Word of the Week: Alter Schwede

Aug 5, 2011

Over the course of the year, Germany.info and The Week in Germany will highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Alter Schwede

A restaurant in the eastern German city of Wismar named "Alter Schwede" (Old Swede). Enlarge image A restaurant in the eastern German city of Wismar named "Alter Schwede" (Old Swede). (© picture-alliance/Arco Images GmbH)

From your personal impressions, what do Sweden (the country of picturesque landscapes and beautiful blond people) and Germany (Europe's economic powerhouse with its atmospheric old towns and tasty beers) have in common? Well, you might observe that there are at least similar value systems and extensive social welfare systems in both countries, that Swedish and German both belong to the group of Germanic languages and that the two countries are members of the European Union.

But there is more than that: considering the very popular informal German expression "Alter Schwede!" (Old Swede!), Sweden and Germany seem to have an even stronger relationship. The first meaning of Alter Schwede as an "old friend" or "old chap" (for the Brits amongst you…) symbolizes that very well. When Americans say "Hey Buddy!" to a friend, Germans might for instance say "Na, alter Schwede!".

Clearly, there must be a reason for that. Somehow, Swedes have apparently earned their reputation as good friends. Before we get to that, let me quickly explain the second meaning of Alter Schwede. In case something unexpected happens or the magnitude/scope of something surprises you, you might shout "Alter Schwede!" as an equivalent to "Wow!" or "What the heck!?!". German synonyms would be "mein lieber Schwan!" or "krass".

So now let's get to the reason for this seemingly deep friendship. The expression Alter Schwede first occurred in the 17th century and is related to the Thirty Years' War. After the end of the war, Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (elector of the Holy Roman Empire) recruited war-proven Swedish soldiers as instructors for his army. They mostly held the rank of sergeants as they were very experienced in tough military exercise (drilling). Because of that, they were soon referred to as "the old Swedes", which explains the described first meaning of Alter Schwede as a buddy/friend.

And regarding the second meaning ("Wow!"), just think of a tourist who is visiting New York City for the first time in his life and is overwhelmed by all the skrycrapers in Manhattan. There is a pretty high likelihood his first words will be Alter Schwede!

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