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.