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:



Most of you probably know that it as first, but erst also a translation for only – a specific version of it, to be precise. And once you start digging for the difference to nur you’ll find another word there… schon.
Dun dunn dunnn.
Schon and erst, two sides of the same coin. Or actually, more like two views of the same side of the coin.
So, are you ready to take a look?
Then let’s go.

And we’ll start with the normal meaning of erst

erste(-) as in “not second”

Erst- is the German counterpart for first in the sense of better than second.

  • Das erste Date.
  • The first date.
  • Der erste Kuss.
  • The first kiss.
  • Mein erster Eindruck.
  • My first impression.

As you can see, erst-  gets endings, which is no surprise because it is used as an adjective here.
But erst isn’t a normal adjective and there is one crucial difference. For a normal adjective like schön, we can use a phrasing like the following:

  • Die Blume ist schön.
  • The flower  is pretty.

Here, schön has no ending here, the word is used in the basic form.
This does NOT work with erst (and also not with first).

  • Thomas is first… nope
  • Thomas ist erst… WRONG

In English, we kind of need to have an article here, and we’d probably also add “one”.

  • Thomas is the first (one)

In German, we need just the article, so that’s great. But of course we need to mind gender and case and also add endings to erst again. So that … well… that sucks.

  • Thomas is der Erste.


  • Das war mein erstes Mal in Paris.
  • That was my first time in Paris.
  • Ich habe gestern zum ersten und letzten Mal ein TikTok gesehen
  • I saw a TikTok for the first and last time yesterday.
  • “Ist das das erste oder das zweite Bier?”
    “Das erste.”
  • “Is that the first or the second beer.”
    “The first.”

Oh and then let’s also give a quick mention to erstens which is first or first of, in the context of lists. 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.

  • Ich will nicht ins Kino, weil ich erstens kein Geld habe, zweitens morgen früh aufstehen muss und drittens eh nur Scheiße kommt.
  • I do not want to go to the movie because first of, I have no money, second, I have to get up early tomorrow and third, there are only shit-movies anyway.

So that’s erste- in the sense of first one.
Now let’s move on to erst in sense of time.

Erst and time

And in German, there are actually three main words or phrases that deal with first in a temporal context: erst, als erstes and zuerst.
Als erstes  has kind of a list vibe to it.  Like… you’d use it for the first of  several steps.

  • Als erstes trinke ich einen Kaffee, dann putze ich mir die Zähne und ziehe mich an und dann gehe ich los.
  • First, I drink a coffee, then I brush my teeth and then I head out.

Erst would work here, too, but it is more fitting in contexts where we order just two things in time…. like “first A then B”.

  • “Wollen wir eine DVD gucken?”
    “Gern, aber erst muss ich das Kapitel zu Ende lesen.”
  • “Should we watch a DVD?”
    “Sure, good idea, but first, I have to finish reading this chapter.”
  • Heute nach der Arbeit fahre ich erst zum Frisör und dann nach Hause.
  • Today after work, I’ll first go to the hair dresser and then I’ll go home.

The third option, zuerst,  fits in both contexts but it sounds a tiny bit more technical than just erst.

And erst is definitely the word of choice if you want to translate at first (or related things like initially or in the beginning). So if the story we’re telling has some element about change.

  • Ich dachte erst, Theater ist langweilig, aber dann war es doch sehr unterhaltend.
  • At first I thought theater is boring, but then it actually was quite  entertaining.

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

  •  Maria ist immer erst mal ein bisschen schüchtern, aber sie wird schnell locker.
  • At first, Maria is always a bit shy, but she loosens up quickly.
  • “Wollen wir frühstücken, Schatz?”
    “Oh, jetzt noch nicht, ich muss erst mal richtig wach werden.”
  • “Should we eat breakfast, darling?”
    “Oh not yet, first, I have to really wake up.”

Anyway.. there are actually many other words and phrases in German that express the core idea of “first in time”… zunächst,anfangs, anfänglich, zu Beginn, am Anfang,  eingangs.
But talking about the nuances would be a bit too much for now. Like… if you catch your brain going like “I need to know!!” and you feel a compulsion to look them all up then trust me… you don’t need to know. I know it’s hard, but it’s really a waste of energy.
What you really do need to know is the third use of erst.

The weird “erst”

So beyond this whole notion of first, erst has another idea it expresses. And that one is actually quite tough to grasp and explain.
Here are three examples….

  1. Heute bin ich erst einmal angerufen worden.
  2.  Ich habe heute erst um 8 Feierabend.
  3. Ich bin erst 3 Wochen in Berlin.

You could translate them with something like first and it might even make sense, but that’d be completely missing the point.
Here’s what the sentences actually express:

  1. Today I have been called only once (so far).
  2. I won’t be out of work before/ earlier than 8 today.
  3. It’s only 3 weeks so far, that I am in Berlin.

Seems a bit all over the place, right? And yet, it’s the same type of erst to a native speaker.
Now, two of the translations involve only. And that kind of works, even though it’s a bit weird sounding if we use it for the second example.

  • I’ll be done working only at 8.

Not sure if that’s even proper English or what it expresses.
And also, not every only can be translated as erst. We’ve actually talked about how to translate only in a separate article (I’ll put the link below), but I’ll give you the main point real quick: erst is an only that is subject to change. Like… it’s gonna get “more”.  So maybe think of it as “only … so far”.

  • Wow, it’s only 10 (it will get later progressively).
  • Wow, es ist erst um 10.
  • I was in Paris only one time so far.
  • Ich war erst 1 mal in Paris.

In the second example, nur would also work, but it lacks this notion of “We might go there again.” And in the first example, nur doesn’t really make sense, because time is ALWAYS subject to change and it will definitely get later than 10.
Here’s an example with the two back to back:

  1. Ich habe erst 10 Euro verdient.
  2. Ich habe nur 10 Euro verdient.

The first one means that I’m gonna earn more, the second one implies that the job is finished and my total earnings are 10 bucks.
To a German, that distinction is pretty clear and using nur when you should use erst sounds pretty strange.
Now you might be like “Wow, this is great! But do you have some more examples?”
But actually, I don’t want to go into that any further. As I said… there’s a separate article, if you want more.

Instead, we need to talk about a second way of thinking about this weird erst. A way that might actually be closer to its essence.
Are you ready?

erst expresses the opposite of already.

The best way to illustrate this is probably the example we had with the time:

“Wow, it’s already//only 10 pm.”

We have a continuum, which is “time” in this case, and the two words express different perceptions about where we are on this continuum. already expresses that we’ve made quite some progress (for better or worse), only expresses the opposite.
And the German counterpart is the pair schon and erst.
And the question whether something is considered schon or erst is purely a matter of perspective.

  • Heute habe ich schon//erst einen Apfel gegessen.
  • Today, I have already // only eaten one apple so far.

One speaker might consider one apple to be far advanced on the “eating healthy” continuum, another might see it as not that much yet.
And understanding this dynamic might be helpful with German uses of schon and erst that aren’t all that intuitive to speakers of other languages. Like the weird one about Feierabend which I gave in the beginning of this segment. Here it is again:

  • Ich habe heute erst um 8 Feierabend.
  • I won’t be out of work before/ earlier than 8 today.


By using erst, the speaker expresses that 8 is kind of late, while with schon it would sound like the end of work is unusually early.
And I know what question some of you have in mind now. You are wondering if it shouldn’t be schon for late ending and erst for early ending, just like in the example we had earlier.
And that’s a very good question! But the thing is… erst basically expresses that there’s lots of potential for “more”, while schon expresses that a lot of potential “has been used”.
If we’re at the bar and we say it’s “erst 10”, then we mean there’s lots of time for us to stay. And if we say it is “schon 10” then we express that we have used a lot already.
In the example with end of work on the other hand, erst expresses that there’d be lots of room for improvement…. because it is a late end. While by saying schon, we express that a lot has been achieved in terms of early end of the shift.
Phew… my head is starting to spin :).
Quick, let’s focus our gaze at this example…

  • Ich habe erst um 7 Zeit, weil ich erst noch meinen Artikel fertig schreiben muss, und ich habe erst die Hälfte.
  • I won’t have time before 7, because first, I have to finish my article, and I only have half of it so far.

Hmmm… okay, that didn’t really help with the spinning.
But seriously… if you can wrap your mind around the “duality” of schon and erst and really get a feel for what they express, that’ll make these two words way less confusing. But it might take a while, so don’t stress out over it. If you think of erst as the two ideas first and “only so far”, that’s a good base to work with.

And I think with that said, we can call it a d… oh hold on,  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, and then you add a case ending. So 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 formerzweiteres 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…

  • Gestern haben sich Angela Merkel und Michael Jordan zum Abendessen getroffen. Erstere ist die Kanzlerin Deutschlands, letzterer ist eine Basketballlegende.
  • Yesterday Angela Merkel and Michael Jordan met for diner. The former is the chancellor of Germany, the latter is a basket ball legend.

“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.

further reading:

Saying “only” in German – nur, erst, einzig

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1 month ago

Ich habe erst um 7 Zeit = … um 7 Uhr or Uhrzeit ??


Last edited 1 month ago by Matt
9 months ago

in #plueschmond (vol1), I came across an example of “erst”:
The protagonist’s had an incident with a bully who purposely broke her phone. When shell tells her sister about it, the sister replies with “Das glaub ich nicht! Du hast das doch erst neu!”

Am I right to assume the erst here is referring to the on that “basically expresses that there’s lots of potential for “more””. So basically the sister was saying “I can’t believe it! And didn’t you just get a new phone?! (and thus it should still be new and still have plenty life left in it)

1 year ago

Wie wuerden Sie “erst” hier uebersetzen?

Sie ist erst seit drei Tagen abgefahren.

Waere es so, als waere sie “just” gestern abgereist, was bedeutet, dass sie laenger als erwartet geblieben ist? Koennten Sie “erst” hier durch “eben” ersetzen?

Vielen Dank!!

2 years ago

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof :(

2 years ago

So in Essay. Can I write like this

As English counterparts to
First of all
Or do they have to be in the middle?

Here are some sentences to try the article above

I will zuerst neues ins kino gehen
I will zuerst (meine Mutter/Country x) besuchen

I bin erst um 7 in Berlin,aber Ich bin erst einmal, und Die stadt habe erst mein Liebe

The last sentence propably makes no sense.

Is the nuance of erst einmal,according to my understanding( I have been their only once which is not much and I will probably visit more)

2 years ago
Reply to  Joe

I am not a native but I offer you the best help I can.

1) First of all – zunächst, Zuvörderst, an erster stelle, zuallererst
1b) First,second, third – erstens, zweitens,drittens
1C – Bonus) Moreover – Zudem

2)I am not sure about kino sentence.it looks wierd but the Mutter/Country visit sound ok

3) I cannot help here with that last sentence

4) yes that’s the nuance

2 years ago
Reply to  Steven

2) ins neues, not “neues in”
3) Here How I would translate this sentence ( I have been in Berlin before 7(which is late),but this is my first time(with more to come),and the city earned my love. I have doubts whether it can be used in idiomatic sense

Example sentence from me as a trial )

Kellner : Gibt es Apfelsaft und orangeschaft. Was mochten sie?
Me : zweiteres

Waiter: We have orange juice and apple juice. What would you like to order.
Me : the latter

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

If it exists, it will be used ;) hence dont raise your eyebrows. Zuvörderst is just a word ;)

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I understand this. I was just joking (saying you are bullying the “Word” ). I should have phrased that differently.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

1) Yes, first in sense of ” I will do that first” and “neues” is merely there for description

2) erst mein Liebe ( earn my love – a process) . Mabye I should quit figrutige language

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

2) similar to ” I habe erst 10 Euro” from the article.
I earned 10 Euro a process (process)

Hence, I tried to use figurative language with it.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Also, but you shouldn’t use the with “:” . I dont get that part

Victoria Alexis Arndt
Victoria Alexis Arndt
3 years ago

Quick question I would like to say. First to create. Create First. How would I write these two sentences?

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I think he means sth like ” Emanuel was the first to create world-class German blog” which could be expressed as “Emanuel is the inventor of world-class German blogs”

I dont know what he means by create first. Mabye an imperative of some sort?
Create a car
Create a future

Knowing German, these two different sentences will use diffren verbs :D

That’s just my input

3 years ago

Hi dear Emanuel
Can you please write an article abot ER- prefix?

3 years ago

Halo! Ich bin Avi aus Indonesien! Auf indonesisch kann das Wort ‘erst’ als ‘baru’ übersetzt werden. Besonders wenn es als Gegenteil von das Wort ‘already’ übersetzt wird.

– Mein Sohn ist erst 5 Jahre alt.
– Anak saya baru berumur 5 tahun.

Danke für deine super Webseite! Ich lerne Deutsch, um mich auf mein Studium vorzubereiten. Das hat mich sehr geholfen!

5 years ago

I came across another description of the usage of erst for time events.

English uses a “negative expression” (if you will) to denote the beginning of an action. The class -does not start until- 8. German just doesn’t work that way. It expresses that concept in a positive way, with ‘erst’: Die Klasse fängt -erst- um 8 an.

5 years ago

Thanks for great article about erst! I can’t just realize that in the “only” meaning of erst, does it have some negative implication? I mean a kind of combination of “only” and “less than we have expected”. For example, “Ich habe erst 10 Euro” means that I have just 10 dollars, there is yet to come, besides 10 dollars is less than I wanted to have.

6 years ago

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

6 years ago

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”?

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Thanks! It helps. Here erst =only, but erst doesn’t = nur. That’s the part that throws me, because nur was one of the first words I learned in German.

BTW, I liked your explanation of nämlich, it was very easy to follow.

I discovered your site this morning. Am planning to start reviewing fairly easy words, avoiding things like erst, doch, gar, etc. :-D

6 years ago

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.

6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Haha, ich habe bemerkt, dass die Deutsche sehr SEHR oft das Word “schon” falsch übersetzen. Ich glaube, meistens, kann “schon” bedeuten “already”, “yet”, “by” oder “ever”. Manchmal, braucht man überhaupt kein Wort auf Englisch, wenn “schon” auf Deutsch notwendig ist. -Hast du Tim schon heute morgen gesehen? -Have you seen Tim yet this morning? (Like, do you know if he’s here yet?) oder nur -Have you seen Tim (this morning)? (Is he around?) Das Tempus “have seen” impliziert “yet” oder “ever”, also “yet” ist nicht ganz notwendig. Wenn ich “yet” sage, das heißt, dass ich vielleicht ein Bisschen Ungeduld habe. Oder es ist spät genug, dass ich vermute, dass du ihn schon gesehen hast. Man benutzt “yet” mit Ereignissen, die bestimmt geschehen werden/sind, und mehrmals geschehen können. Man benutzt “already” mit Ereignissen, die nur einmal geschehen müssen. Mit “already” vermutet man nicht, dass die Sachen bestimmt passieren werden. -Honey, have you done the dishes already? (Or shall I get started on them?) vs. -Honey, have you done the dishes yet? (Because they’re not going to do themselves …!) Im ersten Beispiel benutzt deine Freundin “already”, weil das Geschirr nicht wieder gespült werden muss, wenn es schon gespült ist. Sie nimmt nicht an, dass du das Geschirr spülen wirst. Im zweiten Beispiel, das Wort “yet” impliziert dass das Ereignis definitiv passieren wird, oder schon passiert ist. Deine Freundin will herausfinden, ob du deine Hausarbeit schon gemacht hast. -Have you seen Tim yet? Vielleicht hast du ihn schon mehrmals gesehen, aber das ist egal. Ich will herausfinden, ob du ihn gesehen hast oder nicht. “Have you already seen Tim?” ist ein Bisschen wie “Did you already see Tim?”. Das würde implizieren, dass du ihn nur einmal sehen musst (für einen Termin vielleicht). Wenn du das sagst, würde ich nie verstehen, “Ist Tim hier?” Ich würde wahrscheinlich verstehen, “Tim wollte mit dir sprechen.” -Weck mich schon um 10 -Wake me by 10. 10 muss nicht super früh sein, aber wenn du mich später als 10 Uhr weckst, kann sein dass ich einen Termin oder einen Bus verpasse. Es ist wichtig, dass du mich um 10 oder ein Bisschen vor 10 weckst. (“Wake me _at_ 10” heißt _genau_ um 10 Uhr.) Ich glaube, wenn es um Ereignisse im Zukunft geht, ist “already” fast nie das richtige Wort. Denn, “already” heißt, dass etwas “already” passiert ist, und musst nicht wieder passieren. Die Ausnahme ist Futur Perfekt (Futur II), denn es wird im Zukunft “already” passiert sein. -Wenn du nach Hause kommst, werde ich schon eingeschlafen sein. (Grammatik? … ) -When you get home, I will already be asleep / will have already gone to bed. Aber -Aufgrund des Feiertags schließt die Mensa heute leider schon um 13 Uhr. -Because of the holiday, the Mensa will close at 1:00 today. Hier gibt es kein gute Übersetzung für schon, und “already” wäre absolut falsch. Kein Wort ist notwendig. Man konnte sagen, “The Mensa will close early today, at 1:00”, aber “The Mensa will close at 1:00 already”… Read more »

7 years ago

What a wonderful article … Vielen Dank

8 years ago

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.

8 years ago

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 »

8 years ago

*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.

8 years ago

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

8 years ago

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

8 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ein Freund hat mir eben gesagt, dass man “erst recht” verwenden würde, wenn man etwas noch eher nicht macht als etwas anderes: (z.B.) “Das mache ich nicht, aber DAS mache ich erst recht nicht”.

9 years ago

lol :D