres or vierteres, but you could actually say it.People would probably find it witty.
“Do you have an example maybe?”
Of course…

“Cool, vielen vielen Dank. Tschueessss.”
Bye Olga… And that was our Word of the Day erst. It can mean first but it can also mean the opposite of already  . It is used a lot on German,especially in the second sense so try to grasp that.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Hi Emanuel,
I have a question. Can we consider erst to be ‘just’ and erst um to be ‘just before” in the places where it means the opposite of already?


Oh! Ok. Thanks for the clarification :-)


First off (erstens!), I recently discovered your blog. I’ve only read a few posts but it has been very enlightening and helpful :)

Second, I had a few questions about translating the example sentences. They all have to do with the same type of idea regarding the use of ‘erst’.
1. “Ich habe heute erst um 8 Feierabend.” Could I also say, I won’t be out of work until at least 8 ?
2. Your example “Bitte weck mich erst um 10” had an English translation of “Please wake me already at 10,” but that didn’t really make sense to me. After reading through the other examples, does it mean something like “Please don’t wake me before 10” or “Please don’t wake me until at least 10” ? Something with the idea of being woken up at 10 or anytime after that ?
3. Similarly, “Das Konzert hat erst um 9 angefangen,” doesn’t indicate an exact start time, just that the concert began at or after 9 (but not before 9). So could I say “The concert didn’t start until after 9?”

Thanks for your help^^


“Ich habe erst um 7 Zeit weil ich erst noch meinen Artikel fertig schreiben muss, und ich habe erst die Hälfte.” when it comes to languages i’m a very abstract thinker as i have found that to be the best way to go about it since no languages can ever be 100% directly transkated. as such i have a proposition on a possible translation / interpretation of the sentence above that can reduce the workload when trying to understand the use of “erst” – but only if you’re already an abstract thinking person. having read a couple of your posts i get an impression that your also quite abstract at times. anyway, i wanna know what you think about it and if it can help me (German learner) undersrand it better: the basic idea is that all the “erst” words can all be interpreted as “first” but in different ways. “Ich habe erst um 7 Zeit…” – “i have FIRST at 7 time…” , insta-translation in my head, here is rearanged: “7 is the FIRST TIME when i have / will have time…” in other words. 7 is the very FIRST MOMENT when you get the time that want to have and because it is the first moment when your HAVING the time, it automatically means that the time is running since time never sits still in real life. “weil ich erst noch meinen Artikel fertig schreiben muss,” – “…because FIRST, I have to finish my article,…” no change needed here “…und ich habe erst die Hälfte.” – “…and i have FIRST the half of it.” this is how my abstract mind thinks of it, which i understand but i doubt other people will so here is the extended version: “…and i have AS A FIRST the half of it.” more extended: “…and i have AS A FIRST PART OF IT the half of it.” more extended again: “…and i have AS A FIRST PART OF THE WORK DONE, the half of it DONE.” i know this looks long and complex but you gotta remember that my abstract mind sees “…and i have FIRST the half of it.” however it understands “…and i have AS A FIRST PART OF THE WORK DONE, the half of it DONE.” in other words, no i’m not siting here drooling while deep in thought trying to figure out meaning of “erst” in that context :) it happens quick, i just wanna know if this interpretation WORKS as an explanation / translation so i could use – even if noone else can understand it but me (i know i’m selfish :P)


unfortunately i don’t have any easy-read novels, so when it comes to vocab collecting i’m at the mercy of what the internet throws at me. for the translations of words iv’e been using http://de.thefreedictionary.com/ which gives all the translation and examples which help with context. as for the learning method i don’t think it’s for me, because it requires something that i don’t have – time. lack of time is caused by school pressure and personal pressure. with school sometimes we have to learn 20 to 40 words for the NEXT day in german class and thats not like knowing 80 % of it, you gotta know all of it. so the more loose method of learning 60 words per week without a guaranteed 100% retention rate is not something i can afford here. the other reason i don’t have time is personal pressure. i WANT to learn as many words as possible as fast as i can. with the method i use now (and it’s the same one i use for school) and at the rate i’m going now (since the 1st of june) i should learn about 1200 new german words by the end of sommer holidays. continuing at this rate i should learn an addicional 2000 to 3000 words by the end of next year when we have the Leaving Cert (Irish equivalent to German Schulabschluss or Abitur). the reason why i’m in such a rush is because i intend to study German in university, however it will be a secondary study to my main one (Mechanical Engineering) so i won’t have enough time to devote to it. basically i wanna have as much ground work done as possible now. every person is different, but if you wanna know my current method of vocab learning, here it is: both for school and for the lists i draw up myself, i have a list of german on the left and the corresponding translations on the right. as i start, i do opposite to what you do, i never look at the english side. i always look at the german word and focus on that and nothing else. the translation is far off to the right so that i don’t see it with my peripheral vision (covering is not always possible, for e.g. when i use a computer). looking at nothing but that word, i then say it out lound in german and then whisper the english translation – while still looking at the german word untill it sticks. what i’m trying to do here is simulate the encounter with the word as close as possible. when i see it or hear it in the real world, i will remember the whisper with it’s meaning, which by itself is much like a though. when i will want to remember the word going from english to german, i will remember the list and that there is nothing on it other than the exact word i need (since i never looked… Read more »


“first of I think you can only use it once you’ve reached a certain level.” yeah that’s pretty much a given, you gotta have a certaib level achieved to do the new method. but once you do it works wonders because some words have synonims that not only can be easier to understand than the word you’re learning, but also they are easy to remember since all 2 or 3 synonims all carry the same meaning. so i learned “eintönig” but i also remember “gleichförmig” and “monoton” at the same time without ever making an effort to learn them, but i know them simply because they were part of the translation of “eintönig”.

“there is one danger with the one-language translation and that is misunderstanding something.” that is certainly a fact. while “eintönig , gleichförmig and monoton” carry very close translation to each other, i’m pretty sure i can’t just pich and choose which ever one i wanna use. some fit somewhere specific, others don’t.
the way i went about it when learning english was just saying which ever one i wanted (on purpose) and my friends would correct me if it was wildly out of place. however, unless your’re doing like an english homework or something, there is a certain ammount of leeway when using a wrong synonim in english (cause with 1,000,000 words there are a LOT of synonims), so it’s not too bad and i’m hoping that the german is in the same way (with the 4th largest vocab in the world).
unfortunately the best i can do here for german is just read and listen, internet and radio/movies to see where and how these words are used once i come across them.
besides that there is a certain level of Sprachgefühl that can’t be learned, it can only be accuired. what i mean is: i can’t tell you what the grammar rules for using “the” and “a/an” for english are, in fact, i’m not sure they even exist. and they were quite a shock for me at first, because lithuanian has no definite or indefinite articles in the language at all. but after a couple of years, give me any sentence you like, any word and article combination you like and i will instantly without a slightest hesitation will tell you if the article there is right or wrong. don’t ask me how i know it…i just know it. and that’s Sprachgefühl for ya :)

apparently to become a Dolmetscher you need years of HARD study (i.e. it’s not like those simple humanity courses :) ), at which point you will know several languages fluently (i mean, absolutely any topic at all) and then the best part…the pay sucks. like, it’s not good at all :/ so truly, they are heroes among us lol


PS. i haven’t mentioned it already, but my spelling on the computer blows. hard. (only on the computer though, it’s just the way i type)


well i don’t actually know much about em, but humanity courses are things like language, history, philosophy, religion, the arts and literature. basically they are not really taxing so anyone can study them and they carry very little value on your C.V. by themselves. so if you go to employer and say you studdied history and religion, he’s gonna have a hearty laugh: “cool story bro. you got any actual qualifications?”
you see language up there but that is as i said – a stand alone thing. if you wanna become a translator then it’s a whole different ball game and your study will be different (but as i said previously, the pay still sucks). :)

i know spelling on the internet doesn’t matter much, but mine is particularly bad at times :)

may i ask a question about your english?
where or how did you learn it? was school enough or did you do it mostly yourself or did you go to a university or abroad or something?
your current level of english is – well there is pretty much no problems with it, so i wanted to know which method (school, uni etc) did you use and how long it took to reach this level?

Danke im Voraus :)


Damn it, so your story basically confirms it that there’s no other way to become fluent other that go to the target country i.e. do some kind of exchange program. i just hope the university course will have something serious along those lines…

Well iv’e been in Ireland for 7ish years now but i pretty much could understand anything i came accross after 3ish years. after going to school for 7 years – 5 of them in secondary school and 4 of them learning higher level english (german equivalent is something like “Oberstufe Englisch” that is if there are levels like that in Germany) there is very little that i wouldn’t know in english. in fact, i know more english now than i do Lithuanian, that’s due to forgetting and due to the fact that i havent learned the Lithuanian words for things like “glaciers” or “enzimes” since i was in Irish school while learning those defintions (and i guess i didn’t care looking them um in lithuanian since i wasn’t gonna use that anywhere, nor am i thinking of going back to lithuanian some day.).
However even today, rap songs is just one thing iv’e difficulty with. I can’t tell you exactly why it’s hard for me to follow it, but it’s the combinations of fast talk and a LOT of slang/context plus the rappers morph the words a lil so that they would be short enough and/or rhyme. ill understand Shakespearean english before i’ll understand rap songs (and that’s saying something cause Shakespearean english is hard, wether you’re native or not). so i don’t think that would be the best place to start learning the language :)

As for accent, i had none. Well, i’m lying, i have an american accent (thanks to the movies and games), but i don’t have any “foreigner english” accent. i dunno if that’s due to me just being receptive to languages or the lithuanian alphabed which kinda lets us mimick the sounds of pretty much any language (since lithuanian is the oldest indo european language if my memory serves correctly). i suspect it’s the combination of the two, since i can mimick the german accent, no problem (only Hochdeutsch cause that’s the one were learning.)

i actually got a question about the Hochdeutsch accent. basically what’s its status? so it’s spoken in the northern – ish parts and it’s the “proper” german accent. but what about people with other accent’s, would they understand you fine and vice versa? as far as i know it’s hard for people with other german accents speak in Hochdeutsch. why is that? also is there any status attached to the accent? like if you speak it, it is percieved then that your learned and stuff like that.


Alright, thanks for all the answers :D (draged on a bit didn’ it? :) )


lol :D


A useful variant is ‘erst recht’ meaning ‘a priori’ , usually at the start of a sentence. Lucius


HOW did I not discover this blog earlier?
This is just what I need. Thank you! :-)


*Frauen und Kinder zuerst!* – (Frauen und Kinder erst! wrong)

Here, *zuerst* can not be substituted by *erst*. Is that because this is a shortened predicative *Frauen and Kinder seien zuerst!* ?

*Erst Frauen und Kinder.* works perfectly.


This was awesome. I came here to find out the difference between “zuerst” and “erst” and came away with MUCH more. I especially enjoyed reading about your learning methods and it was pretty close to my own approach once I had reached a certain level after several years of Spanish. One of the essential things was always, always making lists! I still do that and I agree that for some reason, it has to be with a pen and not a keyboard — huge difference! I also have joked for years that I learned half of the Spanish I know while in the bathroom over the years — hey, every opportunity counts, right? I’m also now taking the approach to German where I’m trying to flood myself with words and lists, and then I check back to see what has stuck and what needs to go on the new list. The observation about the importance of verbs and prepositions etc., vis a vis nouns is really interesting. I’m going to have to mull that one over in my mind for a while. Also, it was interesting to read what sorts of words or sounds from English give Germans a hard time. I struggle with a simple word like “nichts.” I can get to “nicht” okay, but add that final “s” and you messed me up. But yeah, I had never really thought about it but the “thes” in “clothes” is a strange formulation. I read somewhere else that Germans have a hard time with the word “thistle” which has another of those vague things going on sort of like in “clothes.” As far as the comments on spelling, since German and especially Spanish are largely phonetic languages, I have a greater appreciation for how hard it must be to literally have to memorize the spelling of every single word in a new language (a la English)… So when I get frustrated about sorting out which case, gender, singular/plural formulation to use, or which of 16 possible definite articles, I tell myself that at least I don’t have to memorize the unique spelling of every single word of German without the benefit of significant, generally reliable phonetic markers and rules! Whew… Finally, you posted this two years ago, and no one answered the “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin” question?!!! This is a fantastic song from Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album (c. 1987) — also performed I believe somewhere by its author, the great songwriter Leonard Cohen (a much better songwriter than singer/performer, in my opinion — for the music, stick to Jennifer Warnes). I don’t know how I “know” this, but the lyrics presumably are a parody, or a tongue-in-cheek critique, of the supposedly “deep” (but in reality, very silly and superficial) “ideology” of the often violent, radical ‘left’ of Europe in the 1960s and beyond up through to the Baader-Meinhof gang, as well as similar-minded groups. I have no idea where I read that or where… Read more »


Thanks, Emanuel. It’s funny that you just mentioned specifically “eben”, since I ran across that word only this morning in my reading, in a context that made no sense to me… but I can wait till after summer. There are still many, many “Words of the Day” essays in the list that you have already explained that I have not had time to read yet, so those will keep me busy for quite a while. But I would enjoy reading your take on the “Wo” words (not wo, wohin, and woher, but rather wofuer, womit, worauf, etc.,) along the same lines as your very interesting explanation of the “Da- words”. That article, and the “mind yoga” explanation you gave us really helped a lot with finally understanding damit, darauf, danach, etc…, so it would be great to see you take on the Wo- words the same way. I know they are related but obviously not the same. Please keep up the great works. I shared your website link with my classmates from German class last night! Again, thanks a lot.


What a wonderful article … Vielen Dank


You use only to replace erst but I think if you use “just” the idea transfers better. Try it. “The concert starts at just 9 o clock. I have eaten just one apple. He is just 5 years old. We have been here just three weeks.” This works a lot better.

The examples with already do not work. “Please wake me already at 10” That has no meaning and nobody would say this. I have no idea what you are trying to say here.


Great article, but I don’t get it. :(
Mein Handy ist (schon) 5 Jahre alt. Vs. Mein Sohn ist erst 5 Jahre alt.
they are both 5 years old. What’s the difference?

To compare apples to apples, could u please explain the difference between “Mein Sohn ist erst 5” and “Mein Sohn ist schon 5”?


Oh my God… I have just stumbled upon your site…. I have not, in all the time I’ve been learning German, had so much fun…. you completely crack me up! and what’s more your explanations are sticking like glue! I am finding German an incredible difficult and tiresome language to learn, just wanted to thank you for putting the fun back into learning…. I can now bin the matchsticks… yippeeeeee!!!! xx